The Way We Never Were
Date of Publication:
I picked this book up both because it looked very intriguing and because I was working on a project on changes in gender and sex roles in the U.S. since the 1950s. What a find! This book looks, in depth, at many of the myths surrounding changes in the families since the 1950s. If ever there was a sociological book designed to debunk widely held beliefs and myths about a social phenomenon, this book is it. It quite literally takes myth after myth and destroys them. Some of the myths covered in the book include:
- Myth: Women and children in “traditional” two-parent families do not and did not experience poverty.
Au contraire! From page 4, “Budget studies and medical records reveal that women and children in poor families of the past were far more likely to go without needed nutrients than were male heads of families. Poverty has always been feminized…”
- Myth: Divorced men are less likely to support their children today than they used to be.
Au contraire! From page 4, “Modern statistics on child-support evasion are appalling, but prior to the 1920s, a divorced father did not even have a legal child-support obligation to evade. Until that time, children were considered assets of the family head, and his duty to support them ended if he was not in the home to receive the wages they could earn.”
- Myth: The disintegration of the modern family has resulted in an increase in child abuse.
Au contraire! From page 4, “As for child abuse, it has far too long and brutal a history to be blamed on recent family innovations.”
- Myth: Children, today, just need to be put to work to stop them from engaging in delinquent behavior.
Au contraire! From page 5, “While overpermissiveness may create problems among some modern youth, overwork was responsible for the prevalence of delinquency and runaways in the late nineteenth century. Today’s high school dropout rates are shocking, but as late as the 1940s, less than half the youths entering high school managed to finish, a figure much smaller than today’s.”
- Myth: The use and abuse of alcohol and drugs is more widespread today than it ever has been.
Au contraire! From page 5, “Alcohol and drug abuse, similarly, were widespread well before modern rearrangements of gender roles and family life. In the 1820s, per capita consumption of alcohol was almost three times higher than it is today, and there was a major epidemic of opium and cocaine addiction in the late nineteenth century. On a per capita basis, narcotic abuse was certainly as bad and probably worse then as it is today. Many middle-class women were addicted to patent medicines that contained powerful drugs; pharmacists routinely dispatched young messenger boys to people’s homes with vials of morphine.”
- Myth: The nuclear family protects people from poverty and social disruption.
Au contraire! From pages 5 and 6, “Although there are many things to draw on in our past, 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.”
- Myth: There was a golden age of the family.
Au contraire! From page 9, “Like most visions of a “golden age,” the “traditional family” my students describe evaporates on closer examination. It is an ahistorical amalgam of structures, values, and behaviors that never co-existed in the same time and place. The notion that traditional families fostered intense intimacy between husbands and wives while creating mothers who were totally available to their children, for example, is an idea that combines some characteristics of the white, middle-class family in the mid-nineteenth century and some of a rival family ideal first articulated in the 1920s. The first family revolved emotionally around the mother-child axis, leaving the husband-wife relationship stilted and formal. The second focused on an eroticized couple relationship, demanding that mothers curb emotional “overinvestment” in their children. The hybrid idea that a woman can be fully absorbed with her youngsters while simultaneously maintaining passionate sexual excitement with her husband was a 1950s invention that drove thousands of women to therapists, tranquilizers, or alcohol when they actually tried to live up to it.”
- Myth: Authoritarian, extended families result in better outcomes for children.
Au contraire! This kind of depends on your notion of what “better outcomes” is, but here’s a quote from page 9 that addresses this myth, “Similarly, an extended family in which all members work together under the top-down authority of the household elder operates very differently from a nuclear family in which husband and wife are envisioned as friends who patiently devise ways to let the children learn by trial and error. Children who worked in family enterprises seldom had time for the extracurricular activities that Wally and the Beaver recounted to their parents over the dinner table; often, they did not even go to school full-time. Mothers who did home production generally relegated child care to older children or servants; they did not suspend work to savor a baby’s first steps or discuss with their husband how to facilitate a grade-schooler’s “self-esteem.” Such families emphasized formality, obedience to authority, and “the way it’s always been” in their childrearing.”
- Myth: Families in the past were extremely independent and autonomous.
Au contraire! Families of all stripes have benefited from various and sundry government handouts, from homesteaders to farmers to railroad tycoons. Here’s one example of a particularly hypocritical Republican Senator, Phil Gramm, from page 69, “Sen. Phil Gramm, for example, co-author of the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced budget amendment, is well known for his opposition to government handouts. However, his personal history is quite different from his political rhetoric. 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. Yet when Gramm finally struck out on his own, the first thing he did was set up a consulting business where he could be, in his own words, “an advocate of fiscal responsibility and free enterprise.” From there he moved on to Congress, where he has consistently attempted to slash federal assistance programs for low-income people.”
- Myth: Women did not work outside the home prior to the 1960s and 1970s.
Au contraire! From pages 155 and 156, “The first point to make about the growing participation of women in the work force during the twentieth century is that their nineteenth-century separation from productive work was itself a new-and, it turns out, transitory-state of affairs. The factory system established a more rigid division of labor and location than had previously existed between household production and production for the market. Middle-class families adapted to this division by putting men on the market side of the line and women and children on the household one, while working-class families assigned only married women to the household side, sending men, unmarried women, and youngsters out of the household into paid work. The result was a decline in the number of women, especially married ones, who produced goods and services for circulation beyond the household… By 1870, women comprised only 16 percent of the labor force, and as late as 1900 a mere 5 percent to 9 percent of married women worked for wages. These figures underestimate the real contributions wives made to household income: Much paid work, such as taking in boarders or selling homemade items, was unreported; census calculations of the labor force did not then count, as they now do, persons who worked fifteen hours or more a week as unpaid laborers in a family business… every decade after 1880 saw an increase in women’s representation in the labor force…”
- Myth: Parents should bear the sole responsibility for raising their children.
Au contraire! From page 210 and pages 287 and 288, “I will argue later that the rest of American culture should adopt standards of childrearing that do not confine responsibility to parents, and I will show that many modern discussions of maternal employment, day care, divorce, and single parenthood are distorted by the myth that parents can or should be solely responsible for how their children grow…” “…the historical evidence does suggest that families have been most successful wherever they have built meaningful, solid networks and commitments beyond their own boundaries. We may discover that the best thing we will ever do for our own families, however we define them, is to get involved in community or political action to help others.”
- Myth: The consumer expansion of the 1950s trickled down to all families.
Au contraire! From pages 29 and 30, “A full 25 percent of Americans, forty to fifty million people, were poor in the mid-1950s, and in the absence of food stamps and housing programs, this poverty was searing. Even at the end of the 1950s, a third of American children were poor. Sixty percent of Americans over sixty-five had incomes below $1,000 in 1958, considerably below the $3,000 to $10,000 level considered to represent middle-class status. A majority of elders also lacked medical insurance. Only half the population had savings in 1959; one-quarter of the population had no liquid assets at all. Even when we consider only native-born, white families, one-third could not get by on the income of the household head.”
- Myth: Women turned willfully and happily to housewifery in the 1950s.
Au contraire! From pages 31 and 32, “Women’s retreat to housewifery, for example, was in many cases not freely chosen. During the war, thousands of women had entered new jobs, gained new skills, joined unions, and fought against job discrimination. Although 95 percent of the new women employees had expected when they were first hired to quit work at the end of the war, by 1945 almost an equally overwhelming majority did not want to give up their independence, responsibility, and income, and expressed the desire to continue working. After the war, however… management went to extraordinary lengths to purge women workers from the auto plants, as well as from other high-paying and nontraditional jobs. As it turned out, in most cases women were not permanently expelled from the labor force but were merely downgraded to lower-paid, “female” jobs. Even at the end of the purge, there were more women working than before the war, and by 1952 there were two million more wives at work than at the peak of wartime production. The jobs available to these women, however, lacked the pay and the challenges that had made wartime work so satisfying, encouraging women to define themselves in terms of home and family even when they were working.”
- Myth: Women loved being housewives in the 1950s.
Au contraire! From page 35, “Beneath the polished facades of many “ideal” families, suburban as well as urban, was violence, terror, or simply grinding misery that only occasionally came to light. Although Colorado researchers found 302 battered-child cases, including 33 deaths, in their state during one year alone, the major journal of American family sociology did not carry a single article on family violence between 1939 and 1969. Wife battering was not even considered a “real” crime by most people. Psychiatrists in the 1950s, following Helene Deutsch, “regarded the battered woman as a masochist who provoked her husband into beating her. Historian Elizabeth Pleck describes how one Family Service Association translated this psychological approach into patient counseling during the 1950s. Mrs. K came to the Association because her husband was an alcoholic who repeatedly abused her, both physically and sexually. The agency felt, however, that it was simplistic to blame the couple’s problems on his drinking. When counselors learned that Mrs. K refused her husband’s demands for sex after he came home from working the night shift, they decided that they had found a deeper difficulty: Mrs. K needed therapy to “bring out some of her anxiety about sex activities.”"
- Myth: Giving teenage girls with children welfare checks acts like a reward and encourages the behavior.
Au contraire! From pages 82 and 83, “The image of teenage girls having babies to receive welfare checks is an emotion-laden but fraudulent cliche. If the availability of welfare benefits causes 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? Welfare benefits do seem to increase the likelihood of unmarried teen mothers moving away from their parents’ households, hence increasing the visibility of these mothers, but they bear little or no relation to actual birth rates for unmarried women. Harvard economists David Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane compared unmarried women who would be eligible for welfare if they had an illegitimate child with unmarried women who would not be eligible: Even by confining their analysis to states that gave the most generous welfare benefits to single mothers, they found no difference in the rates of illegitimacy between the groups. Mississippi, with the lowest welfare and food stamp benefits for AFDC mothers in the entire country (only 46 percent of the federal poverty guidelines), has the second-highest percentage of out-of-wedlock births in the country; states with higher AFDC benefits than the national average tend to have lower rates of illegitimacy than the national average. Sociologist Mark Rank finds that “welfare recipients have a relatively low fertility rate” and that the longer a woman remains on welfare, whatever her age, the less likely she is to keep having babies. Mothers on AFDC have only one-fourth the number of births while they are on welfare as do mothers who are not on welfare.”
- Myth: Mother’s Day originated as a holiday to celebrate mothering.
Au contraire! From page 152, “The fact is that Mother’s Day originated to celebrate the organized activities of women outside the home. It became trivialized and commercialized only after it became confined to “special” nuclear family relations. The people who inspired Mother’s Day had quite a different idea about what made mothers special. They believed that motherhood was a political force. They wished to celebrate mothers’ social roles as community organizers, honoring women who acted on behalf of the entire future generation rather than simply putting their own children first.”
- Myth: The media played a large role in the “decay” of the nuclear family.
Au contraire! (Well, sort of…) From pages 174 and 175, “But the world view imparted by such television shows did not derive from the nontraditional or antifamily values of liberal writers and producers, as conservatives claim. Advertising departments in the mass media refer to the content of their various productions as the “wrapper” for the real product, the ads themselves. Once we understand that the primary driving force behind most editorial or programming decisions is what attracts advertisers, we can see why the eclipse of traditional family themes in the media during the 1970s and 1980s was pioneered by the same forces that first marketed such themes in the 1950s. The 1950s family, supposedly the peak of tradition, was in many ways’ simply the “wrapper” for an extension of commodity production to new areas of life, an extension that paved the way for the commercialization of love and sex so often blamed on the 1960s. The “wholesome” television serials that some people confuse in memory with actual 1950s life were early attempts to harness mass entertainment to sales of goods. With only three to five channels for viewers to choose from, a show that hoped to be competitive had to attract approximately 30 percent of all viewers. Consequently, advertisers favored shows that presented “universal themes” embodied in homogenized families without serious divisions of interest by age, gender, income, or ethnic group. The hope was that everyone could identify with these families and hence with the mass-produced appliances that were always shown in conjunction with the mass-produced sentiments: Ozzie and Harriet, for example, had some of their most heartwarming talks in front of the Hotpoint kitchen appliances that the show was supposed to help sell. Once the market for such big-ticket family items began to slow, the next growth area had to be the individual: a Hotpoint range for the family, but “A Sony of My Owny.” Radio pioneered “micromarketing,” but television soon got into the act, partitioning the mythical family of the 1950s into as many different varieties and subsets as possible. The modern media has not become antifamily, it has simply become more sophisticated in targeting distinct audience segments-preteens, yuppies, buppies, swinging singles, alienated youth, seniors, and working parents-and wooing their dollars by emphasizing the differences that require separate images and their own products.”
This is just a sampling of the many myths Professor Coontz addresses in the book. Professor Coontz opens and closes the book with the same argument concerning families and family forms, “To say that no easy answers are to be found in the past is not to close off further discussion of family problems, but to open it up. To find effective answers to the dilemmas facing modern families, we must reject attempts to “recapture” family traditions that either never existed or existed in a totally different context. Only when we have a realistic idea of how families have and have not worked in the past can we make informed decisions about how to support families in the present or improve their future prospects.” (pp. 5-6).
The only criticism I have of this book is that it is often so detailed in its treatment of the different myths surrounding families and family structures of the past that it is occasionally hard to wade through all of the evidence debunking these myths. Other than this one, minor criticism, this book does an absolutely superb job of providing empirical evidence to indicate there was no “golden age” of the family.
This is already a rather lengthy review, but there are a few additional points the author makes that warrant mention. For instance, the author notes on page 21 that, “Although two-thirds of respondents to one national poll said they wanted “more traditional standards of family life,” the same percentage rejected the idea that “women should return to their traditional role.”" There really does seem to be a rather schizophrenic view of family values in the U.S.: Everyone seems to have “family values” but not want “traditional family values.” The “family values” people have seem to be: close-knit, happy families with low divorce rates, good sex, lots of money, happy kids, and a quiet little place in the suburbs. While that “ideal family” never existed, people also don’t seem to realize what came with the times when that “ideal family” seemed approximated: the oppression of women, racial prejudice, and distant fathers.
Professor Coontz hits another point quite hard, arguing that it is changes in the economic system of the U.S. that have played a large role in changing the family. For instance, she argues that the mass production of the industrial revolution resulted in increases in marketing, which resulted in the rampant consumer culture of the U.S. today. It’s an intriguing argument, “By the late nineteenth century, political economists realized that the ethic of hard work and self-restraint that helped to industrialize America had serious drawbacks now that most industries had the capacity for mass production. If everyone deferred gratification, who would buy the new products? Between 1870 and 1900, the volume of advertising multiplied more than tenfold. Giant department stores were built to showcase new consumer items for urban residents, while rural residents were exposed to the delights and temptations of mail-order catalogs. The word consumption increasingly lost its earlier connotations of destroying, wasting, or using up, and came instead to refer in a positive way to the satisfying of human needs and desires.” (pp. 169-170)
I also like Professor Coontz’s realistic understanding of parenting, “Parenting is both easier and harder than many researchers and self-styled family experts admit: easier because, as we will see, children are resilient enough to survive many of our mistakes, and even to benefit from them; harder because some forces affecting children are simply too complicated for parents to control.” (p. 225) There is no easy recipe for parenting, but, as luck would have it, children don’t need perfection – a good effort generally works.
One last thought before I wrap things up. Professor Coontz does talk at length about different cultures and their approaches to parenting. This story and its implications stood out the strongest to me, “If recent trends and research are not enough to demonstrate the danger of overemphasizing parents’ exclusive responsibility for their own children, it might be worth listening to the views of people with far older and quite different family traditions. When Jesuit missionaries from France first encountered the Montagnais-Naskapi Indians of North America in the sixteenth century, they were impressed by the lack of poverty, theft, greed, and violence but horrified by the childrearing methods and the egalitarian relations between husband and wife. The Jesuits set out to introduce “civilized” family norms to the New World. They tried to persuade Naskapi men to impose stricter sexual monogamy on the women of the group and to moderate their “excessive love” for children by punishing them more harshly. One missionary spent an entire winter in a Montagnais lodge, recording in his journal both his efforts to impart these principles and the unsatisfactory responses of the Indians. At one point, having been rebuffed on several occasions, the missionary obviously thought he had found an unanswerable argument for his side. If you do not impose tighter controls on women, he explained to one Naskapi man, you will never know for sure which of the children your wife bears actually belong to you. The man’s reply was telling: “Thou hast no sense,” said the Naskapi. “You French people love only your own children; but we love all the children of our tribe.” That may be the best single childrearing tip Americans have ever been offered. Unless we learn to care for “all the children of the tribe,” then no family, whatever its form, can be secure.” (pp. 230-231)
Let me conclude by, once again, quoting the author, as she summarizes her main point once again, “The problem is not to berate people for abandoning past family values, nor to exhort them to adopt better values in the future-the problem is to build the institutions and social support networks that allow people to act on their best values rather than on their worst ones. We need to get past abstract nostalgia for traditional family values and develop a clearer sense of how past families actually worked and what the different consequences of various family behaviors and values have been. Good history and responsible social policy should help people incorporate the full complexity and the tradeoffs of family change into their analyses and thus into action. Mythmaking does not accomplish this end.” (p. 22)