The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction
The growth of the inward-turning, child-centered family, sociologists have long told us, is one of the distinguishing features of the transition from “traditional” to modern society. In the last twenty years, this theme has been elaborated with an increasing abundance of documentation by social historians—Philippe Aries, Eli Zaretsky, Edward Shorter, Lawrence Stone, Nancy Cott, and now Carl Degler, to name only those who have attempted large syntheses.
With minor variations from one country to another, the development of the family has followed the same pattern, it appears, throughout the Western world. By the nineteenth century, young people had won the right to marry with a minimum of direct parental interference. Marriage became a union of individuals rather than a union of two lineages. Companionship rather than parental convenience became the goal of matrimony. A new insistence on the innocence and vulnerability of childhood encouraged a growing preoccupation with child-rearing and especially with maternal influence on the child’s development.
In order to give each of their children the advantages to which children were now thought to be entitled, parents deliberately restricted the number of their offspring. Large families gave way to the intimate, private, conjugal unit. A “cult of domesticity” and a strict division of sexual labor—justified by the doctrine of sexual “spheres”—removed women from the world of work but gave them greater control over the family itself. Shorn of its productive functions, the family now specialized in child-rearing and emotional solace, providing a much-needed sanctuary in a world organized around the impersonal principles of the market.1
Drawing on letters and diaries, many of them unpublished; on medical writings; and on the work of other historians (notably Nancy Cott, Linda Gordon, and James C. Mohr), Carl Degler, in his study of the American family, has filled in this conventional picture, modified some of its details, but left its general outlines untouched. His principal contributions, aside from the sheer weight of evidence he has assembled and his even-tempered treatment of issues that too often serve as incitements to riot, come down to three lines of argument. He has successfully challenged the older view that the Victorians surrounded sex with a “conspiracy of silence.” He has shown that Victorian sexual morality, and indeed the whole ideology of domesticity with which it was bound up, was at least in part the creation of women, not a brutal patriarchal ideology designed to keep women in their place. And by demonstrating that women took an active part in the transformation of family life, he has made it more difficult than before to think of the family merely as an institution that responds to impersonal socioeconomic “forces.”
The first of these contentions—that the Victorians discussed sex more openly than we have imagined and even took some pleasure in it—has already received a good deal of advance attention. Degler does not argue that the Victorians lived in a sexually permissive paradise, but he denies that they had no understanding of female sexuality. Statements that have…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.