Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg

From Keywords for American Cultural Studies
Jump to: navigation, search

Mintz, Steven, and Susan Kellogg. "The Rise of the Companionate Family, 1900-1930" Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: The Free Press, 1988. 108-131.

Overview of the Companionate Family

Domestic Revolutions offers a detailed discussion of the notable shifts in family structure during the time period 1880-1930. Mintz and Kellogg connect social, cultural, moral, and general discourse changes that effected family and how it functioned. The emergence of the companionate family, the idea of love and friendship between family members, began with signs of crisis. Change was feared even though new ideals of the family manifested in discourse and was identified through psychology. Reform and transformations were not easy but the shift was accompanied by strong support through educational means. This essay shows the logical facts supporting Foucault’s point on the dispersion of discourse between several “centers of power” (History of Sexuality, pp49).

New Ideal of the Family

An Ideology of “companionate family” became formalized and institutionalized through psychology. In this new ideal of family the husband and wife are to be friends and lovers, parents and kids are to be “pals”. Psychology argued that this new structure is better suited to “modern society and industrial conditions.” The manifestation of economic and social transitions did not support the traditional family. During this time period, there was a decline in farming and production was being done more outside of the home. The private was mirroring the public change from monarch, or patriarch, to democratic. Children even attained more freedom from parental control, the ability to express themselves, and more interaction with peers. Goals shifted in marriage and roles adjusted in the family.

Signs of Crisis

Four major topics became associated with the breakdown and/ or “death” of the traditional family. In the 1880’s the U.S. discovered that:

1) It had the highest divorce rate in the world

2) The birthrate was falling dramatically (specifically among “better classes” of white women)

3) The “New Woman” began emerging

4) Moralists were in an upheaval over appearances of those around them.

In response to these trends, state legislatures throughout the country sought to tighten statutes regarding divorce by setting more mandates in order to get a divorce as well as create a more difficult process of paperwork. Even after all these revisions, the amount of divorces did not decrease noticeably. “Nativists” opposed birth control among American women in order to encourage population growth among the American-born. Moralists perceived the most alarming sign of change was the restlessness of the nations’ women. From 1890 to 1910 the enrollment of women in college tripled. Women organizations were growing profoundly by the end of the 19th century. The Woman’s sphere was shifting and the family was undergoing transformations observers feared would cease the existence of marriage and a healthy family.

To improve the quality of family life, education and programs for learning proliferated the country. Sanitation became an issue as well. Childbirth became more readily done by a doctor instead of a midwife. Before, it was generally the poor who went to the doctors for help. Child rearing refocused to a scientific approach instead of showering with love. Parents are to be the responsible ones for everything around the household. Even the housework changed. Servants became less available because of the opening of other jobs for women. The wife/mother was to be responsible for their own homes now. With this transformation, appliances were introduced as “labor saving” tools of the household to help the woman do all these chores. House layouts changed as well. There was no longer a necessity for a separate servants quarters and the kitchen became a more central abode of living. All these changes were regulated by a constant dissemination of educational materials and tutorials that originated by psychologists, social workers, and the government.

Public Policy and the Family

Government regulation was originally created to deal with the new form of family’s instability. Marriage laws increased in a prospect that divorce would happen less. Divorce proceedings were provided separate courts. These courts strongly adopted Victorian notions of the male and female roles within the home. It was only if either member of the marriage violated their role was a divorce allowed. By 1920, enough cases were known that custody, alimony, and therapists became a part of the procedure so that all needs were met.

“The nation’s courts and state legislatures declared that government had not merely a right but a duty to promote family welfare.” (pp128). Through this logic, policies of financial aid, nurseries, and child protective services initiated. By the 1930s there was optimism towards the American family but pessimists still saw instability and disintegration due to statistics of public policy involving families. Now at least there is a process to promote the happiness of those within the family and a process in the event of instability and disintegration.


It was during the initial period of change where Edna’s story takes place, before transformations took place. It was still at a time where the general public enforced the Victorian family woman but the discourse on such topics became more abundant. The “purity crusades” allowed for the break of silence concerning sexuality. By speaking out against prostitution, gonorrhea, and the double standard of sexual morality, these physicians, educators, municipal reformers, psychologists, sociologists, and social workers in support of it began the discourse of self expression. Edna seems to have a unique connection to this but does not have the background of psychology to be able to give herself a vocabulary for what she is feeling. This is at the very forefront of a significant change in acceptance in society. Since she is treading on an unfamiliar path, even though she is not alone, society is still in denial of this change in such a way that it does make Edna feel isolated and the need to go her own way.

Foucault’s work supports the existence of institutions within the separate writings. The Awakening presents psychology in its early stages. Through Mintz’ and Kellogg’s work, they show the centers of power disperse from an accepted discourse to shifts in the home, schools, community, and government. Foucault would argue the change in government policies perform a perfect example of an institution extensively studying and ridiculing the “abnormal”. Society still wants the perfect family so when there is such a thing as instability, the government as an institution almost makes a show out of it by requiring the process of a divorce in its public halls. There are constant transitions, through Edna’s thoughts and actions, and in our society’s formulations of the norm. Without transitions and transformations there would be no progress or awakening for anyone.

See Also:

  • Stephanie Coontz on the eighteenth-century tranformation to companionate marriage as an emergent idealized form.