Lisa Wilson: Stepfamilies Are “Traditional” American Families

A History of Stepfamilies in Early America, by Lisa WilsonWe welcome a guest post today from Lisa Wilson, author of A History of Stepfamilies in Early America. Stepfamilies are not a modern phenomenon, but despite this reality, the history of stepfamilies in America has yet to be fully explored. In her book, Wilson examines the stereotypes and actualities of colonial stepfamilies and reveals them to be important factors in early United States domestic history.

In today’s post, Wilson responds to media characterization of stepfamilies as a “new” kind of normal.


What is a traditional American family? In a recent article in AARP Magazine, “The New American Family: Meet 6 clans who embody our country’s changing ideas about what kinship is,” Brennan Jensen, citing high divorce rates, argues that modern families now include “a tumble of step- and half-siblings.” I applaud Jensen’s effort to complicate what we think of as a “real” American family, but I would suggest that the “new” American family is actually the “old” American family—at least in terms of the presence of stepfamilies.

Death (not divorce) created these families in the past, but they were ubiquitous. The number of marriages that were remarriages in early America can give us a sense of how common stepfamilies were.  In some locations 40% of marriages were remarriages. And before effective birth control, most people brought children to a subsequent marriage. Everyone was in or knew someone who was in a stepfamily.

Even the founding Fathers and Mothers of our country were in stepfamilies. George Washington was stepfather to Martha’s children. In fact, he never had children of his own. Benjamin Franklin was the half-brother of James Franklin, the master printer that taught him his trade. Paul Revere as a widower with eight children found a brave woman to take on his brood and the name of stepmother, the widow Rachel Walker. They then created an even larger blended family with eight children of their own. Dolley Todd was a widow with a child when she married James Madison, the future President of the United States. The list goes on.

A recent report on stepfamilies from the Pew Research Center provides perhaps the most accurate estimate of the prevalence of stepfamilies in the American population today. Of the almost 2700 adults interviewed about their families for this study, 42% said that they had steprelations of some kind. As we change what we consider a family in this country, we should include the reality of a large stepfamily presence in the past. These families are not just an unfortunate outcome of modern divorce rates. They are not simply a family form that emerges from the wreckage of “broken” families. Stepfamilies were typical American families then and now. Like all families, they deserve respect, but their continual presence in American history also needs acknowledgment.

Lisa Wilson is the Charles J. MacCurdy Professor of American history at Connecticut College. A History of Stepfamilies in Early America is now available.