Cade Richmond: A History of the Family

Families have offered a nexus of care and resources to offspring throughout modern history. Looking into how family structures have changed over time provides insight into not only how some families were legitimized and some were not. Families accumulate wealth within a concentrated network, serve as a primary mode of socialization, and act as a safety net in difficult times. However, an examination of the law surrounding family formation exposes the myriad ways in which some forms receive state legitimization, and how others do not. The United States has a historically proscribed some family forms in a way that pushed individuals into a definitive family form that aligned with the state’s ideal form. Many understand this form as the nuclear family. The nuclear family entails a two-parent household, traditionally a heterosexual couple, that produces genetically related offspring. Within this unit, there exists a division of labor that subscribes to normative gender definitions in which one parent maintains the private domestic sphere, while the other gathers wages in the public sphere. A legal history of the family exposes how this traditional family structure was the one most favorable to the patriarchal state. Developments in gender and same-sex equality have worked to dismantle the nuclear family form, but the law continues to privilege this traditional family form at the disadvantage of single people, same-sex couples, people of color, and families that trouble in conceiving children. The paper aims to examine the ways in which the law works to favor the nuclear family to the detriment of other family forms.

Research has proved fruitful. The current outline involves an introduction to the issue surrounding the law’s legitimization of the nuclear family. A history of the various family forms that have faced legal discrimination follows. The paper will discuss restrictions against slave families in the early United States, issues with a legal separation in the nineteenth-century, anti-miscegenation policies in the twentieth century, and the predominately nuclear family form in the mid-twentieth century. Next, the project will look into more contemporaneous issues like same-sex marriage, state welfare restrictions, and adoption discrimination. This section on contemporary issues will shine a light on how the state has persisted in its privileging of the nuclear family. The following section will have data charts that map the landscape of modern families, looking at how the nuclear family does not have supremacy any longer and thinking about why policies continue to favor this family unit. The final section will conclude the paper and attempt to offer future solutions.