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The extended family is in our lives again. This should make all the people happy who were complaining back in the sixties and seventies that the reason family life was so hard, especially on mothers, was that the nuclear family had replaced the extended family.... Your basic extended family today includes your ex-husband or -wife, your ex's new mate, your new mate, possibly your new mate's ex, and any new mate that your new mate's ex has acquired. It consists entirely of people who are not related by blood, many of whom can't stand each other. This return of the extended family reminds me of the favorite saying of my friend's extremely pessimistic mother: Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. -DELIA EPHRON, Funny Sauce
In the summer of 1986 I attended a wedding ceremony in a small pentecostal church in the Silicon Valley. The service celebrated the same "traditional" family patterns and values that two years earlier had inspired a "profamily" movement to assist Ronald Reagan's landslide reelection to the presidency of the United States. At the same time, however, the pastor's rhetoric displayed substantial sympathy with feminist criticisms of patriarchal marriage. "A ring is not a shackle, and marriage is not a relationship of domination," he instructed the groom. Moreover, complex patterns of divorce, remarriage, and stepkinship linked the members of the wedding party and their guests-patterns that resembled the New Age extended family satirized by Delia Ephron far more than the "traditional" family that arouses the nostalgic fantasies so widespread among religious and other social critics of contemporary family practices.
In the final decades before the twenty-first century, passionate contests over changing family life in the United States have polarized vast numbers of citizens. Outside the Supreme Court of the United States, righteous, placard-carrying Right-to-Lifers square off against feminists and civil libertarians demonstrating their anguish over the steady dismantling of women's reproductive freedom. On the same day in July 1989, New York's highest court expanded the legal definition of "family" in order to extend rent control protection to gay couples and a coalition of conservative clergymen in San Francisco blocked implementation of their city's new "domestic partners" ordinance. "It is the totality of the relationship," proclaimed the New York judge, "as evidenced by the dedication, caring, and self-sacrifice of the parties which should, in the final analysis, control," the definition of family. But just this concept of family is anathema to "profamily" activists. Declaring that the attempt by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to grant legal status to unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples "arbitrarily redefined the time-honored and hallowed nature of the family," the clergymen's petition was signed by sufficient citizens to force the ordinance into a referendum battle. When the reckoning came in November 1989, the electorate of the city many consider to be the national capital of family change had narrowly defeated the domestic partners law. One year later, a similar referendum won a narrow victory.
Betraying a good deal of conceptual and historical confusion, most popular, as well as many scholarly, assessments of family change anxiously and misguidedly debate whether or not "the family" will survive the twentieth century at all. Anxieties like these are far from new. "For at least 150 years," historian Linda Gordon writes, "there have been periods of fear that 'the family'-meaning a popular image of what families were supposed to be like, by no means a correct recollection of any actual 'traditional' family-was in decline; and these fears have tended to escalate in periods of social stress." The actual subject of this recurring, fretful discourse is a historically specific form and concept of family life, one that most historians identify as the "modern family." No doubt, many of us who write and teach about American family life have not abetted public understanding of family change with our counter-intuitive use of the concept of the modern family. The "modern family" of sociological theory and historical convention designates a family form no longer prevalent in the United States-an intact nuclear household unit composed of a male breadwinner, his full-time homemaker wife, and their dependent children-precisely the form of family life that many mistake for an ancient, essential, and now endangered institution.
The past three decades of postindustrial social transformations in the United States have rung the historic curtain on the "modern family" regime. In 1950 three-fifths of American households contained male breadwinners and full-time female homemakers, whether children were present or not. By 1986, in contrast, more than three-fifths of married women with children under the age of eighteen were in the labor force, and only 7 percent of households conformed to the "modern" pattern of breadwinning father, homemaking mother, and one to four children under the age of eighteen. By the middle of the 1970s, moreover, divorce outstripped death as the source of marital dissolutions, generating in its wake a complex array of family arrangements caricatured by Delia Ephron in the epigraph. The diversity of contemporary gender and kinship relationships undermines Tolstoy's famous contrast between happy and unhappy families: even happy families no longer are all alike! No longer is there a single culturally dominant family pattern, like the modern one, to which the majority of Americans conform and most of the rest aspire. Instead, Americans today have crafted a multiplicity of family and household arrangements that we inhabit uneasily and reconstitute frequently in response to changing personal and occupational circumstances.
Recombinant Family Life
We are living, I believe, through a tumultuous and contested period of family history, a period following that of the modern family order but preceding what, we cannot foretell. Precisely because it is not possible to characterize with a coherent descriptive term the competing sets of family cultures that coexist at present, I identify this family regime as postmodern. I do this, despite my reservations about employing such a controversial and elusive cultural concept, to signal the contested, ambivalent, and undecided character of contemporary gender and kinship arrangements. "What is the post-modern?" Clive Dilnot asks rhetorically in the title of a detailed discussion of literature on postmodern culture, and his answers apply readily to the domain of present family conditions in the United States. The postmodern, Dilnot maintains, "is first, an uncertainty, an insecurity, a doubt." Most of the "post-" words provoke uneasiness because they imply simultaneously "both the end, or at least the radical transformation of, a familiar pattern of activity or group of ideas," and the emergence of "new fields of cultural activity whose contours are still unclear and whose meanings and implications... cannot yet be fathomed." The postmodern, moreover, is "characterized by the process of the linking up of areas and the crossing of the boundaries of what are conventionally considered to be disparate realms of practice."
Like postmodern culture, contemporary family arrangements in the United States are diverse, fluid, and unresolved. The "postmodern family" is not a new model of family life equivalent to that of the "modern family"; it is not the next stage in an orderly progression of family history, but the stage in that history when the belief in a logical progression of stages breaks down. Rupturing the teleology of modernization narratives that depict an evolutionary history of the family, and incorporating both experimental and nostalgic elements, the postmodern family lurches forward and backward into an uncertain future.
Family Revolutions and Vanguard Classes
Two centuries ago leading white middle-class families in the newly united American states spearheaded a family revolution that gradually replaced the diversity and fluidity of the premodern domestic order with a more uniform and hegemonic modern family system. But "modern family" was an oxymoronic label for this peculiar institution, which dispensed modernity to white middle-class men only by withholding it from women. The former could enter the public sphere as breadwinners and citizens because their wives were confined to the newly privatized family realm. Ruled by an increasingly absent patriarchal landlord, the modern middle-class family, a woman's domain, soon was sentimentalized as "traditional."
It took most of the subsequent two centuries for substantial numbers of white working-class men to achieve the rudimentary economic passbook to "modern" family life-a male breadwinner family wage. By the time they had done so, however, a second family revolution was well underway. Once again, middle-class white families appeared to be in the vanguard. This time women like myself were claiming the benefits and burdens of modernity, a status we could achieve only at the expense of the "modern family" itself. Reviving a long-dormant feminist movement, frustrated middle-class homemakers and their more militant daughters subjected modern domesticity to a sustained critique, at times with little sensitivity to the effects that our anti-modern-family ideology might have on women for whom full-time domesticity had rarely been feasible. Thus, feminist family reform came to be regarded widely as a white middle-class agenda, and white working-class families were thought to be its most resistant adversaries.
I shared these presumptions before I conducted fieldwork among families in Santa Clara County, California. My work in the "Silicon Valley" radically altered my understanding of the class basis of the postmodern family revolution. Once a bucolic agribusiness orchard region, during the 1960s and 1970s this county became the global headquarters of the electronics industry, the world's vanguard postindustrial region. While economic restructuring commanded global attention, most outside observers overlooked concurrent gender and family changes that preoccupied many residents. During the late 1970s, before the conservative shift in the national political climate made "feminism" seem a derogatory term, local public officials proudly described San Jose, the county seat, as a feminist capital. The city elected a feminist mayor and hosted the statewide convention of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1974. Santa Clara County soon became one of the few counties in the nation to elect a female majority to its board of supervisors. And in 1981, high levels of feminist activism made San Jose the site of the nation's first successful strike for a comparable worth standard of pay for city employees.
During its postindustrial makeover, the Silicon Valley also became a vanguard region for family change, a region whose family and household data represented an exaggeration of national trends. For example, although the national divorce rate doubled after 1960, in Santa Clara County it nearly tripled; "nonfamily households" and single-parent households grew faster than in the nation, and abortion rates were one and one-half the national figures. The high casualty rate for marriages of workaholic engineers was dubbed "the silicon syndrome." Many residents shared an alarmist view of the fate of family life in their locale, captured in the opening lines of an article in a local university magazine: "There is an endangered species in Silicon Valley, one so precious that when it disappears Silicon Valley will die with it. This endangered species is the family. And sometimes it seems as if every institution in this valley-political, corporate, and social-is hellbent on driving it into extinction."
The coincidence of epochal changes in occupational, gender, and family patterns make the Silicon Valley a propitious site for exploring ways in which "ordinary" working people have been remaking their families in the wake of postindustrial and feminist challenges. The Silicon Valley is by no means a typical or "representative" U.S. location, but precisely because national postindustrial work and family transformations were more condensed, rapid, and exaggerated there than elsewhere, they are easier to perceive. In contrast to the vanguard image of the Silicon Valley, most of the popular and scholarly literature about white working-class people portrays them as the most traditional group-indeed, as the last bastion of the modern family. Relatively privileged members of the white working class, especially, are widely regarded as the bulwark of the Reagan revolution and the constituency least sympathetic to feminism and family reforms. Those whose hold on the accoutrements of the American dream is so recent and tenuous, it is thought, have the strongest incentives to defend it.
For nearly three years, therefore, between the summer of 1984 and the spring of 1987, I conducted a commuter fieldwork study of two extended kin networks composed primarily of white working people who had resided in Santa Clara County throughout the period of its startling transformation. My research among them convinced me that white middle-class families are less the innovators than the propagandists and principal beneficiaries of contemporary family change. To illustrate the innovative and courageous character of family reconstitution among pink- and blue-collar people, I present radically condensed stories from my book-length ethnographic treatment of their lives.
Remarking Family Life in the Silicon Valley
Two challenges to my class and gender prejudices provoked my turn to ethnographic research and my selection of the two kin groups who became its focus. Pamela Gama, an administrator of social services for women at a Silicon Valley antipoverty agency when I met her in July of 1984, provided the first of these when she challenged my secular feminist preconceptions by "coming out" to me as a recent born-again Christian convert. Pamela was the forty-seven-year- old bride at the Christian wedding ceremony I attended two years later. There she exchanged Christian vows with her second husband, Albert Gama, a construction worker to whom she was already legally wed and with whom she had previously cohabited. Pamela's first marriage (in 1960 to Don Franklin, the father of her three children) lasted fifteen years, spanning the headiest days of Silicon Valley development and the period of Don's successful rise from telephone repairman to electronics packaging engineer.
Excerpted from America at Century's End Copyright © 1991 by Alan Wolfe. Excerpted by permission.
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