Family Timeline: From 1607 to the present
The first permanent British colonies in what became the United States
are established in Virginia and Massachusetts. The faith-centered family
plays a critical role in settlements along the frontier, serving as both
school and workplace (and for that matter, as factory, mall, hospital,
hospice, and church). In colonial days, according to family historians
Steve Mintz and Susan Kellogg, convicts, miscreants, misfits, children
of the poor, and even new immigrants were housed with reputable
families, so that "disorders may bee prevented and ill weeds
Massachusetts Colony passes a law requiring fathers, as the heads of
their households, to lead their families in prayer, to teach their
children and their servants to read, and to catechize everyone under
their roof, in both Christian doctrine and civil accord.
- America declares its independence; Popular author John Locke, in
his widely read and discussed Essay Concerning Human Understanding,
views the child as a tabula rasa to be shaped by society. This view
of child development quickly became and remains a first principle
for modern liberalism.
An early skirmish in the fight for women's suffrage takes place;
Abigail Adams writes her husband John (then at Philadelphia) asking
that he "remember the ladies" when crafting the
Declaration of Independence and other defining documents. The future
president responds that men will never accept "the despotism of
- The first national census shows three-quarters of a million black
people living in the United States, 90 percent as slaves. The
institution of slavery was devastating to the institution of the
family. About one in six slave marriages were destroyed by the sale
of one of the spouses; most slaves would live to see the sale of
family members (spouse, children, or siblings). In 1858, a slave
named Abream Scriven wrote to his wife, who remained behind when he
was sold. "Give my love to my dear father and my dear mother
for me ... tell them goodbye for me.... My dear wife for you and all
my children my pen cannot express the grief I feel to be parted from
you. I remain your true
husband until death."
In Massachusetts, a total of 220 divorces are granted-in the
entirety of the 18th century (and only 27 total during the time in
which Massachusetts was a colony).
- A young French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, travels through
the United States and observes a great sea-change that has taken
place since the landing of the Mayflower. American families, he
noted, were no longer seen as the bulwarks of society; they were now
seen as shelters from the outside world. He called it "the
democratic family," more an agreeable union than an arranged
match. It's an important distinction, emphasizing both the good and
bad of American individualism. It can be argued that this made for
happier marriages, based on love and affection. But the explosion in
divorce rates can also be traced back to this
- The westward expansion accelerates; families begin crossing the
Missouri River in wagon trains, making a respectable 15 to 20 miles
per day along the Oregon trail. It costs a family about $400 for a
Conestoga wagon and oxen; another $150 is needed for supplies. As
many as 500,000 people attempt the journey; an estimated 20,000 die
along the way.
Catherine Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe) publishes A
Treatise on Domestic Economy, For the Use of Young Ladies at Home,
and at School, which becomes an enormously popular manual. She makes
a lucid natural-law argument for the submissiveness of wives and
children, then goes on to show where a woman's real influence is
seen: "The formation of the moral and intellectual character of
the young is committed mainly to the female hand," she wrote.
"The mother forms the character of the future man; the sister
bends the fibres that are hereafter to be the forest tree; the wife
sways the heart, whose energies may turn for good or for evil the
destinies of a nation. Let the women of a country be made virtuous
and intelligent, and the men will certainly be the same. The proper
education of a man decides the welfare of an individual; but educate
a woman, and the interests of the whole family are secured."
- Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, dictates what he says
is a direct revelation from God (through the angel Moroni),
proclaiming that polygamy is to be re-instituted. The doctrine is
not acknowledged to those outside the Mormon Church until Aug. 29,
1852. After that date, the Latter-Day Saints made constitutional
arguments defending polygamy, but the Supreme Court ruled that
anti-polygamy laws were constitutional, and that the government has
a legitimate interest in promoting traditional marriage. In 1890,
church leaders announced the practice was to be discontinued; two
years later, Utah won statehood.
- The first Women's Rights Convention is held in Seneca Falls, New
York, led by suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott.
Its "Declaration of Sentiments" railed at men, whose
"direct object" was "the establishment of an absolute
tyranny" over women. The typical man, according to the
declaration, has "endeavored, in every way he could, to destroy
her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to
make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life."
- When a famine hits Ireland, nearly 160,000 Irish immigrants came
to the United States in the first year alone. (Nearly one in 10
would die en route from cholera or typhoid fever.) Together with
other European immigrants, they help to create a concentrated urban
working-class population and to fuel the Industrial Revolution, with
its profound effects on the family. Before this revolution (which
actually dates back to the 18th century, to steam power and the
development of the textile mills), most families lived and worked on
farms. But by 1920, more than half of all Americans lived in cities.
In a preface to the 1880 Census, Carroll D. Wright observed,
"the factory system necessitates the employment of women and
children to an injurious extent, and consequently its tendency is to
destroy family life and ties and domestic habits, and ultimately the
An anti-obscenity movement, led by groups such as the New York
Society for the Suppression of Vice, urges the U.S. Congress to make
laws against pornography-and also birth control. The "Act for
the Suppression of Trade in and Circulation of, Obscene Literature
and Articles of Immoral Use" outlawed the sale of contraceptive
devices, abortion-inducing medicines, and distribution of
information on birth-control methods. The law became known as the
Comstock Law, after crusader Anthony Comstock.
- A study finds that the United States has the highest divorce rate
in the world; this leads to the enactment of tougher divorce laws in
almost every state (in South Carolina, divorce is prohibited
altogether). The notion of fault is introduced into the process; to
obtain a divorce, a spouse has to prove that the other has committed
some grievous breach of the marital vows. In general, the laws
punish the errant spouse economically, while trying to lessen the
hardships the wronged spouse will face. But the laws don't stop the
number of divorces from increasing. By 1910, the divorce rate is at
4.5 per 1,000 marriages (yearly); by 1920, it has jumped to 7.7 per
1,000. The main reason the laws didn't work seemed to be the courts,
which tended to broaden the statutory grounds for divorce; an
appellate court in Indiana, for example, ruled in 1910 that
"anything that tends to humiliate or annoy may as effectively
endanger life and health as personal violence, and affords grounds
Electric vacuum cleaners first become available. The electric
washing machine follows, in 1910 (the first models still require
that users wring out the clothes by hand). Detergents don't show up
until the 1930s.
- President Theodore Roosevelt complains about the falling American
birth rate: from 1800 to 1900, the average birth rate of white women
had dropped from seven children to 3.56 children. "The chief of
blessings for any nation is that it shall leave its seed to inherit
the land," he says in a speech. "The greatest of all
curses is sterility, and the severest of all condemnations should be
that visited upon willful sterility."
- The first electric toasters hit the market. Pop-up toasters appear
in 1926. The electric beater becomes available in 1918.
- Washington becomes the first state to grant the right to vote to
women. California follows within a year, and in 1912, Theodore
Roosevelt's Progressive Party includes suffrage as part of its
platform. In 1918, President Wilson announces his support for
suffrage. An amendment passes in Congress a year later, and becomes
law on Aug. 26, 1920.
- Margaret Sanger, a nurse in New York City, opens a birth-control
clinic in Brooklyn and is promptly arrested and jailed for 30 days.
She had already founded a feminist magazine, The Woman Rebel, and
been indicted for inciting violence and promoting obscenity. In
1921, she founds the American Birth Control League, which later
becomes the Planned Parenthood Federation.
- The day-care controversy begins. Industrialization has led to more
and more women working outside the home, and progressives succeed in
opening somegovernment-subsidized day-care facilities. But the city
of Chicago takes a closer look at the child-care centers it is
funding, and concludes, "apathy and boredom would seem to have
no place in the group life of normal children, yet they are to be
found frequently among nursery groups."
- Nineteenth-century dresses, on the average, used 19 yards of
fabric. At the close of the Roaring Twenties, the average dress used
just seven yards. In Utah, the state legislature considers a law
against skirts "higher than three inches above the ankle."
Ohio lawmakers discuss decolletage (the proposed limit was two
inches of cleavage). Neither measure passes.
In a book titled Revolt of Modern Youth, juvenile court Judge Ben B.
Lindsay popularizes the term "companionate marriage,"
which had up until then only been used by sociologists to describe a
married couple with no children. Judge Lindsay promotes marriage
based on affectionate feelings, mutual respect, and enjoyable sexual
activity. But it will only work, he says, if spouses have access to
birth control, easy divorces (based on incompatibility, not fault),
and education on parenting and sex.
The automatic bread slicer is invented by an Iowa man, O.F.
Rohwedder; it is perfected a year later by a baker from St. Louis,
- Dr. John B. Watson, a psychologist who developed the theories of
behaviorism, offers a foolproof method for perfect parenting. His
book, The Psychological Care of the Infant and Child, recommends
that children be treated as small adults, not coddled, hugged or
kissed (he recommends, for example, shaking hands with children
instead of kissing them good morning). "Mother love is a
dangerous instrument which may inflict a never-healing wound, a
wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an
instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter's vocational
future and chances for marital happiness." This book helps
popularize the idea of "scientific mothering."
- A stock market crash leads to the Great Depression; from 1929 to
1930, the unemployment rate jumps from 3.2 percent to 8.7 percent.
The depression is at its worst in 1932, with an unemployment rate of
23.6 percent. More than a quarter of all households do not have a
single employed person.
- The Social Security Act is signed into law to do two things:
provide an income for a worker's old age, and need-based assistance
to the poor.
- The Selective Service Act (the draft) passes, creating the first
peacetime draft, as the war in Europe escalates. In the United
States, the marriage rates also escalate. A wedding ring
manufacturer, J. R. Woods & Sons, reports its sales are up 250
percent after Congress enacts the draft; in the next three months,
the marriage rate leaps by 25 percent. But these new families face
changing conditions; even the young husbands who don't go off to war
are much more likely to work for wages in the defense industry than
on the family farm. The war vanquishes the Depression; in 1943, full
employment is reached. Wages increase, but so do food prices, and
certain items are scarce. More women enter the workforce: 19 million
women work outside the home during the war, compared to 14 million
before. Income taxes rise by 50 percent during the war. Americans
invest $135 billion in war bonds-the interest from which later fund
a huge post-war spending boom.
Fashionable Freudianism hits home-the bestselling book A Generation
of Vipers, by Philip Wylie, argues that a world of ills is caused by
a domineering mother and an absent (physically or emotionally)
father. Motherhood faces a two-pronged assault: Experts warned about
neglectful mothers (now in the workforce) and overbearing,
- Dr. Benjamin Spock publishes Baby and Child Care, telling mothers,
"you know more than you think you do." His advice is at
the opposite end of the spectrum from Dr. John B. Watson's in 1928.
Dr. Spock tells parents, "Children raised in loving families
want to learn, want to conform, want to grow up. If the
relationships are good, they don't have to be forced to eat, forced
to learn to use the toilet."
- The suburbs become a major part of American life as Developer
William J. Levitt begins building and selling small, inexpensive
homes in a potato field on Long Island. Most of the homes, which
cost $6,999, were bought with government loans (Veterans
Administration and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Administration). Each
has four rooms, and measures 25 feet by 32 feet. There is only one
floor-plan. But by the time the sawdust settles, 17,500 families
live in Levittown. Of the 13 million new homes built in 1948, 11
million are built in suburbs.
- At the start of the year, there are about 1.5 million television
sets in American homes. By the end of 1951, there are 15 million. By
1960, nine out of 10 homes have television sets.
- J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye is published; over the next few
years, an identifiable youth culture emerges. It's an economic
development as much as anything else; by the mid-1950s, American
teens have, on average, more than $550 each year to spend on
non-necessities. Book publishers, music publishers, Hollywood, and
even the garment industry respond with products aimed at youths.
Many adults are confused. In 1957, Look magazine hires a consultant
to translate teenage slang.
Hugh Hefner publishes his first issue of Playboy magazine; at the
same time, Alfred Kinsey's deeply flawed but deeply influential
study, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, is released. The
combined effect is to make men and women wonder whether everyone
else is having more fun than they are. Playboy pioneers airbrushing
techniques; Kinsey claims that half of all women have sex before
marriage, and a fourth of all married women have affairs. It isn't
so much a Sexual Revolution as a Sexual Doubtfulness Revolution,
with some Americans coveting not their neighbor's wife but what they
are told their neighbor's wife is up to, statistically speaking.
Illinois becomes the first state to decriminalize sexual conduct
between consenting adults. Other states follow; by 2000 only a few
have anti-sodomy or crimes-against-nature laws still on their books;
they include Louisiana (a law now being challenged), Idaho,
Michigan, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and North Carolina.
- A young Assistant Secretary of Labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan
(later a U.S. Senator), writes a confidential report that doesn't
stay confidential for very long. His research shows that the rising
crime rates in the inner cities, as well as other forms of urban
decay, are traceable back to the breakdown of the black family.
"The evidence-not final, but powerfully persuasive-is that the
Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling." There were
solid families in the inner cities, he acknowledged, "but for
the vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated city working
class, the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but
disintegrated." He showed that the illegitimacy rate among
blacks had gone from 17 percent in 1940 to 24 percent in 1960
(during the same period, the rate among whites went from 2 percent
to 3 percent). At the time of the report, a quarter of all black
women were either divorced or living apart from their husbands.
Moynihan proposes greatly increased federal spending, which turns
out to make things worse, but his diagnosis is dead-on. "There
is one unmistakable lesson in American history; a community that
allows a large number of men to grow up in broken homes, dominated
by women, never acquiring a stable relationship to male authority,
never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the
future-that community asks for and gets chaos."
- California Gov. Ronald Reagan signs the first no-fault divorce
law, bowing to the conventional wisdom of the day that divorce would
be less nasty (and less harmful to children) if it were easier to
obtain and didn't require a finding of fault. By 1974, 45 states
have similar laws.
- The Equal Rights Amendment is passed by both houses of Congress,
but it lacks the popular support to become law. Suffragette Alice
Paul penned the proposed amendment and her allies in Congress
presented it at each session from 1923 on, but it fails to pass
until 1972. When it is sent to the states, only 36 of the required
38 vote to ratify it before the deadline Congress has set.
The plague of Doe vs. Bolton and Roe vs. Wade, two Supreme Court
cases that legalize abortion, begins. Justice Harry Blackmun,
writing for the majority in Roe, says the decision is based on a
residual right to privacy. He does not address the question of the
humanity of the child.
- An October oil embargo sends gasoline prices from 30 cents per
gallon to over a dollar. The embargo lasts until March 1974, but a
more lasting consequence is the minivan. Responding to the gas
crunch and the new emphasis on economy and small size, Chrysler
begins developing the first minivans, which debut in 1980.
- Researcher and radical feminist Shere Hite publishes The Hite
Report, a scientifically unsound yet immensely popular "survey
of female sexuality." Drawing conclusions and quoting heavily
from questionnaires she mailed out, the study "found"
(without going into too much detail) that 70 percent of women are
unsatisfied by normal intercourse, and need other stimulation. Many
Americans accept the conclusion that regular sex is unsatisfying and
other options should be explored. The sexual union is no longer
about babies and bonding between husband and wife; pleasure is now
the sole purpose.
- Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control identify the
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, after investigating
reports of a mysterious "gay cancer." The 189 cases
investigated by the CDC are all homosexual men; within a few years,
though, the disease starts to show up in other segments of society.
The disease has major political and cultural consequences: The
homosexual-rights movement gains sympathy and the disease adds
urgency to the arguments for providing condoms and sex education in
the schools. But most importantly, AIDS gives lie to the claim of
sexual revolutionaries that sex can be without consequences.
- Some Washington wives led by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker (wife of
then-Treasury Secretary James Baker) call on the music industry to
clean up its act. They found the Parents Music Resource Center and
testify at Senate hearings about the possibility of a ratings system
much like the one used for movies. Frank Zappa also testifies, and
after mocking Tipper Gore's southern accent, declares that a ratings
system would be "the equivalent of treating dandruff with
decapitation." The PMRC backs down (with Tipper telling any
reporter who would listen that she loves Springsteen and played the
drums in high school), and in 1990 actually opposes mandatory
labeling bills being considered in more than 20 states. The music
industry itself eventually adopts a voluntary ratings system.
- Iraq invades and occupies its neighbor, Kuwait. President Bush
orders a massive mobilization of sea, air, and land forces. The war,
once begun, lasts from Jan. 17 to Feb. 27 of 1991. The planes are
great, but one of the most striking images of the war is the sight
of young uniformed mothers kissing children goodbye. The
government's policy of offering educational benefits in return for a
short stint in the reserves has been popular, particularly with
minority women. At the height of the mobilization, the Pentagon
acknowledges that 67,000 single parents, and 70,000 parents with
children, are serving in the Persian Gulf.
The city of Chicago's Commission on Human Relations rules that the
Boy Scouts broke the law when they didn't give a position to a
homosexual former Eagle Scout, Keith Richardson. The ACLU steps in
and sues the city of Chicago for sponsoring 28 Explorer posts,
contending that the city was sponsoring discrimination. City
officials surrendered and withdrew sponsorship. The ACLU and the
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund sue the Boy Scouts to force
the organization to accept homosexuals; the U.S. Supreme Court is
expected to rule on the case by the summer of 2000.
- The Starr Report is released over the Internet. The subjects of
oral sex and adultery, having already invaded the family hour on
television, creep into evening newscasts and Sunday morning
- The Vermont legislature hammers out a "civil unions"
law, a quasi-marriage for homosexual couples. It's a response to an
earlier state Supreme Court ruling that homosexuals have a right to
the benefits of marriage, if not to the formal designation. When the
law takes effect on July 1, same-sex couples can go to their town
clerks, apply for a license, and be "united" by a Justice
of the Peace or a minister. There's also a quasi-divorce clause;
"dissolutions" will be handled by the state's family