Notes on Ryan
Put together by Stephanie and Chuck
“What’s Love Got to Do With It?”
November 8, 2002

Working thesis for Mary Ryan's Cradle of the Middle Class:

While Mary Ryan sees the transformation of the family between 1790 and 1865 as driven by changes in the economy of the Oneida region, particularly in the separation of work from home life, she argues that primary movers in this process were women, whose behaviors contributed fundamentally to the formation of middle-class life.

I. The corporate household economy

A.                   In traditional New England society, and in the similar kind of community re-established in Utica after the frontier period, few households could operate independently of church and neighbors. There were sharp social hierarchies and wealth differences, but people depended on each other and had few other options other than active engagement with neighbors of all social statuses.

a.        The poor lived as servants or household dependents, where they were bossed around by the household head but also fed, "treated," and frequently trained to succeed to a more independent occupation. 

b.       The propertied classes had land or a trade that they could eventually pass on to their son, but since that had to wait until the dad died or retired, these kids might also, just like the lower class, work in someone else's household, or stay home and do the same work as unrelated servants, farmhands, or apprentices. Such workers were the only labor supply even for the wealthy, so they too were dependent on their neighbors.

c.        The lack of cash reinforced interdependence because exchanges were mostly immediate, in kind, and largely local. At the top and bottom of society, there was a fairly permanent upper class and lower class of slaves, paupers, and a few life time servants, but most people occupied a large (and internally stratified) middle group where dependence and independence seemed to be more related to your age and gender than to your role in economic production.

B.                   Lines of authority in this system were largely external, and obedience, rather than independent judgment, was the primary social and personal value. Households did not police themselves, and people did not have to internalize norms, far less to choose between competing ones. Neighbors, church and community interfered constantly in people's lives and regulated behavior.  So social order was generally predictable. "Do this or be punished. Once punished, get back to work."  (The Samuel Terry example, or points from pp. 39-40 of Ryan, could be used to flesh this out.)

C.                   Within each household, a similar hierarchical interdependence prevailed. Father was the supervisor, the designated representative of the church and community. His wife was his deputy in relation to kids and servants. But the man was almost always around, so he was the central authority in matters of both work and morals. Everyone was viewed as part of the labor force. Order was maintained through this hierarchy, backed by coercion and force if necessary. This was not a male breadwinner family. Women were subordinate to fathers and husbands, but they exercised delegated authority over apprentices, farmhands, servants, and children, and they certainly knew that they pulled their own weight in providing for their families. We wouldn't expect to see much doubt about whether they were "good enough" or "keeping busy" enough to deserve the label of a good wife or mother.

D.                   The family, then, was not a place where one could escape community intrusiveness or work hierarchies. Its organizing principles were paternal authority (backed, but also limited, by the church or town government), duty, and obedience, not love, persuasion, or affection. And you raised your kids to accept both community and household authority. As Ryan put it, neither the community nor the family was a place "conducive to the development of an independent, autonomous self" (p. 42). The most intense emotions, indeed, both positive and negative, seem to have flowed back and forth between neighbors and within congregations, not within the nuclear family.

II. By the 1820s and 1830s, this system was eroding.

A.              Land exhaustion let to out-migration of children, especially sons, who couldn’t inherit. Increasingly, occupations away from the household (in sawmills, factories, general stores, commerce), or training for new white collar jobs in new educational institutions such as Hamilton College drew young people (again, particularly males) away from the traditional household.

B.                   The spread of a market system created a growing need for cash, and fewer people could exist by a combination of their own production and what they bartered with their neighbors.

C.                   As fewer farmers and artisans employed workers in their homes and more people worked for cash, the household organization of production was undermined, and with it, the intergenerational solidarity and unity that used to automatically prevail.

III. These changes increased the opportunities for independent action, both by the lower classes, who were no longer under the daily, personal supervision of their economic and social superiors, and by individual family members in all classes, who were no longer so dependent on the father. While the new opportunities for individual initiative and economic self-sufficiency were attractive to many, they also created several potential problems:

A.                   The new ways of organizing political and economic relations undermined old ways of controlling the lower class, including the authority and power of the church. This led elites to seeks ways of reproducing their older social hegemony by new means. The missionary societies founded by elite ladies aimed to control the morals and beliefs of the lower class the way that the church and town fathers used to, but by persuasion of women, not church trials by men.

B.                   Meanwhile, for the middling farmers and artisans, the progress from dependent worker to independent household head became less certain. Some people became permanent employees who would never own their own farm or business. Others became owners of shops and businesses that their sons would inherit. Those who couldn't quite make the latter but thought they had some possibility of avoiding the former needed to find new ways of achieving a middling position in the economy, where they could have more independence and security, and more chance for advancement, then by working in factory settings or construction along the canal. Middle class parents could help their kids prepare themselves for better occupations if they could socialize their kids into doing the kind of long-term preparation – schooling, personal networking, development of a good reputation – that helped entry into middle-class jobs. But the old ways of getting both fathers and children to toe the line no longer worked. There were many new choices and competing values in the diversifying economy, some of which might tempt people into actions that would jeopardize their long-run chance of advancement.

C.                   The erosion of patriarchy within families led women in particular to worry about how to help their husbands and prepare their children to make the right choices – the prudent choices that would help them get into new occupations, even if they had to defer more immediate gratifications and temptations. This is why, Ryan argues, it was women who wept and prayed and nagged and cajoled as they led their families into the revivals. With men increasingly preoccupied with work outside the home, and less available to socialize kids, women had to take on a job they formerly hadn't been in charge of, and develop new ways of binding their children, since patriarchal coercion or the carrot of land inheritance no longer worked.

IV.   The solution to these problems in maintaining social, familial, and interpersonal order was not immediately obvious, and people looked for new ways to re-assert community controls over personal life that had broken down. Women in particular flocked to revivals and female associations in a search for new moral principles that could reconcile the growing individual initiative required of people with the need for social and familial order. In the process, probably unconsciously at first, they began to reverse the moral hierarchies of the past, for it was women who led their husbands and sons into these revivals.

A.                 The associations of the 1830s and 1840s helped people re-conceptualize the organizing principles of both society and family. For the emerging new middle class, the key was to substitute an internalized, personal moral order for the one that had formerly been laid down from above. Middle-class women were especially concerned about how to instill these values in their children, so they turned to secular groups, such as maternal associations, for mutual support and advice. As authors of the day insisted, in contrast to the older stress on obeying rules and accepting punishment if you didn't, "a good character must be...built by our individual exertions" (quoted in Ryan, p. 147). How, moms asked each other, could they inspire their children to exert themselves in this way?  They tried to develop a set of values that could protect their children from the temptations they might meet, and the poor choices they would make, if they tried to emulate either the independently wealthy class or the working class.

B.                   In the process, a new set of ideas began to emerge in the middle class about the roles of each gender and also about the aims and methods of child rearing. As the social relations within the productive household "dissolved" and the moral values of obedience and duty no longer served a more autonomous way of life, people experienced a deep crisis in society.  A complex set of responses involving both men and women, led to what Ryan terms a "domestication" of religion and a the hope that through persuasion, if not in actual positions of authority, women could address this crisis.  What began as a campaign to "save the souls" of children through their relationship to their mothers developed into the domestic role of the nurturing mother to set the child's soul in order from birth on, to "build character."  As the work of the associations progressed, religious revivalism and campaigns to convert the wicked evolved into what we would see as self-help groups.

V.  But the associations, especially the ones based on moral reform, raised their own set of problems.

A.                   They caused conflict between moral crusaders and working people who resented their moralizing, possibly exacerbating social tensions rather than reproducing the moral order the middle class had in mind. They even caused tensions within the middle class, between female reformers and young men, who formed their own associations and thought the women should stop preaching at them. They were perfectly capable, argued groups such as the YMCA or the clerks' associations, of developing middle-class values and virtues on their own. Moral reform associations also began to expose the limits and contradictions of the new morality, tempting some women into more radical ideas or actions than others had in mind.

B.                   In addition, the increased diversity of the population, as immigration and urbanization increased, made such social control more difficult, and also made middle- class reformers, especially women, nervous about being in the public sphere.

C.                   Finally, as middle-class occupations became more competitive after the Civil War, relying less on social networking and more on personal skills and training, families became more concerned with their own personal trajectory, less interested in mobilizing outside the home, even with other families of the same class. This is the period when people began to preach that "charity begins at home."
VI.                In consequence, after mid-century, there was a tendency for reform movements to lose momentum, and for middle-class women in particular to withdraw from public mobilizations, nurturing within the bosom of their own family the traits they had learned in associations and revivals. The behaviors and morals they encouraged in the new Male-breadwinner - Domestic-mother family included the following:
A.                   Fertility restriction, along with a new emphasis on female purity and male sexual self-control.

B.                   Intense mother-child bonds, and childrearing techniques designed to sharpen an internal sense of morals, violation of which led to guilt.

C.                   Emphasis on schooling for boys, followed by slow ascent into middle-class occupations, often achieved by postponing marriage and living at home with parents longer. Boys were expected to develop the kind of reputation that would help them find a benefactor, win the trust of an employer to fill a responsible position, or get them granted credit to begin a business. Girls were expected to inspire them to stick to this process.

D.                   A new stress on self-sacrifice for girls, many of whom helped subsidize their brothers' education by taking over the role of contributing to family income. (Look for the tensions in women who enjoy the independence of such work when they get it but must prepare themselves for their eventual withdrawal into the more restricted world of marriage.)

E.                    Wives were the mediators between production and consumption. They were no longer seen as fellow workers but as coordinators of the family schedule who worked out the proper balance between thrift, consumption, and investment in the future. As wife, women gained new status as man's inspiration and comfort, and as the mother of his children, though she was also viewed as weak and helpless in all other realms, a person who might be driven mad by exerting herself beyond her sphere. As mother, a womanÕs role was to cement the children to the family and its class status through her intense love and close moral supervision. The old social functions of the church and the community in regulating family relations were divided between the mother and the school. Moms took over all the personal, individualized aspects of regulation and reproduction, while impersonal institutions such as schools, police, and asylums took over the hierarchical and authoritarian functions.