Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Roots of Family Problems in America

The politics of family structure and the historical trends that illuminate its current popular constructions is a field of study of particular import to sociology. The family is in many ways a microcosm of societal structures at large, a model that features a basic formulation behind all the varieties and undulations to be discerned within its manifestations. Thus, by understanding family structures and politics, one can arrive at an understanding of society and culture overall. This is because culture exerts a certain influence that family models tend to emulate on a much smaller, more diluted scale that allows for concise analysis. Although inferences to the larger, more complex nature of society from concise family structures may not represent factual or practical views of society, it does reflect perceptions and popular constructions of that social universe. These perceptions and constructions are wide-ranging and very diverse, but out of this diversity certain identifiable trends emerge over time, trends that have accelerated in the past century.

When attempting to understand the social problems associated with U.S. family life, sociologists have pointed to several key roots of these problems. There is much debate among sociologists who identify deleterious factors that have influenced American families, and these debates are often specialized depending on what aspect of social problems is being discussed. There are of course many historical factors that have contributed to the current condition of the family, and they all apply to general considerations of key roots. Among the most pronounced and significant of these influencing factors was the marked shift in gender demographics in the workplace in the 1970s. The effects of deindustrialization accounted in large part for this shift in demographics. Sociologist Robert Heiner writes, "The demand for high-paying blue-collar workers, in automobile and steel manufacturing, for example, began to shrivel; and the demand for low-paying 'pink-collar' workers, sales clerks and secretaries, for example, began to expand. With several economic recessions in the 1970s, men faced unemployment and stagnating wages. Women moved into those pink-collar jobs and into other jobs as well; and though their wages were lower, they were able to offset the declining financial situation of their families" (Heiner, 80). According to the documentary The Motherhood Manifesto, "In 1960, 70% of our families had a breadwinner who went to work everyday and a homemaker who went home and took care of the children or an elderly parent or a sick relative. That has completely changed; it's reversed."

Contrary to the popular conceptions disseminated by various corporate media relations, the gender disparity associated with "pink-collar" jobs (most notably sales clerks and secretaries, among other like vocations) does not have its roots in women's liberation and a victory for feminism on an economic level. Rather, as more and more men lost their jobs as manufacturing dwindled in the face of deindustrialization and the introduction of an increasingly high-tech workplace, many women found themselves with no other alternative but to enter the workforce. Furthermore, the prevalent breadwinner/homemaker culture of the 1950s had instilled in many women the "cult of domesticity." Economist and feminist Julie A. Matthaei writes, "Since a homemaker would enter the labor force only if her husband's income was insufficient to provide for family needs, her labor-force presence signaled his inability as head of household. Only if he earned sufficient income to provide for the family's basic commodity needs could she specialize in domestic homemaking, allowing the couple to live out clearly polarized masculine and feminine lives" (Matthaei, 121). This polarization of gender roles and cultic attitude toward female domesticity had an effect on women even as she entered the workforce in terms of what she settled for in the way of salary. On this note, Heiner remarks, "In that women demanded less in terms of salary, . . . many company owners and managers came to prefer hiring women because they were 'better adapted, cheaper, more reliable and more easily controlled' than men." (Heiner 80). The disparity in income between gender was a direct result of women being socialized to assume their role in society was homemaker (a role that men used to reinforce their social reputation of independent masculinity) and this socialization caused women to be content with a salary that did not represent the amount of work she actually performed. This in turn led to the development of "sex-typed" jobs, abstract designations that produced the gender disparity between manufacturing jobs and "pink-collar jobs" mentioned above. In her seminal American Quarterly article "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-60," Barbara Welter wrote, "Somehow through this mixture of challenge and acceptance, of change and continuity, the True Woman evolved into the New Woman - a transformation as startling in its way as the abolition of slavery or the coming of the machine age. And yet the stereotype, the "mystique" if you will, of what woman was and ought to be persisted bringing guilt and confusion in the midst of opportunity" (Welter, 174).

This came to represent a problematic development for family life in a number of ways. The "cult of domesticity" and the resultant development of sex-typed jobs that Matthai writes extensively about in her book An Economic History of Women in America helped the symbolism of women as homemakers to survive even as more and more women entered the workforce. According to Heiner's research, "[M]ost women working outside of the home basically have two jobs because they also do most of the housework. This undoubtedly causes stress and resentment and decreases marital satisfaction among many women. Another part of the correlation between dual-earner families and divorce is explained by the fact that a woman earning an income has greater independence and is better able to exit a failed marriage and live on her own" (Heiner, 81). Thus, the dual-earner family model represents a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the presence of women in the workforce afford them the opportunity to leave a failed marriage and thus become independent and liberated from an out-dated model of domesticity. On the other hand, the potential for divorce has a deleterious effect primarily on families with children, not to mention the fact that most couples depend on a dual-income to maintain their financial security. The aforementioned documentary The Motherhood Manifesto brings to the forefront of the discussion how the marginalization of working mothers and the divorce rates that are sometimes associated with it has a negative impact on childcare and is correlated with the extremely high rates of child poverty. According to the film, single moms earn 34-44% less than their male counterparts. "We're the wealthiest nation on earth and we refuse to take care of our children and their families."

Heiner, Robert. Social Problems: An Introduction to Critical Constructionism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Matthaei, Julie A. An Economic History of Women in America. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.

The Motherhood Manifesto. Dir. Laura Pacheco. Perf. Mary Steenburgen. Bullfrog Films, 2006.

Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-60." American Quarterly, 18 (1966).

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