Divorce and the Family in America

A social critic argues that divorce poses no threat to the institution of marriage

Behind all this speculation lies an understandable concern about a set of laws which degrade what they purport to dignify: the ties of marriage. But there also lies a certain amount of confusion about the history of the family, the nature of the sexual revolution, and the relation to these developments of feminism and the "emancipation" of women. In the first place, the history of the family needs to be seen in much broader perspective than we are accustomed to see it. There are good reasons to believe that the decisive moment in the history of the Western family came not at the beginning of the twentieth century but at the end of the eighteenth, and that the Victorian family, therefore, which we imagine as the antithesis of our own, should be seen instead as the beginning of something new—the prototype, in many ways, of the modern household.

If we forget for a moment the picture of the Victorian patriarch surrounded by his submissive wife, his dutiful children, and his houseful of servants—images that have come to be automatically associated with the subject—we can see that the nineteenth-century conception of the family departed in critical respects from earlier conceptions. Over a period of several centuries the family had gradually come to be seen as preeminently a private place, a sanctuary from the rough world outside. If we find it difficult to appreciate the novelty of this idea, it is because we ourselves take the privacy of family life for granted. Yet as recently as the eighteenth century, before the new ideas of domesticity were widely accepted, families were more likely to be seen "not as refuges from the invasion of the world," in the words of the French historian Philippe Aries, "but as the centers of a populous society, the focal points of a crowded social life." Aries has shown how closely the modern family is bound up with the idea of privacy and with the idea of childhood. Before these ideas were securely established, masters, servants, and children mingled indiscriminately, without regard for distinctions of age or rank.

The absence of a clearly distinguishable concept of childhood is particularly important. The family by its very nature is a means of raising children, but this fact should not blind us to the important change that occurred when child-rearing ceased to be simply one of many activities and became the central concern—one is tempted to say the central obsession—of family life. This development had to wait for the recognition of the child as a distinctive kind of person, more impressionable and hence more vulnerable than adults, to be treated in a special manner befitting his peculiar requirements. Again, we take these things for granted and find it hard to imagine anything else. Earlier, children had been clothed, fed, spoken to, and educated as little adults; more specifically, as servants, the difference between childhood and servitude having been remarkably obscure throughout much of Western history (and servitude retaining, until fairly recently, an honorific character which it subsequently lost). It was only in the seventeenth century in certain classes—and in society as a whole, only in the nineteenth century—that childhood came to be seen as a special category of experience. When that happened, people recognized the enormous formative influence of family life, and the family became above all an agency for building character, for consciously and deliberately forming the child from birth to adulthood.

These changes dictated not merely a new regard for children but, what is more to the point here, a new regard for women: if children were in some sense sacred, then motherhood was nothing short of a holy office. The sentimentalization of women later became an effective means of arguing against their equality, but the first appearance of this attitude seems to have been associated with a new sense of the dignity of women; even of their equality, in a limited sense, as partners in the work of bringing up the young. The recognition of "women's rights" initially sprang not from a revulsion against domestic life but from the cult of domesticity itself; and the first "rights" won by modern women were the rights of married women to control their own property, to retain their own earnings, and, not least, to divorce their husbands.

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