This theme focuses on changes to family, class, and social groups in European history, on how these have changed in form and in status, and on the impact of such changes for both the individual and society.
Early modern society was divided into three estates: clergy, nobility, and commoners (the latter including merchants, townspeople, and the overwhelming majority, the peasantry). Within those estates, family and landed wealth shaped social practices, as did religious beliefs and practices. Access to resources and opportunities remained unequal even within estates, and the poorest members of society served as both objects of charity or problems to be controlled. With the advent of the Reformation, new Protestant denominations challenged each other and the Catholic Church, establishing new religious practices and social influence.
Marriage and family life were constrained by the values of the community and closely prescribed norms. Gathering resources to create a new household often required young adults to work and save for a period of years, and a late age of marriage for commoners (the European family pattern) tended to limit demographic growth. In preindustrial Europe, women's and men's work was complementary rather than separate, since peasants worked communally to bring in the harvest, oversee journeymen and apprentices, keep financial records, and market products. Women played active roles in movements of cultural and social change, while gender norms continued to stress women's intellectual inferiority and their duty to obey fathers and husbands. Women's access to institutional power remained limited, even as the Protestant Reformation placed new emphasis on the role of women in the family as mothers and assistants in religious instruction and schooling.
Demographic growth spurred social change in the 18th century. The Enlightenment brought a new emphasis on childhood as a stage of life, and the ideal of companionate marriage began to compete with arranged marriages. The French Revolution formally ended the division of society into three estates and continued to challenge traditional society throughout the 19th century, though remnants of the old order persisted into the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution created a division of social classes based on new criteria of capital and labor. The revolutionary emphasis on liberty galvanized many excluded groups to take an active role in politics, and the language of natural rights spurred the development of movements of equality, such as feminism and the end of feudalism and serfdom. The growth of the middle classes in the 19th century tended to anchor men and women in separate spheres and elevate women's role in the home into "the cult of domesticity." Early industrialism negatively affected the working classes and, more generally, shifted the family from a unit of production to one of consumption.
By the late 19th century, a new mass society had emerged defined by consumerism, expanding literacy, and new forms of leisure. The "woman question" that had emerged in the 17th century took on a new intensity as women sought economic and legal rights. World War I profoundly affected European society by conclusively ending the residual hold of old elites on power and democratizing society through shared sacrifice, and women obtained the right to vote in several European nations. Between the wars, Soviet communism theoretically endorsed equality, though women often performed double duty as laborers and mothers; on the other hand, fascist regimes re-emphasized a domestic role for women and created states based on a mythical racial identity. After World War II, the welfare state emerged in Western Europe with more support for families, choices in reproduction, and state-sponsored health care; economic recovery brought new consumer choices and popular culture. By contrast, in the Soviet bloc, where individual choices were directed by the state, family life was constrained and economic life was dedicated to heavy industry rather than the production of consumer goods, though basic needs were provided within an authoritarian context. The end of the Cold War and the rise of the EU brought some shared social values to light and created more pluralistic European societies, but contested issues, such as the role of immigrants -- whether former colonial subjects, migrant workers, or refugees -- have yet to be resolved.
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