by Eugenia Smith
Photo by Diana Watters
B.A., U of Pennsylvania; Ph.D., U of Michigan
Morse Alumni Award for Outstanding Contributions to Postbaccalaureate, Graduate, and Professional Education
CLA Scholar of the College
McKnight Arts and Humanities Research Award
Husband, sociology professor Ron Aminzade, and kids Dan (computer science major), 25, and Liz (English major), 20.
“Everything from junk detective novels to more serious fiction, specially from new voices. I’m a historian, so the fiction I like tends to be seriously researched and embedded in a time and place.”
“I don't watch TV. That's bad, in a way, because there's potential there for understanding American society. My daughter asks, ‘Don't you feel like you’re missing out?’ Maybe.”
Oh, if only my family were … Sound familiar? For a reassuring echo, look no further than the household next door. Or pick up a 19th-century diary.
If you think your family of origin doesn't measure up, you’re not alone. Mary Jo (“M.J.”) Maynes, who has studied two centuries of families, knows that family stories often reveal a deep chasm between the idealized family—the stuff of cultural lore, standard historical accounts, and prescriptive literature— and the realities of people's lives.
Long before the internet and exhibitionistic TV talk shows made public the most intimate details of private lives, ordinary people were penning their private thoughts and memories in diaries and letters. For social historians such as Maynes, these personal narratives, or “lived histories,” shine a flashlight into the darkest corners of the humble workplaces and meager living quarters where the dramas of ordinary people's lives are played out, far from the ideal of hearth and home that has dominated Western thought.
Until the last 40 years or so, American historians generally viewed history from a dominant Western perspective as a storied panorama of momentous events that built and toppled nations, civilizations, and empires. History was “made” by powerful leading men—monarchs and warriors, popes and prelates—while lesser mortals watched from the wings. With a few notable exceptions, women were all but invisible, but for occasional cameo appearances as wives, mothers, and mistresses. Non-Europeans were written in as exotics, foils, and villains.
Historian Maynes and others of her ilk have been changing all of that.
To really understand history, says Maynes, we must unfurl it “from the inside.” We must listen to the voices of the people behind the scenes, in the crowd shots and on the margins—miners and factory workers, merchants and shopkeepers, butlers and chamber maids, artisans, milliners, and midwives. History is made not just by heads of state and titans of industry but also by the ordinary people who live and work in the human-scaled subdivisions of history's vast landscape—in the kitchen and the parlor, in the fields and factories, and below the stairs.
Maynes’ own personal narrative began unfolding just over five decades ago in a Pennsylvania household with lower-middle and working-class roots.
“There's a pretty transparent connection between my intellectual interests and my family story,” she says. “My parents struggled to raise four kids. I was aware early on of how unequal access to resources like education mattered.”As an undergraduate in the late 1960s and early seventies, Maynes turned that awareness into a passion for history, politics, and ideas.
“Certain historical dynamics have a way of working themselves out in people's development,” she says, explaining her transformation from a kid growing up without privilege to a world-class historian. “Historical transformations intersect with individual life stories and family dynamics to affect whole generations and cohorts.
“Along with others of my generation, I was increasingly frustrated with ‘elite’ history. I was interested in how questions of education, politics, class and social mobility, and gender were related to historical events. I wanted to approach history in a more inclusive way.”
The family became, for Maynes, “a primary site for investigating the histories of people who often don't get into history books—including women and children.”
Maynes’ work, much of it focused on the personal narratives of 19th-century Western European working-class families, has broad implications for how we understand 21stcentury families. Look at the American family today, and you’ll find themes and variations on European families of the 19th century, she says.
“Ideologies of family emerge at a particular historical moment and continue to inform people's thinking decades, even centuries, later,” says Maynes. The ideologies become enshrined in cultural practices and morph into laws governing marriage and divorce, childrearing, property ownership and inheritance, and labor. They even have informed development of the modern welfare state, determining who has rights to pensions and government assistance.
Maynes is currently chair of the Department of History, which is collaborating with CLA's Immigration History Research Center to present a conference on the history of immigration studies at the U of M, “Immigration History and the University of Minnesota: Where We´ve Been, Where We´re Going." The conference will examine the past, present, and future of immigration scholarship. Visit the conference website for more details.
In modern retellings of the 19th-century dominant cultural narratives, women still officiate over the home and domestic life, and men engage with the marketplace and public life. Most people don't live that way and never did, Maynes notes, but the ideal persists; and it is emotionally powerful: “We believe that this is the way that family life is. The ideal is always there as the norm against which we measure ourselves. And when we don't live up to the ideal, even if we don't believe in it, even if we choose something different, we feel that we have somehow failed.”
Nineteenth-century households didn't fit the idealized mold any more than ours do, Maynes observes. Then, as now, economic necessity drove most women out of the home into fields, factories, and commercial establishments. And lower life expectancies meant that many children lost parents, and parents often remarried.
“The blended or single-parent family is no more modern than the working mother,” says Maynes. “Such arrangements were pretty common in earlier centuries.”
Students are often surprised to discover just how rarely, over the centuries, couples have married for love, says Maynes. Throughout much of history, marriage has been largely an economic transaction, not an affair of the heart, even if, by happy accident, it also turned out to be a love match.
Nineteenth-century prescriptive literature explicitly warned against relationships that crossed class lines. A “good match” meant that properties matched up, or, if a young woman was trading up, that her dowry was sufficiently compensatory to secure the bargain. Love was frosting on the wedding cake.
Even late in the 19th century, when class boundaries were becoming more permeable, parents “still wanted to make sure their kids circulated in the right circles so there'd be no danger that they’d fall in love with the wrong sort,” says Maynes. “It was less formal, but still watchful.
“It's fair to say that the more property you had, the more carefully parents would try to involve themselves in the process. And that's still true.” Today's family model is still economic at base, she explains, despite the romantic notion that we marry for love and have children who are extensions of ourselves rather than miniature additions to the household labor force.
“The ideal of the nuclear family gets replicated over and over in popular and prescriptive literature, in commercial advertising, in sermons and political speeches,” says Maynes. “We’ve become very emotionally attached to it. What's more, it's so ingrained in everyday institutional practices like pensions, marriages, and parenting that it's hard for many people to imagine it any other way.”
Holidays are especially powerful in defining families, says Maynes. “These ritual celebrations bring family members together to celebrate a shared history. They also mark boundaries: ‘We’re celebrating together— you’re not.’ They define who belongs and who doesn’t, with connections by blood and matrimony privileged above all others.
“It's always double-edged. Communities are about creating close ties with certain people and not creating close ties with others. So family rituals can be powerfully bonding but also exclusionary.”
The only way to loosen the hold of these rituals, says Maynes, is to create new rituals. These days, in our mobile and individualistic society, we have more options—“families whose affinities are not blood- or marriage- based, new ways of creating ties that give our lives meaning and anchor us to communities. But that also means more complexities to be negotiated.”
If the nuclear family is held up as the single most powerful civilizing force in American life, the reality, says Maynes, is that many families are anything but. Yet ubiquitous media representations of the “happy family” keep the myth alive. Even the “dysfunctional family” model reifies the ideal as a benchmark against which we all measure our deficiencies.
“Ideals of the family are used as a kind of weapon to prevent change,” Maynes says. “The backlash against feminism, for example, tends to attribute social problems, from crime to drug use to teen pregnancy, to the breakdown of the ‘traditional family’ and ‘family values.’ Over and over again, we see the broken family, and especially ‘bad mothers,’ used as a whipping post for social ills”— just as 19th-century working-class women who were “not proper moms” were blamed for high infant mortality and urban crime.
“That's ideology speaking, not social science,” says Maynes. “It's a misreading of both historical and contemporary evidence about how families operate. But it's politically and emotionally powerful because it has traditional values behind it. Sure, you can find stories of working mothers with delinquent kids. But what about the kids who thrive? We’re talking about ideological selection— deciding which stories get told to advance a political agenda.”
These agenda-driven narratives can backfire in interesting ways, Maynes says: Blaming workingclass families for failing to live up to an ideal that has been elevated beyond their reach may fuel the sense of disenfranchisement that spurs reformist political action. Working-class coming-of-age narratives are often couched in what Maynes calls the “rhetoric of deprivation,” reflecting a sense of grievance that easily translates to social justice activism.
“People usually think of socialist ideals as originating in the workplace,” says Maynes. “I found that a lot of the impulse for wanting to correct injustice actually came from childhood experiences of perceived unfairness.
“In my work, I’m always trying to connect the subjective and emotional side of things with the economic and political side. You can't separate larger social and economic issues from these issues around family. They’re always tied together.”