Marriage and Family in Western Civilization

William H. Young

In the later days before its demise as a republic, family life and human character as well as society decayed through divorce, adultery, sexual license, hedonistic behavior, and lack of education of children. That was Rome and could be America.

Throughout the course of Western civilization, familism (marriage, the family, and reproduction) has been a key element of civil society—and a principal interface with human nature—with the furtherance of character and moral values as important purposes, according to former Harvard sociologist Carle E. Zimmerman in Family and Civilization (2008). The family has played different roles relative to church and state, with strong domestic families constituting the spring and essence of peak periods of the West. Conversely, family disintegration was a key factor, both cause and effect, in the demise of the Greek and Roman civilizations.

What is the state of marriage and familism in America? In 2010 married couples dropped below half of all households for the first time in American history. According to the Census Bureau, married couples represented just 48 percent of American households, far below the 78 percent of households occupied by married couples in 1950.

In Marriage (2008), the late Emory University historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese explains that marriage has enjoyed a privileged status within Western civilization as the primary social unit of civil society—the essential bond that created a bridge between the sexes.

In joining a man and a woman, marriage attempts to hold men to collective social standards, including responsibility for the women they impregnate and the children they father, while also stringently hedging in women’s sexuality. In short, marriage has always demanded that both men and women sacrifice a considerable measure of individual freedom to act in the interest of the family.

At the founding, America adopted the Western concepts of civil marriage and family, in which the mother played the primary role (shared with the father) in nurturing children, with the formation of character and moral values as essential objectives. The self-reliant family and marriage was the cornerstone of poverty avoidance.

In Democracy in America (1835), Alexis deTocqueville observed that the Americans had “carefully separated the functions of man and of woman so that the great work of society may be better performed.” He concluded that “if anyone asks me what I think the chief cause of the extraordinary prosperity and growing power of this nation, I should answer that it is due to the superiority of their women.” He saw that the family “was presided over by the American woman, the model of Christian principles of sacrifice, duty, and compassion.”

The domestic family foundation continued over the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, influenced gradually by the rise of individualism and industrial and consumer capitalism. During the 1950s, reports Columbia Professor of History and progressive Eric Foner in The Story of American Freedom (1998), the companionate domestic marriage reached its peak in American history. Thanks to modern conveniences, women enjoyed their greatest “hope for freedom” at home.

But all that would change with the advance of progressivism and the advent of postmodern multiculturalism in the 1960s. The Great Society programs began to substitute the welfare state for the family and civil society as developers of the faculties of the individual and children—further social constructionism. Betty Friedan’s influential Feminine Mystique (1963) took as its theme the emptiness of consumer culture, the frustrations of being a dutiful parent, and the wife’s lack of freedom within the family and opportunity for personal self-realization. Friedan was steeped in Marxist theories of psychological alienation, oppression and bourgeois ennui. She characterized housewives as prisoners of “comfortable concentration camps.”

Arguments within the academy against the traditional family structure arose, Peter Wood has noted, with the fables of Margaret Mead and in anthropology. From members and followers of the Frankfurt School (and despite widespread criticism that its research had been fitted to conclusions reached in advance and that it lacked evidence), The Authoritarian Personality (1950) changed academic attitudes towards the family within psychology and sociology. Herbert Marcuse argued that monogamous marriage enforced submission to social rules and the compulsion to work. Cultural Marxism and psychoanalysis converged on the theory that the patriarchal, authoritarian family and its repressive morality served the interests of class society. Sexual liberation and obsession, relativism, and self-centered expressive individualism (choice over commitment) spread from the academy to society.

Stemming from The Second Sex (1953) by Simone de Beauvoir, the French Marxist, gender feminism posited social construction of a new gender identity and a gender-neutral society, in which women were independent of morality and nature. Gender feminism seeks to abolish traditional marriage and deigns childcare worthy only of servants, like the role of Roman slaves near the end of that republic. It substitutes social science and the state for the family as developers of the faculties of children, emasculating the ethic of parental responsibility.

These academically inspired beliefs, along with the welfare state, instigated a massive disintegration of marriage and the family—and a widespread betrayal of children—from which many of our most threatening social problems and individual distress originate The consequences are severe: drastically higher rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and single-parent and cohabiting families. Since the 1960s: divorce rates have risen from 12 percent to 50 percent; births to single mothers have soared from 5 percent to 40 percent, with rates over 50 percent among the poor and 80 per cent among poor blacks. The proportion of children residing in stepfamilies or families formed outside marriage, including single-parent and cohabiting families—rather than with two biological parents—has increased twelvefold since 1970 and is at an all-time high.

Approximately 40 percent of single-mother families are in poverty. Children born to single mothers and living without two biological parents are vastly more likely to lack parenting and early development, perform poorly in school and drop out of high school, have behavioral and psychological problems, and themselves go on to have out-of-wedlock families. Out-of-wedlock births, now an epidemic in the lowest socioeconomic class, are a chief cause of increasing American economic inequality and the social stratification of a new underclass of the unemployable.

Despite that abysmal record, college texts still exaggerate the costs of marriage to adults, particularly women, and downplay or ignore the benefits of marriage and the well-being of children. Still worse, Sandra Stotsky demonstrates that even our younger children are being fed the anti-marriage, anti-family, feminist idea that marriage is oppressive—that “American women have been oppressed by their husbands and society throughout their country’s history.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, for Millennial women (under thirty), out-of-wedlock births recently passed 50 percent for the first time in American history. And nearly two-thirds of Millennials believe that having a baby outside marriage is “morally acceptable.” (Millennial Makeover, 2008)

In 1970, men earned 59 percent of college degrees; today women earn 59 percent of degrees. The potential male contribution to family incomes is more limited, and male joblessness is becoming chronic, further burdening women. And “more than two-thirds of Millennial women” are opposed to the idea of women returning to traditional roles in a family (Madland and Logan, 2008) that have so benefited children throughout American history. Any return to marriage and proper nurture of children faces a steep climb.

Nonetheless, marriage and parenting should once again be a national ideal, and the nurture of children and human capital—rather than personal and sexual freedom and indulgent materialism—should once again be a priority purpose of parents, both a husband and wife. Ironically, as freedom of choice, our upper-middle-class, college-educated elites proclaim—but do not practice—the cultural ethos of divorce and single parenthood. Perhaps our elites realize what modern evolutionary science is confirming: there is a primacy of family ties in all human societies. Our calamitous cultural ethos will be rectified only by change in the posture of—and moral suasion from—those elites.

In light of the severe consequences of that ethos, it would seem that colleges and universities should at least teach future elites—and our schoolchildren—the historical benefits of marriage and familism, rather than simply disparaging them. Instruction in the lessons of Western civilization and American history, as NAS recommends, could help us avoid the societal fate of the Romans and make strong domestic families again the spring and essence of our nation.

Image: Public Domain


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

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