Unit III: Institutions, Culture, and Structures

The Family

There is a multiplicity of family forms in the United States and throughout the world. When we try to define the word “family” we realize just how slippery of a concept it is. Does family mean those who are blood related? This definition of family excludes stepparents and adopted children from a definition of those in one’s family. It also denies the existence of fictive kin, or non-blood related people that one considers to be part of one’s family. Does family mean a nuclear family (composed of legally-married parents and their children ), as it so often is thought to in the contemporary United States? This excludes extended kin—or family members such as uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, nephews, and nieces. It also excludes single parents, the unmarried, and those couples who do not have children. Or does family denote a common household characterized by economic cooperation? This definition would exclude those who consider each other family but cannot or do not live in the same household, often times for economic reasons—for example, South or Central American parents leaving their country of origin to make wages in the United States and send them back to their families—or because of incarceration.

“An estimated 809,800 prisoners of the 1,518,535 held in the nation’s prisons at midyear 2007 were parents of children under age 18. Parents held in the nation’s prisons — 52 percent of state inmates and 63 percent of federal inmates — reported having an estimated 1,706,600 minor children, accounting for 2.3 percent of the U.S. resident population under age 18.” (Sabol and West 2010)

All of these definitions would also deny the importance and existence of what Kath Weston (1991) has labeled “chosen families,” or how queers, gay men, and lesbians who are ostracized from their families of origin form kinship ties with close friends. The diversity of family formations across time and place suggests that the definition of a “…universal ‘family’ hides historical change as it sets in place or reproduces an ideology of ‘the family’ that obscures the diversity and reality of family experience in any place and time” (Gerstel 2003: 231). What is the dominant ideology of “family” in the United States? How did the family formation that this dominant ideology rests upon come to be the normative model of “family?”

Image of a man, woman, and 3 children holding hands, silhouetted against a sunset with birds flying in the distance.
“Family Ideal” by bykst is in the Public Domain, CC0

The dominant ideology of what constitutes a “family” in the United States recognizes a very class- and race-specific type of gendered family formation. This family formation has been labeled the Standard North American Family (SNAF) (Smith 1993). Smith (1993) defines the SNAF as:

…a conception of the family as a legally married couple sharing a household. The adult male is in paid employment; his earnings provide the economic basis of the family-household. The adult female may also earn an income, but her primary responsibility is to the care of the husband, household, and children. Adult male and female may be parents (in whatever legal sense) of children also resident in the household (Smith 1993: 52).

It is important to note that the majority of families in the United  States do not fit this ideological family formation. Judith Stacey (1998) calls these multiple and numerous differences in the ways in which people structure their families, post-modern families.  

When we put the SNAF into a historical perspective, we are able to see how this dominant family formation is neither natural nor outside of politics and processes of race, class, and gender inequality. Historians Nancy Cott (2000) and Stephanie Coontz (2005) have written about the history of the SNAF. The SNAF originated in the 19th century with the separation between work and family, which was occasioned by the rise of industrial capitalism. Previous to an industrial economy based on the creation of commodities in urban factories, the family was primarily an agricultural work unit—there was no separation between work and home. With the rise of industrial capitalism, in working class families and families of color (who had been denied access to union jobs or were still enslaved, maintaining their poverty or working-class status) the majority of family members—including children and women—worked in factories.

Middle-class families who had inherited property and wealth—the vast majority of whom were white—did not need all the members of their families to work. They were able to pay for their homes, hire house servants, maids (who were primarily African American, working-class women) and tutors, and send their children to private educational institutions with the salary of the breadwinning father. Thus, the gendered division of labor—wherein women perform unpaid care-work within the home and men are salaried or wage-earning breadwinners—that is often assumed to be a natural, given way of family life originated due to relatively recent economic changes that privileged middle-class, white families.

This false split between the publicly-oriented, working father and the privately-oriented domestic mother produced the ideologies of separate spheres and the cult of domesticity. The ideology of separate spheres held that women and men were distinctly different creatures, with different natures and therefore suited for different activities. Masculinity was equated with breadwinning, and femininity was equated with homemaking.

Image of a white woman wearing an apron in a kitchen.
This work by ArtsyBee is in the Public Domain, CC0

Correspondingly, the cult of domesticity was an ideology about white womanhood that held that white women were asexual, pure, moral beings properly located in the private sphere of the household. Importantly, this ideology was applied to all women as a measure of womanhood. The effects of this ideology were to systematically deny working-class white women and women of color access to the category of “women,” because these women had to work and earn wages to support their families. Furthermore, during this period, coverture laws defined white women who were married to be legally defined as the property of their husband. Upon marriage, women’s legal personhood was dissolved into that of the husband. They could not own property, sign or make legal documents, and any wages they made had to be turned over to their husbands. Thus, even though they did not have to work in factories or the fields of plantations, white middle-class women were systematically denied rights and personhood under coverture. In this way, white middle-class women had a degree of material wealth and symbolic status as pure, moral beings, but at the cost of submission to their husbands and lack of legal personhood. White working-class women and women of color had access to the public sphere in ways white middle-class women did not, but they also had to work in poorly paid jobs and were thought to be less than true women because of this.

The historical, dominant ideology of the SNAF is reinforced by present day law and social policy. For example, when gay men and lesbians have children they often rely on adoption or assisted reproductive technologies, including in vitro fertilization or surrogacy (where a woman is contracted to carry a child to term for someone else), among other methods. Since laws in most states assume that blood-ties between mother and child supersede non-biological family relations, gay men and lesbians who seek to have children and families face barriers to this. The conventional assumptions of the SNAF are embodied in law, and in this case, do not match with the realities of groups of people who depart from the ideology of the SNAF.

Social policies often assume that the SNAF is not only a superior family structure, but that its promotion is a substitute for policies that would seek to reduce poverty. For instance, both the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have promoted marriage and the nuclear family as poverty reduction policy. These programs have targeted poor families of color, in particular. In The Healthy Marriages Initiative of 2004, President Bush pledged $1.5 billion to programs aimed at “Marriage education, marriage skills training, public advertising campaigns, high school education on the value of marriage and marriage mentoring programs…activities promoting fatherhood, such as counseling, mentoring, marriage education, enhancing relationship skills, parenting, and activities to foster economic stability” (US Department of Health and Human Services 2009). Such policies ignore the historical, structural sources of racialized poverty and blame the victims of systemic classism and racism. As the history of the SNAF shows, the normative family model is based on a white middle-class model—one that a majority of families in the US do not fit or necessarily want to fit.


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Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies by Miliann Kang, Donovan Lessard, Laura Heston, Sonny Nordmarken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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