Category Archives: family

90: Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound

In Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, Elaine Tyler May shows how the Cold War policy of “containment” shaped and was shaped by the combination of anti-Communism and the 1950s cult of domesticity.  May builds her argument around the newly available (in the 1980s) Kelly Longitudinal Study, a 20-year psychological study of the development of personality in marriage that covered the 1930s through the 1950s and included some 600 informants, as well as movies, newspapers, popular magazines, and contemporaneous writings by professionals in various fields.  In doing so, she explains that the nuclear family became far more important for the white American middle class in the 1950s than it was at any other time in the 20th century because of a broader shift toward privatization and individualization of social ills in an age of profound national insecurity.

Per May, the 1950s were less about placid cultural stasis than they were about controlling potentially “explosive issues,” particularly sexuality and the bomb.  Because ‘fears of sexual chaos tend to surface during times of rapid social crisis,’ sexuality and the bomb became linked both visually (as with ‘bombshell’ Rita Hayworth’s image on the bomb dropped on the Bikini Atoll) and culturally (as with crusades against homosexuals and pop culture fantasies of sex and violence).  Sex was forbidden to women outside of marriage, but once in a marriage, women were expected to be highly sexual, always-attractive partners, as though sex, like nuclear power, could simultaneously destroy and hold together families.  They were also expected to stay home with their children, in their own nucleated, sexually charged version of containment.

Within these restrictive suburban nuclei, many women, especially educated ones, felt isolated and insecure about their inability to live up to social expectations.  Unlike in the 1930s, however, in the 1950s people increasingly blamed themselves (instead of the larger system) for personal dissatisfaction, and the “therapeutic model” replaced political activism.  Because they contained sexuality and alienated women, families and the suburban homes in which they lived thus contained the seeds of the countercultural revolution.

While May’s sample is restricted to white, middle-class women and is thus not indicative of all women in the 1950s, she does effectively link cultural repression to the atomic insecurity that created it… and to the cultural explosion that it fomented.

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52: Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family

In The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, Herbert Gutman builds on John Blassingame’s strategy of studying slave communities from the inside out to argue that between 1750 and 1925, black families were able to adapt to slavery while retaining cultural traditions, continuous kinship connections, and the “double-headed kin-related household;” they thus created a new African American culture that and strong communities that helped them navigate their lives after freedom.  He thus dispels two common (in the 1970s) scholarly assumptions about black family life: that slavery had destroyed any stable family structures, so that black home life in America was characterized by instability and promiscuity, and that this “pathological” condition of black family life had been growing worse over time.

Like many other scholars around this time, Gutman was very interested in E.P. Thompson’s new social history, which shifted the focus of historical inquiry from relations between groups to relations within them.  To access this information, he uses a wide variety of sources, including plantation records, county census schedules, Freedman’s Bureau Records, family letters, court testimony, literature, anthropological studies, and oral histories.  He also structures the book to follow his own research process, so that the reader follows him back in time from the 20th century to the 1740s, when the plantation system first developed.

In addition to establishing the resiliency of black families, he also established the agentive force within black communities that developed in a space separate from black-white relations.  While the possibility that any community can develop autonomously outside the reach of unequal power relations was questioned even as Gutman was writing, as was the separation of politics and culture, Gutman’s book still goes a long way toward recovering slave families and bringing them into the historical record.