43 N America: Population Geography II – The Demographic Transition and Culture Wars

In Chapter 8, we examined the demographic transition. That model examines the process through which societies transform from rural to urban, from preindustrial to postindustrial, and from an era that features high birth rates and high death rates, through a population explosion, to eras that feature low birth rates and low death rates. As a society undergoes these monumental demographic transformations, it is only natural that cultural attitudes and behaviors will transform with them. And as these attitudes and behaviors change, they give rise to culture wars. Culture wars are conflicts related to things like marriage, family, sex, and gender. While these are usually “wars” only in the metaphorical sense – taking place in the social and political arena – they sometimes do devolve into actual violent conflict.

In the United States, the debate over these cultural conventions has divided governments, political parties, religious organizations, communities, and families, and remain a leading source of divisiveness in the country. These debates are by no means unique to the United States. All areas of the world that go through the demographic transition have experienced, are experiencing, or will experience these culture wars.

At the core of these conflicts is a battle between social conservatives – those who adhere to the traditional cultural values established in the preindustrial era – and social liberals, who welcome the more modern cultural values established in the industrial and postindustrial eras. In this chapter, we’ll examine traditional cultural values, the trends in society that threaten those values, and how these trends were created by the demographic transition.

A primary cultural convention in traditional societies was the idea that marriage was the central institution in society. Marriages in traditional societies typically ended only in death — divorces were rare and, in many cases, nearly impossible to obtain. Securing a spouse was considered to be the most significant moment in a person’s life. In preindustrial societies, a wife was necessary for a man’s livelihood, because most men were farmers, and children were a vital source of farm labor. In these societies, a husband was even more necessary for a woman’s livelihood, because there were so few educational and career opportunities for women. People got married at a young age – often in their late teens – and had children as soon and as often as possible.

Another cultural convention in traditional societies was an extremely conservative attitude toward sex. In these societies, the prevailing belief was that sexual activity should be confined to marriage, with reproduction as its primary goal. Premarital, extramarital, and gay sex were culturally unacceptable, as was any form of birth control. Sex was a private matter, and any overt displays of sexuality were culturally unacceptable.

Finally, a key cultural convention in traditional societies can be summarized in the old phrase, “a woman’s place is in the home.” In modern societies, such an idea seems not only old-fashioned, but offensive. In traditional societies, however, it was generally accepted as fact. Married women were expected to confine themselves to the domestic sphere. Their jobs were to be wives and mothers, and little else. Men were in charge of the public sphere. Things like business and politics were exclusively male domains.

To understand this cultural attitude, it is important to consider both the demographics and technology of the preindustrial era. In 1850, the United States’ total fertility rate was 7.9, meaning that the average American woman had about eight children. Being a mother is still not easy, but in the 1850s it was practically tortuous. Imagine raising eight children without the modern conveniences of supermarkets, mass-produced clothing, indoor plumbing, electricity, hot water heaters, washing machines, dryers, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, disposable diapers, and microwave ovens, to name a few. If a woman’s place was in the home, it was because she had little time to be anyplace else.

By 1920, the demographic transition in the United States was in full swing. That was the first year that more Americans lived in cities than in rural areas. A century later, the lifestyles of the preindustrial era have largely faded into the past, but the cultural conventions established during that era are alive and well in the minds of many conservative Americans. It is notable that American social conservatives are most prominent in rural areas and small towns, where cultural connections with the preindustrial past are strongest, and social liberals are most prominent in large cities, where cultural connections with the preindustrial past are weakest.

The culture wars are complex, but four cultural trends have been particularly distressing for social conservatives: women’s liberation, the increased divorce rate, premarital and extramarital sex, and the LGBTQ movement.

Women’s liberation refers to the movement of women into the public sphere. Over the last century, women have increasingly carved out space for themselves in the political, economic, and social arenas traditionally dominated by men. It would be difficult to argue that this movement is complete. Women still typically earn about 20% less than their male counterparts, and the boardrooms of American corporations are still largely male. Women still make up less than a quarter of the U.S. Congress, and the United States has never had a female president or vice president. Still, there has been progress. Remember, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution – allowing women to vote throughout the United States – was not enacted until 1920. While it would be unfair to say that social conservatives universally oppose women’s liberation, it would also be a stretch to argue that they’ve been the most ardent supporters of it. One of the most popular figures among social conservatives is the radio host Rush Limbaugh, who has the infamous habit of referring to feminists as “femi-Nazis.”

Social conservatives often cite the increased divorce rate as another alarming indication of the erosion of traditional cultural values in America. As mentioned above, divorces were discouraged, if not impossible, in traditional societies. In 1890, fewer than 1% of American marriages ended in divorce. By 1990, about 45% of marriages ended in divorce.

Another commonly cited sign of the decay of traditional cultural attitudes is an increased acceptance of premarital sex and extramarital sex (premarital refers to sex before marriage, and is a subset of extramarital sex, which is any sex that takes place outside of marriage). In traditional societies, people generally waited until they were married to have sex. If they didn’t wait, they certainly didn’t advertise that fact. Today, sex outside of marriage is much more widely discussed and accepted. In response to this, many social conservatives have promoted abstinence education, encouraging young people to abstain from premarital sex, and in some states, they’ve been able to make such programs part of the public-school curriculum.

Finally, many social conservatives had been alarmed by the LGBTQ rights movement (LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning). In traditional societies, only heterosexual sex was considered morally permissible, and a person’s gender was expected to conform to their biological sex at birth. Like the women’s rights movement, the LGBTQ movement has come a long way, and has a long way to go. In 1962, Illinois became the first state to decriminalize homosexuality. Eighteen more states decriminalized it by 1980, but being gay would not be technically legal throughout the United States until a 2003 Supreme Court decision. That same year, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage. Marriage equality would not come to all states until a Supreme Court decision in 2015, and LGBTQ individuals would not be considered a protected minority under the Civil Rights Act until a Supreme Court decision in 2020. Despite these legal advances, LGBTQ rights remain a deeply divisive issue.

Americans will likely debate these cultural changes for years to come, but there is little doubt about what is driving them – the demographic transition. First, women’s liberation. In traditional societies, women started having children at a very young age, and had a lot of children over the course of their lifetimes. Coupled with shorter life spans, this meant that women spent the bulk of their adult lives as the mothers of young children.

Today’s situation is quite different. To begin, women are having far fewer children. Women are also getting married later, and are much more likely to get an education and start a career before having kids. The average American woman has two children, usually about three years apart. That means that, by the time the second child enters school, only eight years have passed. That represents only 10% of the average American woman’s lifespan. So, many women reenter the workforce after their second child enters school, if they ever left the workforce at all – many women continue to work as they raise small children. As mentioned above, women in traditional societies had little time to invest in anything outside of the domestic sphere. That is not true for modern women, and as a result they have staked their claim to the traditionally male-dominated public sphere.

The demographic transition is also behind the increased divorce rate. It is worth noting that there have always been unhappy marriages. But marriages used to be an economic necessity, particularly for women. That is not the case anymore, since women have access to educational and career opportunities that didn’t exist a century ago. Those opportunities arose because of the declining birth rates associated with the demographic transition. The lack of economic necessity has removed a powerful stabilizing force from marriage.

For a century, social conservatives have attributed the increased acceptance of premarital and extramarital sex to all kinds of things – movies, jazz, rock and roll, television, the internet – but the real driving force behind this cultural change has been the demographic transition. That, and some basic math. On average, children enter puberty at the age of twelve. The process usually takes about four years, meaning that most people reach sexual maturity around the age of sixteen. In traditional societies, people often got married in their late teens, so the window between sexual maturity and marriage was often only a couple of years. As such, asking people to abstain from sex before marriage was somewhat reasonable. Today, because of the social changes created by the demographic transition, the average American gets married when they are twenty-eight years old. That means that, for most Americans, a dozen years pass between sexual maturity and marriage. That makes sexual abstinence a lot less likely.

As premarital and extramarital sex became more common – and more commonly accepted – Americans began to think and talk about sex in a different way. Sex was no longer something to be hidden away in marriage with reproduction as its primary goal. In a sense, sex was culturally “decoupled” from marriage and reproduction. This allowed for discussions of gay sex – long a taboo topic in the United States – to enter into the mainstream cultural conversation. Attitudes and conventions began to shift. As a result of that, open discussions about gender identity also began to enter into mainstream culture. And all of these conversations were sparked by the demographic transition.


Did You Know?

In 1890, Annie White Baxter of Carthage, Missouri, was elected Clerk of Jasper County. She was the first woman to hold elective office in the United States.


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The Western World: Daily Readings on Geography Copyright © 2020 by Joel Quam and Scott Campbell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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