The Myth of the ‘Traditional Family’

Women’s role was defined by the literary market; telling women their responsibilities as mothers and how to bring up their children. Telling them through books, magazines, and other literature; what their social roles were, what education was appropriate for them, and the etiquette they were to follow. These literary writings became their canon of domesticity. It contrasted the home and the outside world. It created the gender roles of women in the home “to please and to serve” and of men as “fierce warriors.” (Nancy F. Cott, Domesticity, Fox, 1993, p.114-118)

Portrait of a happy familyMale, middle-class legislators, used the state to defend marriage, restrict divorce, and perpetuate their vision of the family in the years leading up to World War I. (James Snell) Thus, the state has exercised relatively unilateral control over family behavior through schools, legislation, and policing.

The canon of domesticity was supposedly a protest against the advance of exploitation and pecuniary values. It accommodated and promised to temper organization of work. Women’s domestic role was to absorb, palliate and to redeem the strain of social and economic transformation. Women were still required to sustain task-oriented work as in earlier family organization–it directed them to a special sort of usefulness. The paradox of domesticity was that women’s work-roles imitated men’s. Her domestic occupations meant to her, what worldly occupations meant to her husband–although without his means of escape. The canon of domesticity makes women’s household occupation ‘her world,’ her vocation. Society (books, education, institutions…) rationalized her work as a ‘profession’; she was neither greater than, nor less than man, but different.

In the past twenty or thirty years, feminists have opened up new areas of paid work and education to women. They have encouraged the state to provide daycare, for paid working mothers, and have brought to the forefront the inequalities and oppression of women in our society. New forms of birth control have also revolutionized sexuality. Many couples are now living together before marriage, or are not marrying at all. These significant changes for family, including the increasing divorce rate, push us towards a nostalgia for the traditional values–of a couple married for life. Of a husband who worked, and wife who took care of house duties, children, and in some cases, elders. Living on a farm, with a dog… a storybook life–where some days were challenging, but everything was ‘perfect.’ These ideals do correspond to the reality of some families, but they are not traditional, since they have not always existed, and have not represented the majority of families for more than small amounts of time in history.

Thus, families are social institutions, woven in a variety of ways into the society and economy of their times. They contain particular beliefs and practices, of the individuals living together and the broader norms about the rights, responsibilities, and roles of each member–varying with people’s gender, class, and ethnic tradition. “The more rapidly economic, social, or ideological changes occur, the more likely the kinds of family that is believed to have predominated before will appear to be traditional.” (Bettina Bradbury, Canadian Family History, Mississauga: Copp, 1992 p.1-9)

Families remain products of ideologies (such as gender differences, heterosexuality, romantic love, kinship, motherhood, and familism), of legal practice (such as marriage laws and contracts), and of economic organization (such as gender inequality of the labor market).


  • Bettina Bradbury, Canadian Family History, Mississauga: Copp, 1992
  • Nancy F. Cott, Domesticity, Fox, 1993
  • Bonnie J. Fox, Family Patterns Gender Relations, Oxford University Press, 1993
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About Jennifer Washington