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Family History and Gender


Family History and Gender

What does an analysis of family history and gender reveal for a specific time period, geographical location, social class status, and racial/ethnic community? Writing in 1990 about “Beyond Separate Spheres: Feminism and Family Research,” Myra Ferree wrote, “Gender theory explains how specific behaviors and roles are given gendered meanings, how labor is divided to express gender symbolically, and how diverse social structures – rather than just families – incorporate gender values and convey gender advantages” (p. 868). She also emphasized recognizing “the diversity of family forms by race and class.”

I will suggest a few areas family historians might analyze by gender, then give an example of a pattern a historian found in his own family.

Household as distinct from family:
Members of a household may overlap with who is related to whom, but these concepts are not synonymous, such as in the case of divorce or remarriage of a parent. Census records can be used to identify second marriages, servants, hired laborers, multiple families living in one household, boarding houses, and so forth. Ferree points out that the gender significance of households as distinct from family is that they may redefine prevailing gendered conceptions of work and responsibility within the household. For example, an absent parent may take up parenting responsibilities less than or differently from one who is present; a servant likely takes up much of the domestic work. Two unmarried members of the same sex in a household may (or may not) be gay or lesbian. Paying attention to ways in which household membership differ from family can open up questions.

Marriage and childbearing.
It is easy to estimate the ages of spouses from census records, and the number of children they have. Of course, the census does not specify who actually gave birth to (or fathered) the children in the family, obscuring things like adoptions, children born out of wedlock, and so forth. However, one can still get clues as to the relative status of men and women from these data. Depending on cultural context, bearing a large number of children may…

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