Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Lisa Wilson's "A History of Stepfamilies in Early America"

Lisa Wilson is the Charles J. MacCurdy Professor of American History at Connecticut College and the author of A History of Stepfamilies in Early America (University of North Carolina Press, 2014). She is also the author of the award-winning, Ye Heart of a Man: The Domestic Life of Men in Colonial New England (Yale University Press, 1999) and Life After Death: Widows in Pennsylvania, 1750-1850 (Temple University Press, 1992).

Wilson applied the “Page 99 Test” to A History of Stepfamilies in Early America and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book demonstrates the early nineteenth-century attempt to retrain stepchildren to treat their stepmothers with more respect and teach stepmothers to be more loving. As middle-class families became mother-lead and child-centered at the end of the eighteenth century the prejudice against stepmothers worsened. Since mothers could no longer behave badly and fit this new ideal the traditionally evil stepmothers took on the baggage of cruelty they left behind. Mothers were seen as angelic so stepmothers became more devilish. In the early nineteenth century there was an effort to alleviate the plight of stepmothers and stepchildren. Primarily in women's and children's magazines, stepmothers were taught to be kind to their stepchildren and stepchildren were urged to be more respectful to their stepmothers. This literature argued that stepmothers were the best replacements for mothers. Likewise children were told that not all stepmothers were evil. Although a fascinating cultural intervention this magazine campaign failed to change our characterization of the stepmother/stepchild relationship even today.
Learn more about A History of Stepfamilies in Early America at The University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue