The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz (Author)
Someone on the Jesus Creed blog mentioned the book “The Way We Never Were.”
Review is from 1992, by CONSTANCE CASEY. Excerpts:
- American families have changed in the last 20 years–nearly half of all families with children have both parents working–and our anxiety about change is no delusion.
There has certainly been some decay in values recently. As Coontz tartly observes, “Twenty-five percent of the people polled in a recent national inquiry into American morality said that for $10 million they would abandon their entire family; a large number of people are evidently willing to do the same thing for free.”
Coontz believes that what we’re experiencing now, however, is not so much the family’s dissolution as “an erosion of commitment to social obligations in general, and to children in particular.” Furthermore, things weren’t all that great before.
Chapter by chapter, Coontz takes on the myths. Divorce may end many marriages now, but largely because of high mortality rates, the average length of marriage in Colonial times was less than 12 years.
The “Life With Father” Victorian family–in which men were the breadwinners and women the domestic angels–owed its existence to the fact that other families were poor. Middle-class women had time to spend with their children because they employed laundresses and maids and cooks. Often these German or Welsh or Irish immigrant servant “girls” really were girls, as young as 11.
While 20% of American children today are poor, she writes, “At the turn of the century the same proportion lived in orphanages, not because they actually lacked both parents, but because one or both parents simply could not afford their keep.”
Coontz’s take on the Golden Age of the family–Ward and June, Ozzie and Harriet–is not brand new, but worth restating. “The apparently stable families of the 1950s were the result of an economic boom–the gross national product grew by nearly 250% and per capita income by 35%.” Most important, there was steady employment for the Ward Cleavers of America.
Ozzie never came home with a pink slip and never applied for welfare. But the Nelsons and the Cleavers were generously underwritten by the federal government. Because of the extraordinary boom, the feds could afford to be generous with everything from education money to housing loans and highway construction.
Part of the mythology of the Golden Age was that only morally deficient families required government help. As refutation, Coontz provides a wonderfully specific example–Phil Gramm, senator from Texas and staunch opponent of government handouts: “Born in Georgia in 1942, to a father who was living on a federal veterans disability pension, Gramm attended a publicly funded university on a grant paid for by the federal War Orphans Act. His graduate work was financed by a National Defense Education Act fellowship, and his first job was at Texas A & M University, a federal land-grant institution.”
Coontz makes it hard for us to blame the usual suspects for family decay–those negligent working mothers and those immoral teen-age girls. She demonstrates that most of the family problems associated with working women rise from “the inadequate and incomplete integration of women into productive work.” And she charges that, “The image of teen-age girls having babies to receive welfare checks is an emotion-laden but fraudulent cliche.” If welfare benefits cause teen pregnancy, “why is it that other industrial countries, with far more generous support policies for women and children, have far lower rates of teen pregnancy?” (Incidentally, the highest rate of teen-age childbearing in 20th-Century America was in 1957.)
“Children do best,” Coontz concludes, “in societies where child-rearing is considered too important to be left entirely to parents.” In order to be elected these days, candidates have to demonstrate that they care deeply about their own children. We should demand that they also care about other people’s children.
Info on the book:
- The Way We Never Were examines two centuries of American family life and shatters a series of myths and half-truths that burden modern families. Placing current family dilemmas in the context of far-reaching economic, political, and demographic changes, Coontz sheds new light on such contemporary concerns as parenting, privacy, love, the division of labor along gender lines, the black family, feminism, and sexual practice.
Did you ever wonder about the historical accuracy of those “traditional family values” touted in the heated arguments that insist our cultural ills can be remedied by their return?
Of course, myth is rooted in fact, and certain phenomena of the 1950s generated the Ozzie and Harriet icon. The decade proved profamily–the birthrate rose dramatically; social problems that nag–gangs, drugs, violence–weren’t even on the horizon.
Affluence had become almost a right; the middle class was growing. “In fact,” writes Coontz, “the ‘traditional’ family of the 1950s was a qualitatively new phenomenon. At the end of the 1940s, all the trends characterizing the rest of the twentieth century suddenly reversed themselves.”
This clear-eyed, bracing, and exhaustively researched study of American families and the nostalgia trap proves–beyond the shadow of a doubt–that Leave It to Beaver was not a documentary.
Gender, too, is always on Coontz’s mind. In the third chapter (“My Mother Was a Saint”), she offers an analysis of the contradictions and chasms inherent in the “traditional” division of labor.
She reveals, next, how rarely the family exhibited economic and emotional self-reliance, suggesting that the shift from community to nuclear family was not healthy.
Coontz combines a clear prose style with bold assertions, backed up by an astonishing fleet of researched, myth-skewing facts.
The 88 pages of endnotes dramatize both her commitment to and deep knowledge of the subject. Brilliant, beautifully organized, iconoclastic, and (relentlessly) informative The Way We Never Were breathes fresh air into a too often suffocatingly “hot” and agenda-sullied subject.
In the penultimate chapter, for example, a crisp reframing of the myth of black-family collapse leads to a reinterpretation of the “family crisis” in general, putting it in the larger context of social, economic, and political ills.
The book began in response to the urgent questions about the family crisis posed her by nonacademic audiences. Attempting neither to defend “tradition” in the era of family collapse, nor to liberate society from its constraints, Coontz instead cuts through the kind of sentimental, ahistorical thinking that has created unrealistic expectations of the ideal family.
“I show how these myths distort the diverse experiences of other groups in America,” Coontz writes, “and argue that they don’t even describe most white, middle-class families accurately.” The bold truth of history after all is that “there is no one family form that has ever protected people from poverty or social disruption, and no traditional arrangement that provides a workable model for how we might organize family relations in the modern world.”
Some of America’s most precious myths are not only precarious, but down right perverted, and we would be fools to ignore Stephanie Coontz’s clarion call. –Hollis Giammatteo
From Publishers Weekly
The golden age of the American family never existed, asserts Coontz ( The Social Origns of Private Life ) in a wonderfully perceptive, myth-debunking report. The “Leave It to Beaver” ideal of breadwinner father, full-time homemaker mother and dependent children was a fiction of the 1950s, she shows.
Real families of that period were rife with conflict, repression and anxiety, frequently poor and much less idyllic than many assume; teen pregnancy rates in the ’50s were higher than today.
Further, Coontz contends, the nuclear family was elevated to a central source of personal satisfaction only in the late 19th century, thereby weakening people’s community ties and sense of civic obligation.
Coontz disputes the idea that children can be raised properly only in traditional families. Viewing modern domestic problems as symptoms of a much larger socioeconomic crisis, she demonstrates that no single type of household has ever protected Americans from social disruption or poverty.
An important contribution to the current debate on family values.