Family Structure Changes: 1950s to 1990s


Jill W. Bishop; U of M ID # 1758728; AmSt1003/American Cultures
Submission 2, Part 1 = Journal on Lesson 4.


I. How have family structures, practices, values, and responsibilities changed since the 1950s?

In the 1950's the normative American family consisted of a breadwinner father, homemaker mother, and several children, all living in homes in the suburbs on the outskirts of a larger city. It was a narrow view of a model family, yet it pervaded the media and was widely accepted as the ideal and most normal. My own family of origin followed that model very closely, so it was certainly normal to me. My present family including of my husband of 28 years and our three children also fit that model very closely, but in the 1990s we are in the minority. Today there is not the same consensus of family structure and lifestyles that existed in the 1950s when "nearly everyone conformed to a pattern of early marriage and several children"1 like my parents and I did.

In the 1990s there are still families with parents and children, but the definition of a family has broadened considerably. Children are raised by many varieties of caring adults: single parents, grandparents, kin-networks, homosexual couples, and others. Even traditional appearing families are often blended families of children from different biological parents.

In Roger Jack's "An Indian Story" the extended family provides a new adult caretaker when the biological parent arrangement doesn't work out. And Carol B. Stack's "Sex Roles and Survival Strategies in an Urban Black Community" shows how extended kin-based and friendship networks supply more people to share responsibilities and resources than a nuclear family is able to provide.

Statistics showing that birthrates are down, divorce rates are up, the age at marriage is up, and the marriage rate is down all point away from the 1950s model family and toward a large array of family arrangements.

The strict gender roles have broken down considerably in the 1990's. Young women assume that they will be working outside the home, and their choices are far greater than my choices of "traditional female occupations [of] nurse, teacher, or secretarial work..." 2 Men enter into childrearing more now, as indicated by diaper changing stations in public men's restrooms, and more men are pushing shopping carts in the grocery store than years ago. I also see more fathers at parent-teacher conferences in the 1990s than in the early 1980s indicating their greater interest and participation in their children's education.

In addition to softening of strict gender roles, rigid racial separateness is also changing. Interracial marriage was almost unheard of 50 years ago. I know two families in which children in the 1950s and 1960s who married blacks were disowned. But now the many mixed-race Americans are pressing for a "multi-cultural" classification on the upcoming census in 2000.

In the 1950s sexual expression was supposed to be restricted to marriage, and premarital sex was taboo. Evidence of change in the 1990s was apparent to me when I looked at the Christmas pictures magnetted to my refrigerator after the holidays. While most of the pictures represented traditional nuclear families like our own, two included the daughters' live-in boyfriends in the family pictures, and one other included an unwed mother's new baby. Such visible acceptance of cohabitation and premarital sex would never have been present in my house the 1950s, much less sent around in picture form for all to see.

The most significant change seems to me to be the role of women in the family and in society. In the 1950s women stayed home to be wives, mothers and homemakers, and today women are still mothers, but few of them stay home full time to take care of the house and children. They usually work outside the home but are still also the primary homemakers creating a difficult double duty. In the 1950s women often had too little to do and were frustrated and unfulfilled, and in the 1990s women often have too much to do.

In the 1970s and 1980s I tried both roles. I worked for 12 years when our children were preschool age and loved my job, but I was exhausted. Like Evan Holt in "Joey's Problem," my husband felt it was fine for me to "...have a career [and] handle the family too..."3 if I could. But I couldn't, so I quit to stay home and have been restless since then.

My daughters, ages 19 and 21, both see themselves as future career women. One plans to be married and have children, and the other is uncertain about marriage but intends to remain childless whether single or married. Their goals illustrate significant changes from my mother's expectations for herself and her daughters in the 1950s when remaining single or having a serious career or even voluntary childlessness were not considered to be viable options.

Men's traditional roles have changed too. With working wives they are released from the burden of sole responsibility for supporting the family, and many fathers are gaining an emotional connection with their children that was previously part of a mother's realm. Even in traditional families like my own, gender roles are less rigid in the 1990s than they were in the 1950s. In non-traditional families men have a number of different roles. Some provide financial support, some do not. In Stack's "Sex Roles and Survival Strategies in an Urban Black Community," black men living in The Flats, while coping with "the ordeal of unemployment and racism,"4 helped with their biological children and their kin-group, but they did not necessarily support their spouse or the mother of their children.

II. What seems to have remained the same?

While wives and mothers are getting out into the workplace and no longer confined to the house, they are still primarily responsible for most of the housework and men are still the primary breadwinners.

My mother didn't work outside the home until she and my father needed to supplement his income to put their children through college. Like my husband the 1980s and 1990s, my father did not increase his contribution to the housework in the 1960s when his wife worked outside the home. Our families were like the Holt family in "Joey's Problem" where Nancy remained responsible for childrearing, household chores, and emotional family dynamics even though the economic burden was shared. We all "...suffered from double duty and remained responsible for the lion's share of child care and housework."5 In some instances a modern man will share in housework, but more often a woman does double duty, starting her "second shift" at home after working outside the home.

Neither my mother's salary nor my own (nor Nancy Holt's) compared to our husbands' when we worked. Since primary responsibility for a family often remains with the man, a woman is more likely to take a part-time or less demanding job to cope with the demanding double duty. So the financial burden of supporting the family is still largely on men.

Then and now, women adjust to dissatisfaction in marriage to maintain a family relationship. My mother was typical of 1950s housewives in that she didn't complain of the constraints on her, although she was an educated woman who hated housework. Her early ambitions of changing the world with her social work degree were put aside to do her duty by staying home to raise her family. Both Nancy Holt and I, when "forced to choose between equality and marriage...choose marriage."6 And looking around at the struggling single, unwed mothers and divorced women with children, both their emotional anguish and financial hardships explain why so many women decide to make adjustments and work within marriage to strive for a fulfilling life.

Sexual containment to marriage has changed to accept premarital sex and sex between unmarried people, yet fidelity to one's spouse is still the norm. Infidelity was and is taboo.


III. How would you evaluate the significance of these changes for American society?

Although there are more divorces, the frequency of remarriage shows that people want to have a stable, fulfilling family lifestyle and are even willing to suffer through divorce in order to be in a better marriage. Problems and pressures caused by rigid family expectations in the 1950s created changes with new problems and pressures in the years in between then and now. Society is changing rapidly now, much faster than in previous decades and centuries.

Technological advances in communication increase awareness of other cultures and lifestyles, further eroding the idea of one ideal family type and increasing acceptance of a variety of definitions of a family. One of the last variations on family life to be accepted is the gay family. Their family structure is far from the 1950's normative family, but eventually their threat to society will appear as benign as the other previously unacceptable families that are now accepted into mainstream society.


The "family values" movement is being encouraged by congressional conservatives and others trying to "conserve" what they see as good about the past in the light of the problems that the changes in the family structure have created. Their solution is to go backwards to 1950s values, but that is unlikely to happen. While change is not always seen as forward progress by all, rarely do patterns revert back to an earlier period despite glorification by conservatives of the "good old days."

I am continually struck by the contrast between my mother and my daughters in their values and lifestyle opportunities. They entered young womanhood with very different expectations, and it will be interesting to follow my daughters' journey of womanhood as they marry (or don't) and have children (or don't). I expect that they will work outside the home -- they will not be confined to the house as my mother was. I mostly hope that they figure out how to have a satisfying relationship, raise children, and have a rewarding career. I couldn't make it work, and that is one of my greatest hopes for them.




1 Elaine Tyler May Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1988) 225.

2 May 79

3 Arlie Hochschild, "Joey's Problem: Nancy and Evan Holt," in America Since 1945, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991) 348.

4 Carol B. Stack, "Sex Roles and Survival Strategies in an Urban Black Community" Women, Culture & Society, Rosaldo, M. Z., and Lamphere, L., eds., (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1974) 128.

5 May 223

6 Hochschild 363

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