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FSU Professor's Book Shatters Stereotypes of Pre-Civil War American Fathers

For Dr. Shawn Johansen, the journey to getting a book on fatherhood published all started when he became a father.

The FSU history professor's own experience with his two children when he was a doctoral student is what led him to take on a topic most historians hadn't bothered to explore. More than a decade of research on families in the first half of the 19th century culminated in the publication of his book, "Family Men: Middle Class Fatherhood in Early Industrializing America" (Routledge).

Historians had long assumed that the stereotypical middle class father of the 1950s - whose role as breadwinner did not mix with the mother's role as child-rearer and homemaker - had been a longtime pattern. Many believed that the father's move into what had been considered the mother's realm was a relatively new phenomenon.

Instead, Johansen's research revealed men of that period who took an active role in the rearing of their children, who increasingly were present at their children's births and who were capable of taking on a majority of household duties if called upon.

Johansen, now a father of four children ranging in age from 17 to 1 1/2, says he felt if the men of today learn that fathers of the past were involved, caring and in control over some of the family decisions, that could help them in their own families. They don't have to follow their own parents' patterns.

"When you give people their history, it empowers them," Johansen says. The early 19th century marked the rise of the middle class in America, the group that has come to dominate American culture.

As Johansen researched middle class families in the first half of the 19th century, mostly through letters, he discovered that men then were much more like men now. For example, while the trend of fathers attending the births of their children is considered a relatively new phenomenon, Johansen found that by the 1830s, pre-Civil War fathers often were present at births, primarily to provide encouragement and share the event, much like today.

Fathers also took a much stronger role in the rearing of their children, Johansen says. Fathers directed their education, provided discipline and gave advice on their children's conduct. They even advised mothers what to feed their children.

Mothers still provided most of the day-to-day care, but fathers often were called upon to take on that role as well. Illness and premature death were much more common in those days, especially in relation to childbirth. Out of necessity, fathers often had to take on the mother's day-to-day duties as well as nursing the sick.

Johansen says his book reveals a lot of different kinds of fathers, expressed in many different voices. And while there were some abusive or absent fathers, he found most to be admirable. "I tried to let the fathers speak," he says.

Johansen's research has included the rise of the middle class, who were mostly the merchants, professionals and politicians of the day.

"Some went to great lengths to both be good career men and good fathers," he says. Johansen first learned of the discrepancy between the lives of fathers of that period and the beliefs about them when he did an academic paper on child-rearing in the early 19th century. The beginning of the 19th century was a time with "real changes going on," he says.

As he studied more, he realized that almost nothing had been done on the private lives of men of that time, but there was a wealth of information available in the letters those men left behind. As a result, he planned his dissertation at UCLA on early 19th century American fatherhood, with the encouragement of his advisor, Ellen DuBois, a prominent women's history scholar.

He concentrated on that topic for the next 14 years.

"Everyone likes to learn the history of our own role," he says.

Johansen learned how little had been done on the topic and how much interest existed when the first publisher he approached accepted his book, based only on his dissertation from years before.

The book, which was published in mid-April, is available at Main Street Books in Frostburg.

For further information on this release, contact:

Office of News and Media Services
Frostburg State University
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Frostburg, MD  21532-2303

Telephone: 301-687-3171
Fax: 301-687-7589