The role of men and women have evolved in tandem throughout American history to meet the needs of the moment. In modern times, it seems like everyone is mad about the choices we made in the past and knows exactly what the next step should be. Yet, few of us have actually sat down with a clear timeline of the evolution to understand how we got here.
This article is a tandem exploration of the gender roles through 5 distinct historical periods. We will cover mate selection, roles, life expectancy, birthing habits, and the reasoning/result of the choices we made. The point is to hopefully help you gain a new respect for the traditional and help orient you in the wilderness of modernity.
Things to keep in mind:
Keep in mind, we’re going over the popular standards and this might overlook some factors like social status and race. I do add some helpful stuff that might help understand the American salad bowl culture.
Get rid of your preconceived notions. Survival is not moral, and you can’t judge people living a life you would never understand.
In most cultures and societies throughout history, marriage was seen as a transactional arrangement in which the interests of families and communities were prioritized over the individual desires of the prospective partners. In these societies, both men and women might have limited agency in choosing their partners and might be subject to the expectations and priorities of their families and communities. This was equal oppression based on the needs of survival.
Colonial era (1607-1837):
Average age of first birth: 19-20
Life expectancy: 36-40
US Population: 100k-14.5million
In the early days of the American colonies, men were expected to be the primary providers for their families. This often involved hunting, farming, or working as tradesmen and other tasks that utilized their genetic advantages. Men were also responsible for protecting their families and communities, whether from wild animals, rightfully hostile Native American tribes, or other threats.
In the early days of the American colonies, women's roles were heavily focused on domestic work. They were responsible for cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing, producing goods like textiles and candles, and other tasks that utilized their genetic advantages. Their main purpose was ensuring the population rose to swamp the natives. Native & black women were also responsible for gathering. Women also played a crucial role in maintaining the social and cultural fabric of the community, as they were often responsible for organizing events and caring for the sick and elderly.
Together men and women worked together to destroy the Native world, enslave the African and Latin worlds, and build a new nation. With shame, it is one of our greatest accomplishments. Even as a black American, I sit and benefit from the tragedies of mine and other’s ancestral past. So, it’s worth acknowledging.
In general, divorce was allowed only in cases of adultery, cruelty, or desertion. Even then, divorce was granted only with great reluctance and required a petition to the colonial legislature. The process was expensive, and few people could afford to pay for the legal fees.
It was and will remain common for wealthy men & women treat monogamy more loosely. Unless you’re a royal, it kind of doesn’t matter who the baby belongs to. Plus, wealthy women could always access an abortion if the rabbit done died. Poor women had their ways of solving this problem too. But due to religion, and many other benefits, monogamy is the most common relationship style by far.
In the colonial era, abortion was generally not viewed as a criminal offense in the same way that it would later be in the Victorian era. Instead, attitudes toward abortion were often shaped by religious and moral beliefs, and abortion was seen as a private matter that was best left to the individual's conscience, but it wasn’t widely accepted or accessible. Many forms of birth control were also not widely available or reliable during this time, and women who sought abortions often did so using unsafe and unsanitary methods that posed significant health risks. Despite this, there were some individuals who were known to provide abortion services, and many women were able to obtain abortions through these channels.
In this time marriage was a requirement for everyone. Prospective partners would exchange letters or tokens of affection and engage in a series of formal visits to establish their mutual interest and gain the approval of their families. The courtship process & partner selection was often guided by the social and economic priorities of the time.
Notice how free these expectations are. The requirements for both genders simply are accomplishing tasks vs controlling how we feel and think. Relationships had an incredible variety, despite common conceptions. Yes, women did have fewer choices for partners, but most men had no choice in their role either. We did what was needed to survive. It seems counterintuitive, but this is the most free and equitable we have ever been. Life was tough for everyone, even the colonists and slavers. To be fair though, this was a bloody, complicated time that I am not smart enough to fully dive into here so, let’s just move forward.
Victorian era (1837-1945):
Average age of first birth: 20-21
Life expectancy: 40-45
US Population: 16-139 million
During the 19th century, the concept of "manliness" emerged, with men expected to be strong, confident, and assertive. Men were expected to be the sole breadwinners for their families and were often involved in business or pp professional pursuits. They were also expected to be protectors and providers for their wives and children.
During the 19th century, the Victorian era brought a new set of expectations for women's behavior. We got the ability to divorce. The average age of first birth is now 22. Women were expected to be pure and virtuous, and their primary role was to be a supportive and nurturing wife and mother. They were expected to dress modestly and be obedient to their husbands. The concept of separate spheres of control emerged, with men occupying the public sphere and women confined to the private sphere of the home.
Romance and dating as a concept blooms here. Monogamy truly takes hold. Hello condoms & casual sex. Women could now choose their partner since options are more easily available. Men didn’t feel as pressured to immediately get a wife, so they began to pursue more intellectual and artistic activities.
During the Victorian era, divorce was highly stigmatized and seen as a scandalous and immoral act. Women, in particular, were subject to harsh social and legal penalties for seeking a divorce. Divorced women were often ostracized from society and had difficulty finding employment or remarrying. As a result, many couples in unhappy or abusive marriages remained trapped in their situation, with divorce being seen as a last resort.
Abortion was generally considered to be a criminal offense, and women who sought or performed abortions could face significant legal and social consequences. The primary rationale for criminalizing abortion during this time was based on the idea that it was a threat to public morality and family values, and that it represented a threat to the sanctity of human life. Basically, they wanted a bigger population so suffer. Despite the legal and social taboos surrounding abortion in the Victorian era, it was still a common and often dangerous practice.
Notice how once we left our individual homesteads for denser city living, we gave each other more rules for societal behaviors. These came about to better compete in a crowded sexual market, protect the relationship, ensure we knew who fathered whom, and because government wanted people to behave this way. More temptation, more complication, more civility.
Post-World War II (1945-1965):
Average age of first birth: 21-22
Life expectancy: 60-68
US population: 140 – 190 million
In the mid-20th century, men's roles in American relationships began to shift. With the return of soldiers from World War II, men were expected to resume their roles as providers and heads of household, but there was also a growing emphasis on emotional intimacy and communication within marriages. Men were encouraged to be more involved in the lives of their children and to share household duties with their wives.
In the mid-20th century, the role of women in American relationships began to shift again. With the return of soldiers from World War II, women were encouraged to take on jobs outside the home to support the war effort. This led to greater independence for women, but they were still expected to fulfill traditional gender roles when it came to household duties and child-rearing.
This is a time where the government and other populist figures influenced our life choices the strongest. The government needed women to work on top of being mothers and maintaining culture so we could survive the war and they did. The government needed men to move on from the horrors of war, get back to work, and make up for the emotional absence from mom’s leaving the house – they did.
In 1948, California became the first state to adopt a no-fault divorce law, which allowed couples to obtain a divorce without having to prove that one of the parties was at fault. This began a trend towards more liberal divorce laws in other states, with many states adopting no-fault divorce laws in the 1960s. Along with changes in divorce laws, attitudes towards divorce also began to shift during this period.
During the 1950s and 1960s, a number of states began to reform their laws related to abortion, making it legal in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother's life. However, access to abortion remained limited, and many women continued to seek unsafe and unsanitary abortions in order to end unwanted pregnancies.
This is probably our proudest and most orderly time as a new nation, despite the racial and economic strife. This is the time people talk about romantically because, for the most part, everyone was safe, and everyone knew what they needed to do not only survive but excel.
During war times many people fell into same sex relationships and explored polyamory in the absence of their normal partners. The return to normalcy left a lot of people quietly grieving for relationships they felt they couldn’t continue. Behind closed doors, some conversations were beginning to be had about bisexuality in the confines of a typical heterosexual relationship.
Women's rights movement (1965-1990):
Average age of first birth: 21-22
Life expectancy: 60-70
Us Population: 196-248 million
In the 1960s and 1970s, as women began to demand greater equality in all areas of life, men's roles in American relationships also began to change. Men (many of whom are traumatized/disabled vets and overworked in the deadliest professions) were encouraged to be more sensitive and nurturing, and to share household duties and child-rearing responsibilities more equally with their wives. The feminist movement challenged the traditional gender roles that had been in place for centuries, and many men began to rethink their own beliefs and behaviors in relationships.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the women's rights movement gained momentum, and women began to demand greater equality in all areas of life, including relationships. The feminist movement challenged the traditional gender roles that had been in place for centuries, and many women began to pursue careers and demand greater control over their own lives.
Divorce become common place with introduction of no-fault divorce. Now, everyone can divorce without a reason. Women are encouraged to divorce and explore the options that were’s available before.
Thanks to the comfort afforded by men fighting and women supporting the war efforts, things really begin to speed up here. We reached the moon together! With the advent of birth control in 1960 and Roe V. Wade in 1973, women reached parity in terms of opportunity with men. Women who took on more responsibility in society and now had role models for more ways to live demanded they get to try it all – and they did. Marketing and media also began to shift to focus on the growing female dollar as women became solidified in the workplace. Wages decrease overall.
This time is marked by gluttonous wealth, leisure time, and the realization that we all much more life to live post childrearing. We began to look at our mostly obligate spouses and said bye-bye.
Men continued struggling in this era with the scars of war, incarceration, and now living the end of their lives without partners. They’d lost the community and male bonding that came with war. Young men struggled in finding work and finding purpose in times where their inherent skills are less important and valued. Romantic relationships and families really struggled to stay stable during this period – the traditional structure is now considered antiquated.
It's important to note that besides the introduction of condoms which was an equal benefit, this is the first time in history men have ever had technological reproductive control. Notice how we got his soon after casual sex became the norm.
At this point in history same-sex households are common but kept quiet and had no protection under the law. HIV makes monogamy a more appealing option. This is where you begin to see the homosexual household and long-term relationship solidify as possibilities.
Polyamory becomes a more common practice. Typically, in either group sex, swinging/partner swapping. Polygamy is illegal. With the rise of HIV, the period of more open male bisexuality in traditional relationships comes to an end. Homophobia rises as an opportunistic safety mechanism.
Modern era (1990-now):
Average age of first birth: 26
US pop: 334 million (2023)
Life Expectancy – 76-81
Today, the roles of men in American relationships continue to evolve. While many men still identify strongly with traditional masculine traits like reliability, strength, independence, and assertiveness, there is also a growing acceptance of more feminine qualities like emotional openness and vulnerability. Men make up 16% of single parent households and 40% of caregivers for elderly people.
While there is still some degree of outcome imbalance, the opportunities are available to women have become equitable. Women now have all opportunities to pursue education, careers, and leadership roles, and many couples share household duties and child-rearing responsibilities more equally. Many women also choose to raise children alone or birth children then later find a more suitable partner.
The is first time in history that homosexual households are codified in law. In the 2020 census they officially reached 1% of all couple households. Despite the new ability to marry, many still choose to cohabitate due to the financial risks associated with divorce, similarly to heterosexual households. These relationships tend to follow a traditional breadwinner/householder dichotomy.
Relationships are more variable than ever. Economic chaos, political strife, and drugs let traditions appear more hurtful than they truly had been on a greater scale. Thanks to the influence of immigrants and gender equity, the concept of polyamory gains a new level of legitimacy. Marriage is less necessary to raise children. Many more women are having children, dating multiple people, and nesting with a partner later. In this time the female head of household is now fully established, women out pace men in education, and despite some waffling on Roe V Wade, women still retain the rights over their reproduction. It is their choice to wait on marriage that has pushed the average age of first birth so far back.
Over the last century men have experienced great traumas that have still yet to be addressed. We’ve got new vets from the cruelest and most brutal war in American history, the imprisoned population has ballooned, marriage rates are dropping, wages are stagnant, the rewards for their work/deaths were stripped away. Shits rough.
Men’s reproductive rights have stagnated. The only major advancement ss invasive surgical options. Women are struggling too, though. They are reeling with reality of the choices of themselves and their mother.
My guess going forward is that homosexual household will continue to become more commonplace.