Family structure, Stepfamilies, Marriage, Children, Estate
In A History of Stepfamilies in Early America, Lisa Wilson examines a common family structure that has been rather neglected in historical scholarship. Wilson is particularly concerned with examining “the interplay between lived reality and cultural expectations about stepfamily life” (6). She focuses on late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century New England because of an abundance of scholarship on the region’s family life, excellent archival and genealogical sources, and its stable demographics and high literacy rates. Wilson reviews the laws that governed stepfamily members’ rights and responsibilities as well as literary sources describing stepfamily life, placing them alongside examples of the experiences of actual stepfamilies. Wilson demonstrates the very real effects that laws and negative stereotypes had on stepfamily life; however, in the process she leaves a number of questions unanswered and does not completely explain how, or even whether, changes in cultural expectations regarding stepfamilies affected lived experience.
Wilson argues that, when children were involved, the decision to remarry was difficult for both widows and widowers. The legal nuances of coverture meant that, for widows, remarriage placed their deceased husbands’ property under the control of their new husbands, a situation that easily could jeopardize their children’s inheritances. Widowers with children also struggled with the decision to remarry. On the one hand, [End Page 815] heightened cultural expectations related to the development of the sentimental family ideal pressured widowers to remarry in order to give their children the loving, nurturing, and pious care early Americans believed only women could provide. On the other hand, long-standing negative cultural stereotypes about stepmothers’ cruelty and preference for their own children over those of their new husbands became even more potent when contrasted with the image of the sentimental mother wholly devoted to the care of her (“natural”) children. Legal realities and this negative cultural milieu worked against carefree decisions to remarry, and Wilson provides real-life examples of men and women who agonized over the effects that remarriage would have on their children. That so many widows and widowers did remarry is testimony to the difficulties of providing for a family without a spouse and, of course, to the vagaries of the human heart.
Wilson maintains that within stepfamilies negative cultural stereotypes encouraged children to compare their stepmothers and their “natural” mothers, with stepmothers inevitably found wanting. An examination of the correspondence and papers of three stepfamilies demonstrates the very real role that these negative stereotypes played in shaping stepchildren’s relationships with their stepmothers. Stepchildren openly acknowledged struggling with negative ideas about stepmothers, while new stepmothers worried that they would not be acceptable to their stepchildren. In one of the families Wilson examines, domestic harmony and love prevailed in the face of negative stereotypes; in another, different children had very different relationships with their stepmother, some close and loving, others cool and aloof. The final family demonstrated the complete rejection of a stepmother by her stepchildren. This broad range of experience is not particularly surprising, and Wilson does a very good job of bringing these stepfamilies’ experiences and struggles to life. However, while these families’ different experiences are wonderfully described, there is no analysis of why their experiences differed. Admittedly, this type of analysis is difficult to accomplish with a limited pool of examples; however, opportunities for a closer consideration of the reasons for these families’ differences do exist. Wilson hints at, but does not explore, issues related to the age and gender of stepchildren and to the socioeconomic compatibility (or lack thereof) between stepmother and stepchildren as determinants of stepfamily experience. More careful analysis of such characteristics would better explain why some families [End Page 816] successfully negotiated the treacheries of stepfamily life while others did not.
Wilson argues that cultural expectations surrounding stepmothers began to improve at the turn of the nineteenth century. Tracing developments in children’s and didactic literature, Wilson claims that the growing cultural importance of domesticity, as well as the belief in...