Did the Industrial Revolution Disrupt the American Family?
The Industrial Revolution had a profound impact on American life economically, politically, and socially. It affected every facet of American society from the political and economic structures of the country to the family unit. Historians, however, have varying viewpoints on whether the Industrial Revolution disrupted the American family. One point of view, represented by Elaine Tyler May, is that it disrupted the American family because the changing lifestyle that resulted put enormous pressure on men to provide adequately for their wives and children, which led to the breakup of many families. The opposing point of view, represented by Jacquelyn Hall, Robert Korstad, and James Leloudis, is that it did not disrupt the American family because in some parts of the country such as the south, many families were still able to live and work together in ways that were similar to how they lived and worked on their farms. Given the available data cited by May on divorces during this period, I subscribe to the point of view that the Industrial Revolution disrupted the American family. The problem with Hall’s argument is that it is supported by examples that are too narrow to generalize for the country as a whole.
May argues that the mass production and consumption of goods which resulted from the Industrial Revolution, as well as the changing lifestyle and widespread prosperity put enormous pressure on men to provide for their wives and children. To make matters worse, many of these men who were skilled tradesmen could not find work because factories were mass producing, and there was no job security for those who had jobs because of the weakness of the labor unions at that time. This pressure, she reasons, which came mostly from discontented wives who may have experienced heightened frustrations due to the affluence around them, led to a dramatic increase in the rate of divorce by 1920, compared to the...
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