Note – This piece is meant to be read alongside Allan Carlson’s article on the decline of the natural family. We are using Carlson’s writing to make some quick conclusions about the unstable nature of social activism throughout American history.
Public opinion is a squirrely guide. With respect to the sentiments of Isaac Newton, “standing on the shoulders of giants” may help us to innovate and achieve, but it also helps us see the fickle and transitory nature of public consensus on ethical and moral issues. Great reversals within a few generations are not uncommon, and the memories of activism in the opposite direction are often either forgotten or glossed over with a brush of condescending words like “old-fashioned” or “stagnant.” Through the language of liberation, safety, and health, America has changed its mind on slavery, same-sex orientation, same-sex marriage, women in the workforce, women voting, and immigration, to name a few.
The question at hand is this: can public opinion be trusted for the long haul? For one case study, let’s look together at a piece by Allan Carlson, a historian and Catholic apologist who teaches at Cornell University. In it, he tracks the changes in the American concept of the family unit and its relation to economic and social shifts.
Finished? Let’s move forward together.
The year is 1845. The boom of factory mechanization has revolutionized manufacturing, and with it the daily rhythms of life. By now, the location of most labor has been uprooted from the home and placed into the office and onto the factory floor. And while agrarian work still ties the family and its labor together, most other occupations feature employer/employee dynamics outside of family ties. While the family unit had once lived together, worked together, and played together, the conceptualization of family as a tight community bound by tradition, duty, and loyalty is eroding. Carlson looks back at the shifts:
“Modern industrialization and the rise of the modern state worked jointly to undermine this family-centered social order…This shift leveled the reciprocal, complementary tasks of husbands and wives in household production, and threw men and women into competition with each other in the sale of their labor…In short, the autonomous, cooperative family changed into a collection of competitive individuals.”
These shifts persevered, but only through harsh social criticism and activism. Nearly thirty years before, the now-famous Luddites had protested the juggernaut of industrialization, predicting that the shift in the location and ethos of labor would destroy traditional family life, work, and kinship in community. Sadly, the Luddites are often remembered today as economic terrorists who destroyed machinery that threatened their livelihood, but the aims of the original “anti-threshing” movements were more centered on the preservation of small-scale agricultural production and subsistence family farming.
Activists took to the streets to spread messages of liberation. As Carlson notes, the goal was the “liberation of married women from toil in the factories, so that they might care for the home and children, and so prevent the full industrialization of human life.” Further, this piece by Dusty Gates suggests that most liberators proposed instead a “family wage” concept, in which an employer would provide a wage that could support the needs of a family. Discrimination in hiring and in wages was championed without embarrassment: women whose husbands earned a reasonable amount were paid less, since it was assumed that their work was only supplementing his income. In fact, many women whose husbands were gainfully employed and who still elected to work outside their home were often held in derision as chasers of luxury. Thus, employers were motivated, encouraged, and often required to pay a “family wage” to the father, but only an “individual wage” to a working mother.
Fast-forwarding 100 years, deep ironies become visible. The goal and the language have remained the same: the liberation of women from their environment of dehumanizing drudgery. It is only the environments that have been completely reversed. Would activists who fought to liberate women out of the workforce be surprised to see their great-grandchildren fighting to liberate women out of their homes?
By 1945, Carlson suggests that the cries of equal pay for equal work had led to a foundational restructuring of wage policy and would eventually lead to other seismic shifts in policies for discrimination, housing, public help, and even zoning laws. Implicit in the 1945 post-war cries of “equal pay for equal work” was an assumption that the labor force should be equally comprised of both men and women, though the wage gap between the genders was wide due to the different positions toward which they gravitated.
The 1950s and early 1960s saw a fragile rise in wages, birthrates, and marriages, as families who delayed the institutions of marriage and family until after the war now made those commitments. Carlson describes the reorganized U.S. family of the 1950 as an “‘organization man’ married to a ‘household engineer’ in a ‘compassionate marriage’ focused on ‘personality adjustment’ in the suburbs.” The critical point is that the members of family units were “re-tethering” to each other in complementary roles, though dissent was growing.
By the mid-1960s, several elements combined to collapse the supporting structures of this “reorganized” family. First and foremost, early voices of neo-feminism grew, demanding legitimate identities outside traditional roles for themselves and causing restlessness for married women already in those roles. Second, Carlson argues that both Protestants and Catholics had begun to question the rigidity of deeply-held doctrines about evolution, sex, contraception, and complementary gender roles, as evidenced partly by the “disorientation after Vatican II [that opened] fissures on family and sexual issues that have still to be closed.” Third, government policies, adjusting to the brave new world of equality and egality, effectively began to transfer some wealth from traditional families to families built by births out-of-wedlock. In fact, an ironic casualty of the wording in the 1964 Civil Rights Act was the demise of the informal family wage system that had been in place for five generations. Further, television and media began new programming that featured “complex cohabitation” scenarios that replaced the family-centered sitcoms of the 50s. As we would expect, these social changes produced a decline in birth rates that followed the liberation of American women from the home, just as liberating them into the home 100 years earlier saw an increase in those birth rates.
So, to the present-day reader: which is it? Are women imprisoned by work in the home or outside of it? Are they liberated to the office or to the family room? The cries for social justice, now our relentless pastime, dramatically flip-flopped in less than five generations, which is another way of saying that people collectively change their minds en masse about a topic. Consensus, then, is a terrible and fickle arbiter of right and wrong, good and evil, or even good and “less good.”
Perhaps, the reader will say, it is unfair to make gender roles in the workplace a parallel issue to same-sex marriage, gender orientation, or other social hotspots. Time will certainly tell – and we are no more than two generations into a public awareness of them. We should be students of history and be reminded that public consensus is often short-lived and quickly reversed.