Do we want to turn back the clock?

Popular culture and political opponents confront social conservatives with this question every day—mainly because we don’t have a clear answer. Different pro-life, pro-family Americans are prone to answer it differently, indulging in varying degrees of nostalgia for a time, whether real or imagined, before consumeristic market values took hold of our sexual culture. Even the most nostalgic among us cannot literally “turn back the clock,” of course, but the pre-’60s past looms over social conservatives’ projects and proposals.

Social conservatives must soberly engage with that past, not romanticize it. That is the aim of this essay. We ought to ask what American attitudes toward sex and the family were like before the sexual revolution; what worked about them, and what didn’t; why they didn’t last; and what alternatives, if any, the past may offer.

The history of American family values is a huge topic, about which historians disagree all the time. But it’s clear that middle- and upper-class American family values, in the decades leading up to the 1960s, suffered from at least one of the basic problems we look to confront today. Namely, they were subordinated to the regnant logic of the marketplace, at the expense of basic human goods. Though not yet reflecting the throw-away flippancy of a consumer society, late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American family values aimed at individual control over the means of reproduction, with a faith in technical rationality capable of bending human nature to that end.

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In short: we weren’t getting it right. The status quo before baby boomers and Roe v. Wade and second-wave feminism was shaped more by modern notions of industrial progress than by eternal truths about the human person. Understanding those notions can help us recognize how the sexual revolution emerged from axioms that had already existed in the mainstream for decades, and recognize the counterproductive ways in which those axioms still shape our discourse about the family today.

The status quo before baby boomers and Roe v. Wade and second-wave feminism was shaped more by modern notions of industrial progress than by eternal truths about the human person.


The Dawn of the Machine Age

Turn-of-the-century Americans adored their machines. Henry Adams famously crowned the dynamo a successor to ancient gods and considered the Virgin Mary the “applied force” propelling human history (ironically, right on the eve of alternating current’s making the contraptions all but obsolete). Such great machines stood for progress, the growth of human power over nature, and a capacity for productive efficiency that grew with man’s scientific knowledge. These had the power to remake society. Henry Ford lauded machinery as “the New Messiah,” bound to usher in a paradise by “accomplishing in the world what man has failed to do by preaching, propaganda, or the written word.”

Working toward the maximally efficient machine utopia of the Fordist imagination meant not only inventing new machines, but treating things that weren’t machines as if they were. The engineering mindset was the key to power, so apply it all over; run everything the way a machine runs, with separate parts in proper places doing proper little functions. That view characterized reason as an instrumental process of segmentation and division.

“Where a pre-industrial (agricultural and agrarian) context had necessitated the integral relations of the family and community,” says historian Stuart Ewen, “the industrial system reified separations.” This was true of economics and culture alike. Economically, as America industrialized, people became actors in a labor market, selling their labor as individuals rather than contributing to a home-based workshop, family trade, or village farm. And within the new setting for work—the factory—separation was the key to efficiency. Human laborers could be fine-tuned, standardized, and replaced, just like the machines they operated.

Emerging systems of mass production took the division of labor to its furthest extreme: the subdivision of labor down to the smallest possible repetitive, if often still physically demanding, tasks. Tradesmen felt the breakdown of their crafts in real time, and independent workshops tried to stave off this extreme subdivision of labor as long as possible. “The different branches of the trade are divided and subdivided so that one man may make just a particular part of a machine and may not know anything whatever about another part of the same machine,” one New York factory worker told a Senate committee in 1883. “There is no system of apprenticeship . . . in the business. You simply go in and learn whatever branch you are put at, and you stay at that unless you are changed to another.”

As this quote suggests, the machine paradigm had enormous implications for the distribution of knowledge. Science, information, and the exercise of reason itself were reserved for a new managerial class—a new segment of managers, bureaucrats, and data collectors defined by their unique position of knowledge. These white-collar workers maintained control over the whole productive process by testing and measuring and monitoring the human parts of the machinery.

This trend reached its greatest extreme in the Taylor system of “scientific management.” Named for Frederick Winslow Taylor, and outlined in his 1911 book Principles of Scientific Management, the system called for employers to divide a worker’s duties into the smallest possible tasks, and measure the time taken to conduct each task. Jobs and tools were to be standardized, and workers were to receive strict and meticulous instructions about how to do even their most menial tasks. Time clocks became a workplace fixture. Separation and standardization—treating workers as interchangeable parts rather than individual people—were what made the endeavor “scientific.”

Emerging systems of mass production took the division of labor to its furthest extreme: the subdivision of labor down to the smallest possible repetitive, if often still physically demanding, tasks.


Under the machine paradigm, scientific knowledge itself became a matter of separation and sorting. The emerging modern university system prioritized the production of new research in increasingly specialized fields of knowledge—especially in the study of human nature and culture. New fields like anthropology and sociology reflected a broad interest in taxonomizing and categorizing people. These all too often reinforced popular schemes of “scientific” racism. Scientific techniques for measuring and documenting external physical differences were deployed to dress up old beliefs that certain people were more closely related to animals, or otherwise simply inferior, as cutting-edge and progressive. On display at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair were early telephones, x-ray machines, and more than 1,000 natives of the recently conquered Philippines, among “specimens” of other ethnic groups. Even phrenology—which had been debunked decades before—became popular again at the turn of the century.

Darwinism supplied the craze for sorting and classification with these techniques and terms. The popular understanding of evolution through “survival of the fittest,” filtered through the Lamarckian idea that individuals could pass on acquired “fitness” to their offspring, rang true of people’s experience of the producer marketplace. It meant the results of competition—whether in the domestic marketplace for some commodity, or in an imperial struggle over a raw resource—was affirmative evidence of the objective, scientifically verified superiority of the victors.

For an emerging white-collar middle-class, nervous about the risk of “over-civilizing” themselves as they left behind physical labor, private life became a matter of making oneself a fit competitor in society. According to historian Jackson Lears, thanks to the popularity of social Darwinism and the ruthlessness of the Gilded-Age marketplace, “the increasingly systematic organization of work made the achievement of manliness at once more elusive and more urgent,” and “the quest for physical vitality spread among the sedentary middle and upper classes, especially among men.” Schemes of racial classification relieved some of the pressure, assuring flabby WASPS that they were already among the world’s fittest. Nonetheless, exercise became an American habit for the first time, and the market for unregulated “patent-medicines” promising psychic and physical renewal exploded.

“A Machine to Live In”

Once you recognize this set of values—the half-scientific, half-economic obsession with sorting people for the purposes of efficiency and productive control, and with “fitness” for social competition—you start seeing it all over. America’s emerging white-collar middle class brought its habits of self-sorting home from work. Eager to escape unhygienic cities that attracted migrants and strikes—and with the help of new innovations like light rail and automobiles—the middle class started heading for the suburbs. They promptly began sorting themselves into civic institutions and voluntary associations, from the KKK to the Rotary club, based on social standing or personal taste.

For all the insistence on the home as a safe haven and separate sphere, it was not safe from commercial ideals. Rather than a “community of daily living” (as philosopher John Cuddeback defines it), the household was, in the eyes of middle-class and corporate America, a realm of individual choice and control, designed to create optimal conditions for the production of children “fit” for social competition. In short, a little factory. When in the 1920s Le Corbusier declared a house was “a machine to live in,” he was expressing what was already a prevailing instinct. Under the influence of industrial market values, American parents were encouraged, in the words of Christian ethicist Amy Laura Hall, to “conceive of parenthood in ways that involve meticulous timing and precise control”—and to conceive of children as products to be manufactured, and sent out into the marketplace.

Children—or, as one 1929 ad for Hygeia Nursing Bottles called them, the “little human machines under your care”—required scientific management. That meant division, standardization, and sorting. Experts and advertisers increasingly depicted infancy and childhood as discrete categories of life, divided into separate stages, for which unique sets of consumer products and specialized medical instruction were appropriate. Children had to be kept separate from the adult world and from possible bad influences and contaminants (whether in human or germ form), in the name of hygiene, innocence, and above all, fitness.

Ads and parenting advice literature encouraged mothers to seek out new, scientific parenting methods instead of relying on folk or familial knowledge deemed superstitious and unhygienic. “Science” meant the same thing in the home as it had in the factory. Pioneers in the new field of “home economics” like Frank and Lillian Gilbreth aimed to translate industrial management techniques to the home. This in part required categorizing and separating the people allowed into the home. A 1929 essay in the magazine Parents titled “Should We Hand-pick Our Children’s Friends?” instructed readers that proper parenting would ensure that “unfit companions are eliminated, and that only the fit survive.” Total control over who and what entered the family orbit was only conceivable for a limited, nuclear family in a suburban setting.

Divorce also rose consistently during industrialization. Ewen reports that, “between 1870 and the mid-1920s, [divorce] had risen at an unprecedented 35 percent for each ten-year period.” In 1915, about one in seven American marriages ended in divorce—a rate far lower than today’s, but the highest in the world at the time.

But if parenthood was a matter of science and efficiency, parents weren’t necessarily the best people to do it. Parents were at worst amateur middlemen, potentially wasting everyone’s time—including their own, some argued. Charlotte Perkins Gilman proposed handing responsibility for home care over to paid experts so women could put themselves to better use on the open labor market. “For [Gilman],” writes Erika Bachiochi, “no longer should the home remain an antimodern island in the industrializing sea, preserving a sphere of solidarity and kinship from market forces. She sought instead to bring the home, and the women in it, sharply in line with the modern economizing project.” And Gilman wasn’t alone. In 1914 the Ford Motor Company started a 200-man “Sociological Department” that sent company inspectors to employee homes to make sure they were raising the kids right, keeping the home clean, and cooking properly.

Like the industrial worker finding himself sequestered from positions of knowledge once held by his craftsmen forebears and now in the hands of scientific managers, the typical middle-class mother in a two-generation, suburban home had fewer opportunities to glean knowledge available to her preindustrial forebears.


By mid-century, many parents were habituated to seek out experts for managerial mediation in family life. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s 1946 plea that parents trust their own common sense became a national bestseller because it was so different from all other pediatric instructional literature—though of course, it was still an expert-penned parenting manual. In the 1965 Christian film The Restless Ones, the protagonists (a white, middle-class couple) consult a juvenile court referee, a youth pastor, and even a Billy Graham crusade volunteer for parenting advice and insight into their son’s psyche without once asking him a question—or consulting the mother-in-law who lives with them.

One can hardly blame them. Like the industrial worker finding himself sequestered from positions of knowledge once held by his craftsmen forebears and now in the hands of scientific managers, the typical middle-class mother in a two-generation, suburban home had fewer opportunities to glean knowledge available to her preindustrial forebears. Experienced relatives weren’t at hand, and their advice was deemed backward anyway. What’s more, spoken and unspoken racial ideology meant she had better not ask “the help”—the only other adult women with whom she may have had regular contact. As Hall demonstrates, parenting magazines warned explicitly against doing so, for fear that the “wrong type” of people’s parenting methods might contaminate one’s own. Mothers had no opportunity for apprenticeship, so to speak.

Marketing Modern Motherhood

So who was one to talk to? Advertisers noticed the dilemma, and they capitalized on it. Before the publication of Spock’s book, companies rarely marketed parenting products directly to mothers. Instead, they encouraged women to “make a poll of all the authorities you know,” as one 1936 Heinz baby food ad put it (the authorities in question being the doctor and the grocer). These same companies advertised relentlessly, and much more directly, in medical magazines, effectively sorting knowledge so that their sales pitch would reach worried mothers from the mouth of a trusted authority. Health and fitness were the primary theme.

Ads posited allegedly standard developmental milestones (normally having to do with a child’s height and weight), to provoke anxiety that one’s baby might be behind the “normal” development schedule. A wide range of never-before-considered infant-specific products—from canned baby food and special toilet seats to special logbooks mothers could use to “keep a scientific record of your child.” The right products were the answer to every “how” question of parenting.

The position of women only grew more degraded as industrialism became more entrenched in the middle-class American psyche. In retrospect, it’s easy to mistake the age of “separate spheres” as being chivalrous and protective toward women. Paeans to the “angel in the house” categorized women with the natural and pastoral, guardians of a realm of rest and recreation away from the dirty public sphere. As nice as that sounds, the demands of industrial progress happily went to war with nature, and did not leave the pastoral retreat immune from violent engineering. Consider the construction of Central Park in the 1860s and ’70s. To create the perfect relaxation spot for genteel New Yorkers, engineers and city planners had five million cubic feet of rocks and soil transported out of the park, a task that required more gunpowder than the battle of Gettysburg. Engineers blasted and battered and manicured vast tracts of Manhattan to make the ideal faux-pastoral escape.

Women had long been subjected to market logic. In 1870, the popular women’s magazine Godey’s explained that “flirting is to marriage what free trade is to commerce. By it the value of a woman is exhibited, tested, her capacities known, her temper displayed, and the opportunity offered of judging what sort of a wife she may probably become.” And as the marketplace came under the spell of machinery and engineering, so did views of women. With the responsibility for scientifically managing parenthood increasingly in the hands of professionals, it became all too easy to reduce mothers to their (re)productive function and symbolism as a tranquil break for hard-working husbands. As with Central Park, that meant becoming terrain for engineering. From “neurasthenia” treatments to Valium to lobotomies, extremely invasive medical interventions, aimed at tranquilizing housewives, were a dime a dozen.

Fertility Control

Contraception was very much a part of this picture, despite legal regulations surrounding its distribution. As with other aspects of parenting, women’s knowledge of their own fertility was restricted or deemed unscientific and low-class, in favor of new products available in the marketplace. According to historian Andrea Tone, beginning in the 1930s, “pharmaceutical firms, rubber manufacturers, mail-order houses, and fly-by-night peddlers launched a successful campaign to persuade women and men to eschew natural methods for commercial devices whose efficacy could be ‘scientifically proven.’”

Among the leading products marketed for contraceptive use, Tone observes, was Lysol. The subtext of many ads for the cleaning fluid was that its user could more scientifically manage a house by maintaining personal control over her fertility (i.e., sterility). Regular douching with Lysol would make sure a woman remained, in the words of one 1928 ad, “the girl he married”—which is to say, pristine, available, and unburdened by unnecessary children. An unwanted pregnancy would threaten a woman’s youthfulness and (as a 1948 Lysol ad put it) “the precious air of romance.” A fetus was a germ, a foreign contaminant to be excluded from the home like an “unfit” playmate. It would gum up the inner workings of the home-machine.

The eugenics movement tied many of these threads together. It promised the power to create the right kind of children, with full control over the productive conditions. It combined social Darwinism with economic fears that without pruning by progress-minded managers, overproduction would lead to crisis. The wrong type of families—big Catholic ones, immigrant and nonwhite ones—had to be brought under control. Margaret Sanger’s proposal to “preven[t] the birth of defectives” through birth control reflected the spread of industrial, managerial capitalism into more and more of America’s social institutions. These were not fringe viewpoints. Respectable, mainstream WASP institutions—including, as Hall and Christine Rosen document, many mainline Protestant churches—were on board with eugenics. Sanger had the unwavering support of the Rockefeller family, the heirs of America’s largest-ever private fortune. Thirty-two U.S. states passed forced sterilization laws, primarily targeting disabled and nonwhite people.

As for abortion, exact statistics are not easy to come by, and are even more sparse before the 1970s, but there’s no doubt abortion was common in Fordist America. In 1898, Michigan’s board of health estimated a full third of pregnancies in the state ended in abortion. By the 1930s, an estimated 800,000 abortions took place per year in America. In the 1950s and ’60s, a time of much greater prosperity, the number was perhaps greater—and certainly still in the hundreds of thousands.

Obviously, those are disconcerting facts for a pro-lifer—they suggest that, even if we “turn back the clock” on Roe v. Wade and make abortion illegal, it may still be with us in large numbers. The law may be a teacher, but our task will have to include cultural and economic change.

But historical fact is also a tough pill to swallow from a pro-choice perspective. Despite all their access to abortion, turn-of-the-century American women were hardly liberated. Widespread abortion was perfectly compatible with a pre-sexual-revolution, pre-second-wave-feminism patriarchal regime. It was a logical consequence of women’s alienation from the broader community, from each other, and even from their own bodies. The prevalence of contraception and abortion reflected a respectable, bourgeois belief that a poorly produced child was worse than no child at all. State and federal laws may not have said so, but bosses, ads, and class- and race-based social pressures certainly did. Christians were not immune. In The Restless Ones, the main characters barely bat an eye when they learn a teen girl from the wrong side of the tracks has attempted suicide, but scream in horror when they learn she’s pregnant.        

The Nuclear Family

The controlled, manicured vision of 1950s nuclear family life that we’re so prone to regard with fond nostalgia was a product of all these trends. To many who saw it develop in real time, it represented (for better or for worse) an individualistic retreat from community, tradition, and extended family. An expanding consumer marketplace idealized the exertion of personal control over a basic human activity and an ancient institution.

The core assumptions of the sexual revolution and subsequent social liberalism were already baked in. The female body was already engineerable, so why not make a woman the engineer of her own reproduction? The home was already the sphere of individual consumption and personal control apart from “unscientific” social mores; why should those mores determine anything, much less who gets to form a household? Children were already depicted as products; why couldn’t their production be outsourced, and their DNA customized to consumer preference?

This set of values has a legacy among Christians and conservatives, too. At the climax of The Restless Ones, when the father character finally has “the talk” with his son, he emphasizes that his son can bring his “animal urge” under control. Chastity, as he describes it, is little more than an act of engineering: an “ability to harness that tremendous creative energy and to make it work for you.” Reproduction was a matter of overcoming one’s nature, not cooperating with it. Maintaining exclusive control of one’s own body, and a combative stance toward nature, are ideals this mid-century Christian movie shares with today’s pro-choice activists.

More recently, the conservative obsessions with success sequences and out-of-wedlock births risk perpetuating the decades-old message that having a child was less important than having the right type of child, produced under the right conditions. Contemporary discussion of the domestic birthrate runs a similar risk of reducing children to products: “we need to make them here, and import fewer from abroad.” A pro-life, pro-family stance should not have to borrow its principles from the marketplace.

Children were already depicted as products; why couldn’t their production be outsourced, and their DNA customized to consumer preference?


Bastions of Resistance

Looking one more time to the past can be helpful here. The industrial market logic popular among turn-of-the-century middle-class WASPs did not apply everywhere, or to everyone. Reformers and radicals looked to the lived experience of lower-class families—immortalized in the American imagination as John Steinbeck’s Joads and James Agee’s Gudgers—to assert that we’re capable of something other than ruthless competition and individualism. Erika Bachiochi’s recent study of the pro-family feminist tradition points out that numerous first-wave feminists sought to preserve the integrity of home life, as the training-ground for values of nurture and care, from predominant market logic. And more than that: they aimed to bring the values of the home to bear on public life.

For every Gilman and Sanger who worked to extend the regnant values of an individualistic, competitive marketplace into family life, there were others who believed the influence should run the other way—that the market should no longer be artificially preserved (via the exclusion of women) from the forces of solidarity and kinship. They held that parenthood and homemaking, rather than economic competition, ought to be the model for public life. Jane Addams, for example, insisted that motherhood was its own kind of expertise, one that deserved public recognition and even emulation. Her go-to argument for suffrage was that, since civic government and industry were trying to care for common people’s material needs, they had no reason not to consult women’s expertise in care. Suffrage was the means by which women could “perform their traditional functions under the changed conditions of city life.”

The goal was not to enter existing systems on the same individualist, competitive terms as men, but to change those systems. This meant founding new institutions (like Addams’s “settlement houses”) that, unlike the retreat into suburbs, brought middle-class volunteers into proximity with lower-class families. It also meant passing new laws to protect, educate, and advocate for lower-class neighbors. Addams, Florence Kelley, and others proposed protective legislation for women as an “entering wedge” to gain broader workers’ protection, and perhaps even an altogether more humane economic system. Like many of their fellow Progressives, these activists had a technocratic streak, but their project was not to separate people and sequester knowledge. It was to expand the scope of American democracy by making community and family life possible for forgotten, discarded, “unfit” people.

That’s what it means to be pro-life and pro-family: to insist on the humanity of all our neighbors and the care and solidarity that begins with the human family. It doesn’t mean carving out independent fiefdoms where we can recreate a ’50s “trad” ideal that, in its historical reality, relied on widespread abortion and contraception. Knowing the difference may require rethinking our relationship to capitalism. American family values have not benefited from the intrusion of market logic—whether today’s throw-away consumerism or yesterday’s managerial producerism. If we can learn to recognize it when we see it, we may finally be able to get family right.