Professor Marshall

LESSON 5: A Brief History of Contemporary American Families

A Focus on American Families

Question:How has the economy impacted you and your family?

The study of the American family came about for two reasons. As we have learned in prior lessons in the mid-20th century in America, there was an increasing concern over acknowledging diversity (speaks to the Feminist Enlightenment) in society in general. This concern carried over into academic research and inquiry. The second reason directly relates to the first: this increase in concern over diversity led to aA change in the focus of researchers: the family IS an important thing to study.

Our study of family life in America, in this course, touches on some of the important structural issues that have influenced and shaped family life. One of those issues is the impact of the Industrial Revolution.

Why is the Industrial Revolution Important to the study of Family?

The Industrial Revolution (IR) signaled a shift in economic relationships, made money important to all social classes, and signaled a change in family roles throughout the West. The IR was a period of rapid social change as society in the West shifted from rural to urban. This also created a new social structure for society. For the first time in the West, people flooded urban centers and this migration brought with it a whole new set of problems to deal with: crime, sanitation issues, child labor, alcoholism and so on. Social philosophers began to observe these problems, and social workers began to go out into the city to help those who were in trouble. This new system was the beginning of our contemporary system of capitalism, and it impacted the family in many ways. From changes in power within the family, to shifting gender roles and family responsibilities, the family became a different kind of economic unit—one intimately tied to the external world of work in factories. This shift in work patterns changed the ways members of families related to each other, with those who worked in factories and brough money into the home, gaining power and control over those who could not work outside the home. Thus, as the economy changes, so does the family.

We will take a brief look at each of the following in this lesson, with an emphasis on some of the structural changes in society which have impacted ach group:

  • African American families
  • Chicano (Mexican American) families
  • Chinese American families
  • Japanese American families
  • Latino American families
  • European American families
  • Native American families

African American Family Life


Historically, African Americans were the largest minority group in the US, and they are the only group in the US that were legally enslaved/segregated, enduring over 200 years of enslavement, sharecropping and legal segregation (Jim Crow laws). Studying African American families IN CONTEXT of place and time, meaning studying what minority status means (culturally, economically, and politically) as well as studying the eras of slavery, sharecropping and Jim Crow laws reveals to us how the levels of analysis impact families and individuals; studying the family at both the macro and micro levels allows us to see not only how the structure (macro) impacts the individual (micro), but also how the individual impacts the structure. Further, it allows us to understand that the strcuture of society (the macro) has long lasting impacts on ALL groups in our society.

Four Periods

Aulette's examination of African American family life looks at four distinct periods in American history:

Slavery: 1600 to 1865

During slavery, 90% of African Americans were enslaved and were considered property of slave owners. Slavery was ended by the 13th Amendment in 1865 however segregation and discrimination continued and were legal until the 1960s. There are two primary kinds of discrimination/segregation that African Americans have had to combat:

  • De Jure Segregation: a system of legal segregation
  • De Facto Segregation: segregation of neighborhoods, employment, and educational opportunities

Sharecropping: 1865-1940

Sharecropping was a crop lien system which left African Americans in constant debt to landowners. With few rights, poverty was common. Since former slave owners still owned the land, sharecroppers had little opportunity to improve their lives. This system had many similarities to the Pre-Industrial feudal systems in the West.

During the era of sharecropping, the nuclear family model becomes prevalent, and becomes the basic unit of sharecropping. The system of sharecropping places stress on the roles of African American women as they tried to care for family and played an increased role in working the fields. These new roles (both for African American men and women disrupts the equality that the former slaves had within family relationships. As African American men begin to take control over all aspects of family life, the African American family model begins to take on more of the attributes of the white, nuclear family model.

Industrialization: 1940-1965

Industrialization further changes the African American family as machinery overtakes the sharecropper lien system. This begins the Great Migration, a move to the North in search of opportunity and shifts workers from agricultural to manufacturing and service jobs. As the Great Migration takes hold, African American women are forced into domestic work due to discrimination in the workforce (structural barriers, de jure and de facto discrimination). This further changed the roles of African American women within the family structure

The Post Civil Rights Era: Since 1965

Contemporary struggles for equality in the post-civil rights era continue, with African American women continuing to fight discrimination in the workplace. Often passed up for promotions when up against non-Blacks with equal experience and education, African American women continue to feel the structural impacts of workplace discrimination. In the public sphere, stereotypes about African American women persist, despite credible research which does not support these stereotypes

African American men also continue to fight discrimination in the workplace. Just as for African American women, African American men are also often passed up for promotions when up against others non-Blacks with equal experience and education. In the public sphere, stereotypes about African American men also persist, despite research which suggests that discrimination within our systems is clear and rampant.

The Question of Free Will—Agency and Structure

Agency is defined as the ability to influence the outcomes of our own lives. It requires us to be able to take action on (or against) the structure and our surrounding environment. It also requires us to have a certain amount of power over the structure and to change the structure in a way which helps us to accomplish our personal goals. Agency is a micro level concept, meaning that it is about the life choices that we make on a daily basis which influence the trajectory of our lives. A question to consider when thinking about the ability to make good, meaningful choices for our lives would be how much choice we can have in our lives when faced with systemic discrimination.

Structure (conformity) requires us to fit into the existing society. In internalizing the norms, laws and rules of a society, we help to maintain the structural balance in our society. But, this can present us with myriad personal issues. What happens when conformity is harmful to us on a personal level? Should we "go by the rules" even when they don't help us to reach our personal goals? This is a macro level concept, meaning that it is about how the structure influences our life chances.

Chicano Family Life

Recruited in the late 1800s, many Chicano men came to work on railways and in mines. As women and children were not allowed to accompany Chicano workers, this splits the family and forces the mothers/wives left behind to work outside the home to keep household economy going. By the early 1900s-entire families hired to work in agriculture and Chicano families were reunited however under unacceptable living conditions. During this time, Chicano families experienced high infant mortality, low (unlawful) wages, non-existent educational opportunities and low life expectancy. in 1962, Cesar Chavez founded the United Farm Workers, an advocacy group/workers union founded due to child labor in agriculture. The goal of UFW was (and continues to be) to improve social and economic conditions for farm workers.

United Farm Workers

Chinese American Family Life

Chinese migration patterns to the United States reveal how the Chinese family has been impacted by macro level (structural) forces: politics and law, social discrimination and segregation and the economy of the country. Over the last 150 years, immigration policy has caused problems for the Chinese American family and these policies have impacted several different eras of immigration to the US:

Era 1: The Gold Rush (mid-1800s to early 1900s)

Large-scale immigration to the US began with the discovery of gold in California in 1848; the Gold Rush required significant manual labor for the construction of railroads. In China, many farmers felt that the opportunities of the Gold Rush would benefit them; some were feeling due to political conflicts in China caused by a poor economy. The overwhelming majority of the early Chinese immigrants were men and over half were single. If married, the migrant workers were frequently separated from their wives, forced to live as single men within the Chinese immigrant community. Chinese workers were often discriminated against. They had very little protection from racism or other forms of discrimination, and due to intense fear from the general public, the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was enacted; this act barred Chinese laborers and their relatives (including their wives) from entering the United States. There is a long history of laws, rules and acts during this period which exemplified how structural impositions worked to create a hostile environment for Chinese workers in the US. By understanding these legal documents in context, we can see how the Chinese migrant worker was manipulated by the need for cheap labor (Lee):

  • 1864 Central Pacific Railroad recruited Chinese laborers from Canton
  • 1866 Civil Rights Act: Gave persons of race and color, citizenship and all privileges, to hold property and to testify in Court; the law did not apply to the Chinese
  • 1869 Burlingame Treaty: Unrestricted Chinese immigration was allowed primarily to supply cheap labor to build the railroad
  • 1871 Anti-Chinese riots in Los Angeles
  • 1877 Anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco
  • 1879 California Constitution adopted with anti-Chinese provisions
  • 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act: Suspended immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years, barred Chinese naturalization, provided for deportation of Chinese illegally in the United States
  • 1882-1920 Declining immigration; decline of agriculture, mining, and railroad occupations; rise of urban service occupations
  • 1891 Immigration Act: First comprehensive law for national control of immigration. Established Bureau of Immigration under U.S. Treasury Department. Directed deportation of the undocumented
  • 1892 Geary Act: Extended exclusion for 10 more years
  • 1898 U.S. Supreme Court recognized children born in the United States with Chinese parents as citizens
  • 1924 Immigration and Naturalization Act: Imposed first permanent numerical limit on immigration, established the national origins quota system, which resulted in biased admissions favoring northern and western Europeans. Also made it impossible for American citizens of Chinese descent to send for their family members still in China.
  • 1929-1939 Great Depression
  • 1940-1946 16,000 Chinese Americans served in Armed Forces in World War II
  • 1943 Repeal of all 15 Chinese Exclusion Acts: Quota set at 105 per year
  • 1945 War Brides Act: Facilitated the entry of wives of men in the U.S. armed forces
  • 1948 Displaced Person Act: 3,465 Chinese students, visitors, and seamen were granted permanent resident status

Era 2: Small Businesses (early 1900s to mid-1900s)

The Immigration Act of 1924 enacted law which made it impossible for American citizens of Chinese descent to send for family members, thus severing family ties. The law was changed somewhat in 1930 to allow for a "grandfather clause:" if the marriage had taken place prior to 1924, those wives were allowed to enter the US. As this happened, families began to emerge, and "Chinatowns" were created, with second-generation Chinese Americans populating their streets. As the original first wave migrant workers began to leave the rails and mines, they used savings from their jobs to create small businesses and shops, creating a class of small-producer families. These families often consisted of multiple generations, and divisions of labor were common. This extended family model favored the collective (the group) over the individual, and the needs of the family were more important than the needs of individual family members.

Era 3: Families Reunited (mid- to late- 1900s)

During World War II, immigration policies began to be less stringent. Considering that the able-bodied male population was fighting the war in Europe, immigration policies would need to be eased to fill the needs of the workforce in the United States. As this began to happen, Chinese family life began to normalize. As part of the reform to immigration policy, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was repealed and thus, Chinese immigrants became eligible for citizenship for the first time in the United States. As a result of Chinese women marrying American soldiers, the 1945 War Brides Act was passed; this act allowed Chinese women married to American soldiers to enter the country. And continuing on, due to deficits in the workforce because of World War II, the refugee relief act of 1953 allowed highly educated Chinese people into the United States as refugees. After this time, and due to these reforms, many wives were able to reunite with their husbands after decades of separation. Rather than arriving in America and single individuals looking for work, the Chinese population of immigrants began to arrive as families. Family life however was still very challenging. Many of the new immigrants took jobs in low-paying, labor-intensive jobs such as restaurants and sweatshops. This was a different model than the small-business families of the previous era. While the small-business families tended to band together in order to work for the good of the family, with each member having a role in the business, these new i mmigrants placed more distance between work life and home life. One goal however was still similar between the second and third: economic survival.


Immigration to the United States from China and other Asian countries such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam continues to be strong. The reason for immigration are very, however many of the contemporary Asian immigrant individuals and families come to the United States due to political persecution; Asian countries with high levels of oppression and human rights violations continue to be a source of immigrants for the United States. As we can see from this brief accounting of Chinese immigration, there is a direct relationship to structural components of society and the influence they have had on our Chinese American families.

European American Family Life

The GODLY Family Model ca. 1650-late 1700s

Agricultural Economic System Patriarchal Family Structure High level of Community Integration Family self-sufficiency was "the norm" Health Care inside the home Education inside the home Welfare inside the home

The MODERN European American Family

Two models:

The Democratic Model CA. late 1700s-1900

In this time frame, the European American family experienced high levels of community integration and levels of family self-sufficiency were on the decline. Social institutions begin to take the place of some of the activities that had been performed within the family, such as health care and education. The social welfare system of the government begins to grow and thus the family becomes more regulated by the government. This was a NEW family model never seen before, developing in the US white middle class.

The Companionate Model CA. 1900-1970

Here, the European American family experiences lower levels of community integration, and family self-sufficiency is no longer the "norm." Health care and education are fully institutionalized, and the government takes responsibility for many of the functions the family used to perform.

→ Both models worked within an industrialized and capitalist economic system

→Both models worked within a patriarchal family structure

The POST MODERN Family Model ca. 1970

As the American industrial structure (factory work) is shipped overseas, our economic system shifts to computer and processing information, described as a post-industrial and capitalist economic system. This erodes the power of the middle class over time, as many high-paying manufacturing jobs are sent overseas in the search for cheaper labor. In this model, we find a less patriarchal family structure, and even lower levels of community integration. Family (and individual) self-sufficiency is on the rise again in this period, and the family resumes some of the tasks that had been structurally institutionalized: health care becomes cost prohibitive for many families, and the family takes some of those tasks over again. Educational outcomes are encouraged within the family as it is viewed as a way to climb the social ladder for future generations. But, due to all of these structural changes, the welfare of the family is strained. In conjunction with these tasks being moved back to the home, the government begins to pull back on many social welfare programs that have benefited the middle class.

European American Family Stages

Japanese American Family Life

Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. It allowed the military to incarcerate Japanese Americans—over half of those interred were children. There was no due process, and families were rounded up and forced into camps surrounded by barbed wire. Roosevelt himself called them "concentration camps" ("Internment History"). Some facts:

  • 120,000 total
  • 60% of those interred were citizens
  • Average length of incarceration: 2.5 years
  • One week to prepare for evacuation
  • Only allowed to bring what could be carried
  • If you had to carry an infant, that was all you were allowed to bring

Government Internment Notice 1

Life During Internment

During internment, families were kept inside the camp walls by barbed wire fencing. Floodlights were on at night to discourage anyone from walking around outside. Those who had brought their cameras inside had them confiscated, along with family photos which had been brought in. Dwellings were about 20 feet by 20 feet, and housed an average of 8 ppl. Straw beds or cots were provided, but no dwelling contained toilets or kitchens—cooking and hygiene facilities were all communal. Some families were split apart, an no information was provided about where family members ended up. All able-bodied people worked for $16 a month (avg. US wage at the time: $43/mo).

Government Internment Notice 2

Latino American Family Life

Some ppl think that Europeans "settled" all of the US This is a MYTH About 1/3 of the US was settled by Spanish colonists Originally part of Mexico, the US went to war, invading Northern Mexico This became Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Colorado Being "Hispanic" "Hispanic" is an English word Latino/a is more accurate Latinos have many cultures and nationalities

Latino Population Census Figures

Native American Family Life

There were over 300 distinct cultures and 200 languages known to Native American society when European Americans came to settle the US. Many were killed by Europeans before histories could be recorded however the Iroquois League of Nations did keep extensive records, and family life for this group of Native Americans is documented due to these records.

The League of the Iroquois

Iroquois Six Nations

The Iroquoix nations were comprised of six different native peoples: the Mohawk, the Onondaga, the Seneca, the Oneida, the Cayuga, and the Tuscarora. They lived in what is now New York and practiced a communal economic system, menaing that all resources were fairly distributed among the members of the league. This league had a matriarchal family structure with high levels of community integration. Self-sufficiency was low, and members of the league supported other members. Most social activities were decided by the governing bodies of the nations, and the league was a close-knit group.


As you can now see, the family is intimately shaped and influenced by what is happening in the structure and instritutions of society. Macro level fources such as the economy, the institutions of gender and race, and politics and the media all play significant roles in what is happening within our families. Likewise, families push back against these structural forces to impact the bigger picture. The experiences of individual families and of individual family members serve to influence the experiences of all members of our society, and serve as a catalyse for structural change.


"Internment History." The Children of the Camps Project. 1999. 19 Dec 2015.

Lee, Evelyn. "Chinese American Families." EvelynLee-MentalHealth. n.d. 18 Dec 2015.