Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Gendered Perceptions of Father Involvement in Early 20th Century America

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Gendered Perceptions of Father Involvement in Early 20th Century America

Article excerpt

As the 20th century comes to a close, increased attention is being directed to measuring continuity and change in men's involvement with children since the early 1900s. And, for lack of other data, self-report surveys from the 1920s and 1930s, heydays in family social science, are being used to provide evidence of what fathers were doing, or not doing, 60 to 70 years ago. While there is no disputing the fact that these older surveys have contributed immensely to our understanding of social life in the past, the question that we raise here is: Should they be considered the definitive word on early 20th century fatherhood? We think the answer has to be no, for one very important reason: The surveys almost always excluded men.

The Middletown Studies (Lynd & Lynd, 1929, 1937), for example, have been used to paint a traditional (role segregated) picture of the division of child care in the 1920s and 1930s (see Caplow, Bahr, Chadwick, Hill, & Williamson, 1982, pp. 150-151; Griswold, 1993, p. 226; Mintz & Kellogg, 1988, pp. 116-117; Pleck, 1987, p. 89). Information on family life in these studies, however, was based almost entirely on interviews with women. Children were interviewed somewhat, and husbands and fathers were occasionally present during the interview sessions--which is why comments from the men can be found in the Middletown volumes (e.g., Lynd & Lynd, 1929, p. 149) and in some historical accounts (see Griswold, 1993, p. 3; Pleck, 1987, p. 89). But, while the interviews with the children were sufficient to support an aggregate analysis, the occasional data from the men were not. Middletown fathers, in other words, were given hardly any attention as subjects.

Similarly, a 1930 White House Conference Study (White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, 1936/1972) has been used to render a traditional description of the division of child care in the early 20th century (see Griswold, 1993, pp. 42, 129, 295, 302). Yet, while the authors of the White House study made a concerted effort to gather information from across the socioeconomic spectrum, they failed to seriously consider the perceptions of men. Indeed, in only about 5% of the cases was a father asked a single question (White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, 1936/1972, p. 344).

Investigators have long recognized that excluding men's reports in family research can pose serious measurement problems because an important "reality," or set of perceptions, ends up missing (see Bernard, 1972, and Safilios-Rothschild, 1969, for two classic statements on this point). It also has been shown that while husbands and wives often will exhibit a partner-centric or credit-giving bias in marriage, idealizing their relationships in the process (Bradbury & Finchman, 1990; Finchman & Bradbury, 1989; Hall & Taylor, 1976; Lavin, 1987), they will display an egocentric or credit-taking bias when it comes to child care (Deutsch, Lozy, & Saxon, 1993). The implication of this finding is that studies that exclude men can underestimate father involvement. Since these methodological axioms apply also to historical research, one would have to assume that histories of fatherhood that ignore or downplay the perceptions of men also run the risk of misjudging the level of paternal care. Simply put, perceptions of father involvement, whether gathered today or in the past, can vary according to the gender of the perceiver (Marsiglio, 1993; see also Furstenberg as cited in Marsiglio, 1993).

The conclusion that we draw from this is that more energy needs to be spent on identifying other sources for data on father involvement--other sources that include men and that can expand the limits of what is now known about fatherhood in the past. In this article, we introduce one example of the kinds of "other sources" we are referring to, and show how the history of fatherhood takes on a different hue when one looks beyond the standard surveys. …

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