Date of Defense


Date of Graduation



Political Science

First Advisor

Lauren Foley

Second Advisor

David Paul

Third Advisor

Carrie Leatherman


Child custody standards have evolved over time due to societal attitude shifts regarding gender roles. The stereotypes present within the decision-making process of child custody laws have been challenged repeatedly in order to attack sexism within the laws. Child custody decisions are important for the child and family in question, because whichever parental guardian has custody over the child has the legal authority to make life changing choices for the child. These choices can include education, religion, and the environment the child grows and develops in. Parental choices can affect a child's mental and physical well-being, which makes it crucial that custody decisions are made in the best interest for the child. In addition, studying evolving child custody standards is important for our overall understanding of American history. Child custody standards provide insight into the changing stereotypes around gender and how these stereotypes have influenced the legal decision-making process of custody decisions.

Historically, child custody laws often favored one parent over the other. However, through social movements, advocates were able to create change within societal attitudes and the legal system. The goal of these social movements was to remove stereotypes present in the judicial system and create a standard that evaluated guardians equally. This change in societal attitudes and norms has allowed for a shift in the legal framework of child custody laws, which has created a more equitable decision-making process in custody cases.

This thesis examines the change of child custody standards through three eras in American history, Colonial (1630 -1830), the “Tender Years Doctrine” (1830 - 1970), and the “Best Interests of the Child” (1970 - Present). Each section explains how activism pushed by social movements caused social change in attitudes in regard to gender norms, and how these changes in attitudes translated into a new standard. The goal of this study is to answer the question “How have social movements influenced child custody standards over time?”

Access Setting

Honors Thesis-Open Access

Presentation.pdf (322 kB)
Defense Presentation