History of Fatherhood in the United States: Early 1900s to Today

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this post, after reading an essay on the progression of fatherhood written by author and stay-at-home dad, Roman Krznaric, I became curious about this same progression in the United States. Again, what I found over the course of the research fascinated me.

I had been under the impression that, aside from some variation, the role of fathers as the “provider” remained basically the same in this country. Not so. Although they were recognized as the authoritarian figure in the household, fathers were much more involved in their family’s lives. This, of course, could be a good or bad thing, but in any case, as the United States expanded westward and advanced into the Industrialized Period, a father’s influence continued to decrease as did his attachment to the family, both physical and emotionally.

This increasing detachment then resulted in mothers becoming the hub of family life essentially by default, which carried with it the childcare and household duties. Moving into the later part of the 19th Century the division of roles became more pronounced as did the distinction between the working and middle classes.

Because all family members in working class families needed to work, and yet still lived in poverty, the government stepped in and created a family wage economy allowing the man to support his household on his income alone. This is where we pick up again, and government intervention becomes a central theme as it tries to correct the outlying consequences of decreased paternal influence—consequences created by its own industrialized economy.

  • 11. Pressure to Keep Working 1 of 10
    11. Pressure to Keep Working
    Moving into the 1920's men are now salaried ‘wage-earners" and a "new middle class" begins to take shape. Because of this men have more time to spend time at home with their families; however, there's a corresponding pressure to succeed at work. This pressure grows as the economy deteriorates into the Great Depression.
  • 12. Government Goes After Bad Parents 2 of 10
    12. Government Goes After Bad Parents
    The Progressive Era reforms, although mostly good, also mark the sharp increase in shaping family dynamics. Progressive activists voice a growing concern for "family preservation." A large public movement condemns bad mothers, lazy fathers, and those who beat their wives and exploit their children. 11 states make desertion and non-support of families a felony. Three states institute a flogging pole to whip wife beaters.
  • 13. Mamma Knows Best 3 of 10
    13. Mamma Knows Best
    By the late 20's and 30's as men become increasingly distant contending with the Depression era struggles, mothers are universally recognized as the family's source of emotional support.
  • 14. Depression Over the Depression 4 of 10
    14. Depression Over the Depression
    The Depression has a profound effect on the increasing number of out-of-work fathers. Factors related to being the sole wage earner and further emotional detachment from their families leave them isolated. As a result, men lose self-respect and shut down. Long touted as the stronger sex, men have few positive emotional outlets. Alcoholism and spousal abuse spike sharply.
  • 15. Abandonment 5 of 10
    15. Abandonment
    By 1940, 1.5 million women and families are reported to have been abandoned by husbands and fathers. Putting men back to work becomes a national priority, and as a result, one of the New Deal's main goals is to reestablish the man as the lone breadwinner again.
  • 16. A Generation of Sissies 6 of 10
    16. A Generation of Sissies
    Family experts worry about the effects of absentee fathers as a result of long deployments overseas during World War 2. Mothers are almost entirely responsible for the social, physiological and emotional development of the children.
  • 17. Hey Little Buddy 7 of 10
    17. Hey Little Buddy
    Because of the mother's great influence over children, particularly sons, experts now worry that boys were becoming feminized which would lead to a generation of sissies. A movement begins encouraging fathers to be their son's buddy and engage in activities they can share in. Men doing housework is discouraged as it would disrupt and confuse the definition of sex roles for boys.
  • 18. Public Policy Parenting 8 of 10
    18. Public Policy Parenting
    In the 1960's and 70's divorce rates climb dramatically. Worry over men's economic, psychological, and emotional contributions to the family sparks a father's rights movement as men demand more access to their children and greater free time from work. This also marks the period when both men's and women's roles as father and mother become a regular political issue.
  • 19. The Laugh-Track 9 of 10
    19. The Laugh-Track
    Moving through the later part of the 20th Century, the public's of image of fathers as being out-of touch, materialistic, and aloof is bolstered by popular movies and television, especially on sitcoms. This contributes to a general feeling that fathers, as a whole, are incompetent as parents. Many see this as a backlash of sons against their baby-boomer fathers.
  • 20. Man-cession 10 of 10
    20. Man-cession
    Signs point to an increasing trend of fathers being more involved. In the mid 2000's the economy deteriorates rapidly, resulting in unemployment rates among men 50% higher than that of women. Male dominated jobs in construction and manufacturing are hit the hardest. Women in a major portion of US homes are the lone breadwinners. As many men are left or choose to raise the children, the rise in stay-at-home dads gains attention on a national level.

* * *

Ron Mattocks is a father of five (3 sons, 2 stepdaughters) and author of the book, Sugar Milk: What One Dad Drinks When He Can’t Afford Vodka. He blogs at Clark Kent’s Lunchbox, and lives in Houston with his wife, Ashley, who eternally mocks his fervor for Coldplay.


Photo Credits: Wiki Commons; #10 Freerangephotos


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