"Frustrated by the fact that most texts on women treated 'the man's world' as the given and then simply asked where and how women fitted in," Stephanie Coontz writes, "I decided to undertake a survey of American gender roles: that was the starting point of the present book" — The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families 1600–1900, published by Verso in 1988.
Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters, c. 1863-65. via Wikimedia Commons.
As the focus of her research shifted from "woman's private sphere" to the family as a larger arena in which the public and private intersect, Coontz became more attentive to the diversity of household arrangements across time and space. "Stimulated by the burgeoning research into family history," she writes, "I began to look at the family as a culture's way of coordinating personal reproduction with social reproduction — as the socially sanctioned place where male and female reproductive activities condition and are conditioned by the other activities into which human beings enter as they perpetuate a particular kind of society, or try to construct a new one."
Continued from part I.
Detail from Francis William Edmonds' The New Bonnet (1858).
The Limits of Structural and Demographic Analysis
Although it is important to compare demographic trends and household structures and seek their economic correlates, such procedures yield only limited information about the history of families. Olga Linares points out: “Qualitative changes in the meaning of interpersonal obligations may be as important in distinguishing among household types as more easily measured changes in size and form.” Indeed, as Barrington Moore Jr has commented, tabulating structural differences “necessarily involves ignoring all differences except the one being measured.” Changes in social relations and patterns are not “reducible to any quantitative differences; they are incommensurable. Yet it is precisely such differences that matter most to human beings.”47
Mary-Kay Wilmers and Jeremy Harding will be embarking on an east-coast tour of the US this month. This is a rare opportunity for Americans to hear from Mary-Kay Wilmers, author of The Eitingons and editor of the London Review of Books, and Jeremy Harding, author of Mother Country and an LRB contributing editor, on the role of memoir in contemporary letters.
In a recent piece for the Boston Globe, reviewer Amanda Heller reads Jeremy Harding's memoir, Mother Country, as a comment on national character:
If the secrecy surrounding adoption in America has to do with sex, in England, just as revealing of national character, it has to do with class. Harding's quest soon led him to the stunning realization that his own origins were not the only ones his parents had deliberately obscured.
Visit the Boston Globe to read the full review.
The Nation calls Jeremy Harding's Mother Country "a delicate and absorbing account of Harding's investigation into the circumstances of his adoption" in a lovely new review of the book.
John Palattella, The Nation's books editor, goes on to describe how
with persistence and luck, Harding learns his natural mother's identity and discovers, contrary to his belief, that Margaret is alive and living in West London near the housing projects where she was pregnant with him. But the book's big surprise concerns [his adoptive mother] Maureen. From discussions with old friends of Margaret's, Harding learns that there were no Dalmatians or skiing trips for Maureen. Rather, there was a childhood in public housing and later a marriage (her first, and not to Jeremy's adoptive father) that catapulted her from a hardscrabble life into a world of leisure.
Visit the Nation to read the review in full.