A History of Stepfamilies in Early America

A History of Stepfamilies in Early America

A History of Stepfamilies in Early America

A History of Stepfamilies in Early America

Synopsis

Stepfamilies are not a modern phenomenon, but despite this reality, the history of stepfamilies in America has yet to be fully explored. In the first book-length work on the topic, Lisa Wilson examines the stereotypes and actualities of colonial stepfamilies and reveals them to be important factors in early United States domestic history. Remarriage was a necessity in this era, when war and disease took a heavy toll, all too often leading to domestic stress, and cultural views of stepfamilies during this time placed great strain on stepmothers and stepfathers. Both were seen either as unfit substitutes or as potentially unstable influences, and nowhere were these concerns stronger than in white middle-class families, for whom stepparents presented a paradox.

Wilson shares the stories of real stepfamilies in early New England, investigating the relationship between prejudice and lived experience, and, in the end, offers a new way of looking at family units throughout history and the cultural stereotypes that still affect stepfamilies today.

Excerpt

About Cinderella … Charles Perrault, in his Tales of Mother Goose, published the story in 1697 as an adult tale designed to entertain members of the French royal court. By the early nineteenth century, other fairy tales specifically written for children included evil stepmothers. But at first, the Grimm Brothers, at least, had the formula wrong. For example, in their initial version, Snow White explains to the dwarfs that “her mother”—not her stepmother—“had tried to kill her.” a few years later, the Grimms realized their error and revised the story so that “as soon as the child was born, the queen [Snow White’s mother] died,” and the king “took himself another wife.” in this version, Snow White’s stepmother hires the huntsman to kill her stepdaughter.

Likewise, in the Grimms’ first version of Hansel and Gretel, their mother urges their father to abandon them in the woods to save on food, while in the new and improved version, their stepmother becomes the culprit. Stories about evil mothers were no longer conventional by the time of the fourth edition in 1840. Mothers were by definition loving, so the culture gave stepmothers the baggage of cruelty that mothers had left behind.

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