War and the Family


By MARGARET CULKIN BANNING, Novelist and Specialist in American Women's Activities

Delivered at the National Women's Conference, under the Auspices of the New York Times, April 7, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 442-444.

THE fate of the family is one of the things that the world is fighting over. The issue is sometimes lost in the mazes of geopolitics. On the other hand, it is sometimes greatly over-sentimentalized, which is a pity. For in an unparalleled war like this, it is important that as many men and women as possible be sufficiently impersonal to realize that they are fighting not merely to preserve their own homes or to protect their own relatives. If it gives courage or stimulus to a soldier to so limit the object of the war, or if it gives comfort to his wife or mother, no one will gainsay them. But the danger is that this limitation of outlook may lead to bewilderment or lack of satisfaction later on, when fen peace the family may still face problems and changes.

When we talk realistically of the preservation of the family as an object of the Allied Nations' joined struggle, what we mean is that we fight for the right of each nation to preserve and develop the family in its own way. It means that we fight for the right of the individual to relate his human relationships to supernatural ones if he is inspired to do so. That Christian nations will have methods and patterns for the family and enhance it with supernatural values that will be ignored or disbelieved in non-Christian nations is obvious.

Most of us watched the shaping of German family life under Hitler with intense dismay. A few were deceived by a front of athletics and virility. A few were reactionary enoughto believe that Hitler had the right idea about keeping women in the home. This was pre-war and there was nothing that outsiders could do about it, any more than we could prevent the mad teaching in Japan that a young man's greatest glory is to die in battle. But such things became our business very definitely when the arrogant attempt to impose curiously ideas on the rest of the world came from both East and West within a few years.

"So the fight of nations to preserve their own kind of family life and the privilege of religions to influence and support family ties are both motives and objects in this war. In this country its preservation is a most important object, for the whole social organization of the United States is based on the family and if this war harms or disintegrates that unit, we shall find ourselves completely loose at the roots.

It is very easy and worse than useless to try to generalize about the effects of the war on the family. So many things are true as to its effect and they seem to contradict one another. And some things are true, but not true often enough to be significant. For example, the war breaks up families. But it brings families closer together. It is very hard on children, causing neglect and danger to them. Yet it makes people and their governments very conscious of the needs of children, very much in the mood to contribute to their protection and welfare and, as notably in England, the children of the poor get more care in wartime than ever before.

Some say in rounded phrases that we are at war to preserve the traditional family. Others insist that we are at war because of a deep world urge to improve the conditions surrounding the family.

So what have we? We have a war, rooted in great processes of change, but projected and promoted and flung at the world by those who would destroy the right to have such private human relationships as our kind of family.

The Allied Nations are going to win this war sooner or later, and so we can be confident that, after disappointments and deaths, after many more individual families have been torn away and maimed and destroyed by the losses of war, we shall in the end retain the right to set up the family. And when that happens, it may be important to remind ourselves that the right will be variously exercised and that neither China nor Russia had the American idea of family in mind when they were fighting so superbly. They had their own ideas, and a right to them. If we have the same right, and if freedom of speech and freedom of religion are maintained, our task limits itself to a close consideration of what war has done to the family in the United States of America, and what we want the subsequent peace to do for it.

Let us look first at what the war had done to the family right around us, within our immediate vision. Certainly, even in separation, it has brought a new appreciation of family ties within the group. The boy who took home for granted and was often rather bored with it, who went out whenever he could get out, finds himself on a desert in Africa dreaming of home. Not of the pool hall on the corner, but of little family things, of what he had to eat and what fun it was to quarrel with his sister, and what a swell mother he has. The wife, who was restless because her husband seemed rather commonplace and irritating, finds that now that he is gone to war her life is empty. Bride after bride finds her married life condensed, as far as she can be certain of it at least, to a few weeks or even days. The mother and father who used to scold Johnny for being careless or negligent, find that now that he is in the wars, even his faults are dear to them.

The family is not only more dear to its own members butit is more valued by the government. Not for political reasons but because health and stability in young men and women are so closely related to family habits and training. The soft spots of dissipated circles, of degenerate or illiterate communities, show up very quickly, when we begin closely to appraise our youth.

And as the United States was sobered by war and began to detach itself from frivolities and ephemeral values, family units began to stand out as something to tie to. Tired of rattling around in the wide and undefined spaces conjured up by phrases about "a better world," people began to pin their minds to the family unit as a place to begin. It is the best metaphor for an idea burgeoning everywhere. If you doubt this, look at Broadway, look at the book counters, and listen to the internationalists!

The sophisticated are crowding to see "The Skin of Our Teeth," an obscure play representing the course of the human family. The optimistic are reading and seeing Saroyan's larger-and-better-than-life family. The radios tell problem stories of families in unending succession to untiring audiences. The best-selling novels are no longer the stories of the experiences of one individual, but stories of the course of families that repeat their faults and build up their strength. We hear on every side the phrase "family of nations." It is an understandable unit.

So the first thing that the war has done to the family is to give it not only a fresh popularity but a deepened honor.

Some other effects arc not so cheering. In spite of this resurgence of admiration for family life, the family has suffered more in this war than in previous wars. The impacts against it have been three. Two have been the classic ones of separation and of deprivation. The other we may call participation, and though it is not entirely new to this war, it is new in scope. The first two impacts are obvious enough. The third results from the fact that in total war every sound adult, man or woman, is due to participate in the war effort.

In all other involved countries, separation and deprivation and participation as well have been carried to extents which are far greater than they are here within the United States. We may perhaps know and suffer as much separation as other peoples before the war is over. But a like measure of deprivation is unlikely, and certainly unnecessary, for our resources, properly managed, would outlast those of any other fighting country for needs of sustenance. The impact of family participation we are beginning to feel more and more, as women become involved in the war effort.

If I may, I would like to clear away one detail that might clutter this discussion. There has been an attempt here and there, sometimes for sensational reasons, sometimes based on true concern, to debate the point as to whether or not it is wise for women who have young children to go into industry. On this point there are no two opinions. That is not only true in this country but also in Great Britain, and in all the other countries where it is possible to do anything about it. No one, either in authority in any government that I know anything about, or in private life, wants to take a young mother away from her children or to encourage her to leave them. All over the world, governments wish young mothers to continue the patriotic duty of bringing children into the world and of giving them personal care.

But life, even in peace time, is not so simple or easy to regulate as our preferences. And the events of war do not wait upon perfected national arrangements at home. The facts are that in many places women with small children are working—in factories because jobs are suddenly available and wages good—because no other labor is available and war orders must be filled. Because there is no place to housemobile labor. Also, because of a shortage of labor, women are working as laundresses, scrubwomen, and in all kinds of jobs. And I believe that our first concern at this point should not be to stand on theory, but to win the war, and to see simultaneously that, whether the theory is right or wrong, the children of a working mother must be cared for. In that way we shall prevent irreparable damage being done to the family during the war.

At the end of the war the family will find that it has been affected perhaps by only one of these impacts, perhaps by all of them. It is to be hoped that every family will have felt the deprivations of war, and have been strengthened by sacrifice of luxury, of money and of unnecessary foods. Heaven knows that our prayers go up all the time that as few separations as possible will be permanent. The final effect, that of full participation, on the family, may serve—and I hope it will—to give it a new power in the future.

Let us think for a minute or two of the differences the family may expect for itself after the war.

First of all, the family will be physically safe again, except from normal risks. The air raid placards can be taken down. But it will be a long time before the home feels as safe as it has in the past, if ever. Families will know now that if the world is not safely governed there is no real remoteness from the bombers and the flame thrower, and no permanent safety for women and children, except in international cooperation.

Second, the family will be encouraged to increase itself because, as every nation knows now, there is a grave danger of a falling birthrate. Mr. Churchill said, in his recent Sunday broadcast to the world, that England must produce more children. Many a sound and thoughtful article in this country points out the same thing.

Third, the family should be able to have a better and more comfortable home. Abilities that are preoccupied now with war material will turn to better housing, to supplying comforts and conveniences for everyone.

Fourth, the family will have more earning capacity than before because in many instances the wife, as well as the husband, the girl as well as the boy, has learned a new trade during the war.

Finally, as I think we all know in our hearts as well as from our observation, there will be a danger of reaction from the present emotional drawing together within the family, from the nobility of purpose and from the establishment of real values, which we feel exists today. There is a let-down that camp-follows after wars, always seeking to corrupt the peace.

Now if we truly and gravely seek to keep what we have gained, to get the most out of the changes for good the war can bring, and to minimize its evil effects, our task as women is before us. It is large but not too large so that we can not see the details of our personal jobs.

We should then insist on safety for the families of the future. Safety from war, which will always be total war from now on.

We should encourage in every possible way the increase of families in accordance with government wish and human desire. But we should insist that government see to it that there are no neglected children, and no vitiating childhoods in the whole breadth of this country, and no burdens on mothers which make them unfit for their jobs. These things go together. I have known in my life few people who didn't want children, who did not think it was their human or sacred duty to have them. There will be no open protest if society in the future does not do its share in helping motherhood, but there will be a definite absenteeism from motherhood.

It is our immediate business to help steady the great numbers of marriages in which the beginning of married life has been abnormal because of separation of husband and wife, to urge continuance and adjustment when these marriages falter. We all know these cases. This is personal work, where advice will help but a job and a place to rent will help even more.

I think we should see to it that no capacity which a woman has gained during the war should be wasted or lost. All these feed into the family strength. Sometimes these capacities may be kept alive by retraining after the child-bearing period is over, sometimes they may serve to make a mother a better mother to her sons and daughters and a better companion to her husband.

The Hitler pattern of the family failed in this war. He sent women to the kitchens and nurseries, but he took their growing sons from them and he lessened their husbands' respect for them. When he had to take them from the kitchens to the factories again, as he had to, he found the women were incompetent, faulty in spirit and effort. Our pattern for family life after this war should be the direct converse. Men and women should share their whole lives more completely than they ever have in the past, understanding that sex is the fusion of the family and not a dividing line.

My great hope for the post-war family is that it will apply what it has learned and waste nothing.