by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (Sheila O’Connor-Ambrose, ed.)
ISI Books, 2008, 225 pp., $25Family and Civilization
by Carle C. Zimmerman (James Kurth, ed.)
ISI books, 2008, 425 pp., $18
The deluge of criticism that followed Senator John McCain’s nomination of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate was at least ostensibly about her lack of experience, her parochialism or her strong pro-life stance. It was said that she simply lacked the political résumé to be one heartbeat away from the presidency. However, her pro-life views were no different from McCain’s (or George W. Bush’s or Ronald Reagan’s), and her political experience was not noticeably less than that claimed by the top of the Democratic ticket—which amounted to some community organizing and brief stints in the Illinois legislature and U.S. Senate—nor less than that of many past vice-presidential candidates. Without rehearsing the entire Palin brouhaha, I would suggest that the subtext of the most virulent of the Palin animus was simply that she was the mother of five children.
Mother of five: This was something the national media and intelligentsia could barely fathom, much less abide. It was to them beyond the pale of the socially acceptable. Sally Quinn, the Washington Post writer and society doyenne, gave the game away in several blog posts in which she referred to Palin’s “particular family situation” and, in case we didn’t get that hint, Quinn reminded us that Palin—for God’s sake!—“is the mother of five children.” The ever sober columnist Ruth Marcus, also of the Washington Post, complained that “many working moms wince at the thought of a vice-presidential mother of five.” In a day and age when college-educated women born between 1960 and 1964—the cohort, along with their husbands, who comprised the most vocal opposition to Palin—are having a mere 1.6 children on average, it must have seemed as though a barbarian from the hinterlands was poised to storm the gates of their rationally planned families and upset the equipoise of their idyllic suburban existence.
Yet as difficult as this is for the prim and well-educated to believe, it may precisely be large families not entirely unlike the Palins who safeguard this country’s vitality. At least that was the position of the late Carle Zimmerman, a Harvard sociologist whose treatise Family and Civilization, first published in 1947, was recently reissued by ISI Books. Zimmerman argued that larger families foster the ideal of “familism”, which by providing a stable social structure enables a civilization to flourish. And he worried that family breakdown and low birth rates ultimately endangered Western civilization.
Zimmerman’s book is not exactly a classic, but it does remind us of some important issues—ones that have become increasingly difficult to broach in our hyper-individualistic society. His book is also valuable for raising these issues from the standpoint of sociology, not religion, for today, alas, the “family values” card is played mainly by religious conservatives. This has cast certain aspects of public policy into an excessively partisan mold and shortchanged the broadly social stakes of the debate.
Consider these remarkable facts: The birth rate in Europe averages 1.5, well under the replacement level of 2.1. The United States is slightly above replacement levels, but that is mainly because of the higher birth rates among its large immigrant populations. Even within their own ancestral lands Western peoples may soon be outnumbered by non-Westerners, many of whom either resist assimilation or feel excluded from mainstream culture, especially in Europe. One does not have to be a proponent of the late Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory, or an admirer of his last book Who Are We? (2004), to conclude that the numbers don’t look good. One also does not have to be a racist to be concerned. The issue, properly understood, has nothing to do with race, since the numbers pose as much of a problem in the long run for America’s admirably multicultural society as a whole. If the West fails to cultivate larger families, its economic prosperity, social vibrancy and world standing ultimately will be threatened.
Rich in historical detail, Zimmerman’s book demonstrates that this is hardly the first time in history that a highly civilized culture has faced decline because of low birth rates and a weakened family system. The decay of family life in Greece, beginning in the fourth century BCE and lasting well into the second century, led to that civilization’s defeat at the hands of Rome. Zimmerman cites Polybius’s eyewitness account of that decline, which could equally apply to America today:
In our time the whole of Greece has been subject to a low birth-rate and a general decrease of the population, owing to which cities have become deserted and the land has ceased to yield fruit, although there have neither been continuous wars nor epidemics. If then, any one had advised us to send and ask the gods about this, and find out what we ought to say or do to increase in number and make our cities more populous, would it not seem absurd, the cause of the evil being evident and the remedy being in our own hands? For as men had fallen into such a state of pretentiousness, avarice, and indolence that they do not wish to marry, or if they married to rear the children born to them, or at most have one or two of them, so as to leave these in affluence and bring them up to waste their substance, the evil rapidly and insensibly grew.
Moving from ancient Greece to modern America, Zimmerman’s sweeping survey of the Western family uncovers three fluctuating types of family life: the trustee, the domestic and the atomistic. The trustee family, the most powerful type, characterized barbarian cultures, the Homeric period of Greece, the Dark Ages and parts of modern Appalachia. It is based on blood vengeance and clan rule. The family is thought to exist in perpetuity; hence family members do not constitute the family but are merely temporary “trustees” of something much larger, older and more powerful than themselves (and the state).
The second type, the basis of all highly developed civilization in Zimmerman’s view, is the “domestic” family. Dominating the middle periods of Greek, Roman and American civilizations, the domestic family arises out of, and is a correction of, the trustee family. The domestic family is what we today think of as the traditional family, one in which the husband and wife stay married and are devoted to childbearing and childrearing. The domestic family is sustained in large part by the state, and in the case of Europe in the Middle Ages, by the church, through pro-family laws and policies. “No great civilization”, Zimmerman warns, “has endured for any length of time without paying considerable attention to the organization, promulgation, and protection of the domestic family.”
Finally, the third family type is the “atomistic” one, which typically follows upon the decay of the domestic family. Instead of attending to familial obligations and childbearing, parents now care more about their own happiness. Indeed, the family itself becomes purely optional—one choice among many—and consequently is greatly diminished. In Zimmerman’s telling, atomistic societies become ripe for defeat by stronger, more communitarian cultures. Western Roman civilization was defeated in short order by northern European barbarians (after having come in the fourth and fifth centuries to base marriage on mere convenience and to view children as a liability). In response to the decline of his times, St. Augustine appealed to “proles, fides and sacramentum” (children, fidelity and unity) as the mission of family life. Yet it was not until the 12th century that the domestic family re-emerged, strengthened by the church and centered around Augustine’s three poles. The domestic family reigned until the ideas of the Enlightenment, Zimmerman argued, but its foundations began to erode starting in the 18th century.
If Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization provides any consolation of sorts, it’s that our present crisis has been unfolding for a long time, stretching back to the ideas of 17th- and 18th-century social contract theorists such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. Social contract theory recast the state as a purely consensual and secular arrangement. It thereby followed that family life (which had largely been modeled after the state—think Filmer’s Patriarcha) ought to be consensual and secular, too. Marriage, beginning with the Puritans, eventually came to be redefined as a civil rather than religious institution, and the individual was liberated not only from ecclesiastical authority but from family tradition as well. This meant that individuals in modern America would marry (and remain together) for love alone, as the old legal, moral and religious strictures fell into desuetude. According to Zimmerman, the only remaining source of familism would be proles (childbearing) insofar as it “creates resistances to the breaking-up of the marriage.” A couple with many children (by which Zimmerman seems to mean three or more) inexorably achieves fides and sacramentum by default, if not by intent. And by Zimmerman’s account, our future rests in the hands of these families, around one-fourth of the population, who are responsible for re-peopling the earth and perpetuating the institutions that uphold Western civilization.
Parents heading up large families may love and adore their children, but they carry on a rather difficult task. They are a minority of the population, they are surrounded by couples with fewer burdens both financial and emotional, and they are often stymied in their careers, which they are not able to singularly pursue. Often, parents of many children are looked upon as being irresponsible for inflicting burdens on the rest of society. Just recently, Nancy Pelosi defended the inclusion of hundreds of millions of dollars in the economic stimulus package to expand family planning services, noting that these would “reduce costs.” “The states are in terrible fiscal budget crises now and part of what we do for children’s health, education and some of those elements are to help the states meet their financial needs . . . . No apologies for that. We have to deal with the downturn in our economy”, said Pelosi, herself the mother of five grown children. Zimmerman notes that, “when familism is distinctly weak in a society, all the cultural elements take on an anti-family tinge.”
To be sure, American culture today is marked by a sense of child-friendliness in the baby “bumps” we celebrate and the “Toys ‘R Us” and “Baby Mozart” universe we live in. It is certainly more child-friendly than the culturally kindred advanced societies of Europe. But it seems geared toward families who have only one or two children, the “fashionably small family”, as Zimmerman put it long ago. A 2007 Gallup Poll asked Americans what they think is “the ideal number of children to have” and found that nearly 60 percent believed one or two children is ideal, with only 30 percent preferring three or more. Parents, and women in particular, are able to pursue their individual career goals more fully with fewer children in the nest, or so most people believe. With one or two children, parents can lavish more attention on each child and provide the best educational toys, schools (starting with preschool), extracurricular activities and, in general, stay on top of any “issues”, as we put it today, that a child may have. Intensive parenting just isn’t as feasible in large families, or so the current consensus supposes.
Having fewer children—or none at all—thus seems today like the socially and environmentally responsible thing to do to preserve civilization contra Zimmerman. And indeed, the idea of high civilization being preserved by great individuals free from familial obligations has a long pedigree—think of all the childless great philosophers, composers, writers and artists. One thinks of Sir Francis Bacon’s implicit dismissal of familism in this well-known passage from his Essays:
The perpetuity by generation is common to beasts; but memory, merit, and noble works, are proper to men. And surely a man shall see the noblest works and foundations have proceeded from childless men; which have sought to express the images of their minds, where those of their bodies have failed. So the care of posterity is most in them, that have no posterity.
Here was perhaps the first argument made for valuing career over children and family, and its influence, at least in elite circles, persists. One of Zimmerman’s points is that the elites, who are responsible for promoting familism for the rest of society, have ceased to understand what it means, for they have little experience of it themselves.
Though Zimmerman’s analysis of family life remains relevant, he wrote Family and Civilization before three related watershed developments transformed family life in ways he could not have foreseen: the emergence of modern feminism, the advent of the birth control pill, and the legalization and mainstreaming of abortion. Nowadays premarital (but mostly non-procreative) sex has become the norm, the housewife has nearly disappeared as more and more women opt for professional careers, and abortion has gone mainstream (more than 50 million abortions have been performed since Roe v. Wade). Marriage rates and birth rates among married people are at historic lows, and divorce and illegitimacy rates are high (50 percent and 40 percent, respectively). The atomistic family that Zimmerman fussed about in the 1940s must now seem like the very rock of stability.
The late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese tackles just these issues in her posthumously published book Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die. Fox-Genovese, who died in 2007, was a professor of history at Emory University (and founding director of the Women’s Studies Program until she was forced to resign for not actively opposing Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination). It must be said that Fox-Genovese speaks with particular authority on these issues, having begun her academic career as a pro-choice, Marxist feminist who over time became disillusioned by the direction that feminist thought had taken, particularly its embrace of abortion and the sexual revolution. She converted to Catholicism later in life, and the teachings of the church on the sanctity of life and distinct, complementary roles for men and women inform her analysis of the family. If this background gives her analysis an edge lacking in Zimmerman’s scholarly and mostly dispassionate treatise, it also limits her reach.
Fox-Genovese is one of the few feminists who sees that all the celebrated gains she herself supported—greater freedom for women in sex, marriage, reproduction and the workplace—have come at a great cost for family life, costs that Fox-Genovese believes could have been avoided. For example, no-fault divorce may have enabled women to exit from unhappy marriages, but it has also disproportionately hurt less affluent women, whose income drops precipitously upon divorce, even as they have custody of the children. Fox-Genovese is especially concerned about the role that abortion plays in degrading the relationship between the sexes. In her view such abortion decisions as Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (along with the Pill)
delivered the knockout punch to the notion that man should be expected to marry a woman he impregnated. Not for nothing did Casey piously affirm that women had become accustomed to working to support themselves; the justices seemed determined officially to liberate men and the state from any lingering obligation to do so.
No-fault divorce, the Pill, abortion-on-demand: Such innovations may have freed women from a certain level of unhappiness, but so did they chip away at what was left of even Zimmerman’s atomistic family and, more importantly, the distinctive sense of moral restraint that women once possessed. By necessity, to be sure, women once resisted, more so than men at least, loveless or uncommitted sex, and as Fox-Genovese argues, women, more so than men, have traditionally been more in tune with an ethos of sacrifice and self-abnegation, putting others, especially their children, before themselves. All of which is to say that women alone maintained the stability, such as it was, of the atomistic family described by Zimmerman. Once it was the sacred church and mighty state that maintained the ethos of familism; now this great responsibility fell to the housewife alone. Women had become, in certain respects, liberal democracy’s last and only aristocrats in the special sense that they took responsibility for cultivating faith, loyalty, honor and sacrifice. They were the family’s last pillar of support.
But the family, as we know, has now lost this pillar too, as women became empowered by their new rights to abortion, premarital sex and careers. In short, they could be, one might say, as selfish as men. Today the family has become more truly atomistic, resembling to an increasing degree the atomism, even the radical individualism, of postmodern society at large.1
The atomizing trends of modern family life, as both Zimmerman and Fox-Genovese demonstrate, are deep-rooted and, in their views, unfortunate. Both share an antipathy toward modernity’s freeing the individual and the family from the authority of religion and other traditional social structures—guilds, for example. It would seem that both might favor a return to the Middle Ages, or at least to a time when the individual was subsumed under the authority of the church and the ever-watchful eyes of strong communities. Fox-Genovese, for example, decries that we live in times where the “primacy of the convenience and comfort of the individual” is the highest good, and contrasts this circumstance unfavorably with the way traditional societies wisely “rejected individual judgment as an appropriate guide for behavior.” The arranged marriages of traditional societies, she argues, were more successful than modern ones based on love and sexual attraction. And, had he lived long enough to behold the contrast, Zimmerman might have added that, counterintuitive as it may seem, large families in stable communities were and remain less liable to go into debt than small ones in atomistic societies that tend to over-invest in (read: “spoil”) their children. In some respects, at least, children really are “cheaper by the dozen.”
One can’t help admiring the deep religious faith that informs Fox-Genovese’s critique of our lax social mores—a critique that points to a more beautiful and nobler alternative. But we Americans live in a thoroughly modern, secular nation. There will be no return to arranged marriages, and it’s probably a good thing, too. To reject this obvious fact seems self-defeating. Instead of harkening back to pre-modern societies to strengthen the family, we should strive to find new solutions. The day when the church and the state could nurture familism without popular obstruction seems long since gone. Most of our religions have become as liberal as our public creed as they have turned ineluctably into voluntary associations, and the best the modern state can do in this area is to provide tax credits for families with children. Let it do so, by all means.
If there is to be a resurgence of familism, I suspect it will emerge from its original source, from women. They were once the pillars of familism, and they could be so again. Various polls have indicated that many women beyond child-bearing ages look back and wish that they had borne more children, but didn’t because of the difficulties of juggling work and home. We should create policies that tap into women’s desire to have children and accommodate their career goals. We might consider, for example, policies that encourage women to marry and have children younger, and return to the workforce or continue their educational goals when the children are older. Neil Gilbert suggests such an approach in this issue—one that avoids today’s acute conflict between personal career ambitions and the desire to have more children.
I may be overly optimistic, but I can imagine a new feminist ethic emerging among a new generation of women, one that would value the work of raising larger families as much as work in one’s career, and a new social policy that would accommodate these goals. The result would renew familism within the modern horizon—and strengthen not only American families, but American society as a whole.
1The radical individualism of American society is also a jumping off point for Andrew J. Cherlin’s analysis in his recent book, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today (Knopf, 2008).