The family is at the center of contemporary political debates involving social policies, gender roles, citizenship, marriage, and the role of the state. Politicians and commentators frequently invoke a mythical American family, one that is conflict-free, independent, and unchanging. These idealized depictions mask a far more complicated and richer historical reality of the development of family structures in the U.S. This course will examine both the diverse experiences of actual families in the American past, and changing ideologies about the family and its social role. We will examine in particular immigration, reproduction and childrearing, sexuality, work, leisure, and consumption. We will maintain a sustained focus on changing constructions of race, ethnicity, gender and class and the interactions of these social relations with social structures including the labor and housing markets, immigration and naturalization law, and the educational system. Through this exploration, we will see both how social structures including the family shaped individuals’ experiences, and how historical actors responded to and changed these structures. We will also gain a better understanding of what’s at stake in today’s debates about the family, and will conclude by asking how contemporary social policies could better address the needs of all families.
Course work includes readings, lectures, and active participation in discussion. Each student will have the opportunity to write a ten-page paper analyzing an aspect of his or her family history, or to complete an alternative research paper. Additionally, there will be regularly assigned short writing assignments, and two in-class exams, with identifications and essay components.