Stephanie Coontz

The Way We Never Were

VTR Date: October 9, 1992

Guest: Coontz, Stephanie


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Stephanie Coontz
Title: “They Way We Never Were”
VTR: 10/9/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. There was a time, too, before I went into broadcasting – and I guess I miss those good old days – when I used to teach American social and political history…which may be why I became so enormously taken with a new Basic Books volume entitled The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.

Its author, Stephanie Coontz, is on the faculty at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington…and feels as I do – and still teaches – that, quite literally, the air is too much filled these days with misleading myths about America’s past that, like all half-truths, when swallowed whole, can be dangerous to our psychic health and to our conduct of America’s present…and future.

Now, what first drew me to Ms. Coontz’ The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap was an interview with her in the New Age Journal entitled “The Myth of the Perfect Family: How it Sets Us Up to Fail”. Let me read from it just a moment. She said here: “We have a whole range of images of how the family is supposed to be — partly drawn from television series, partly drawn from grandparents’ stories, partly drawn from books like Little House on the Prairie. And then there are political myths that chase around in our heads about how the family is ‘supposed’ to ‘go it alone’ and how a man’s home is his castle, how there didn’t used to be outside interference with the family”.

“These political myths collide or sometimes coalesce with our personal myths – that our parents, or somebody’s parents, used to be perfect; that there was a time when there were women who stayed home and baked cookies and gave their children nothing but unconditional love. And fathers came home from their jobs and, even though they had to work, weren’t too tired to teach the boys how to fix the car. And they gave their children good advice about what to do in school and how to build character. So then we ask ourselves, why aren’t we able to do that? Or why didn’t this happen to us?”

She writes, “These myths are very dysfunctional, because they focus us on what supposedly happened in the past, on what has disappeared. There’s a tendency, then – one greatly exacerbated by recent electoral campaigns – to say that all the problems we have now in America, from poverty to social alienation to crime to drug use, are a result of the collapse of the family. I would argue that that’s just not the case”.

In other words, it was broken when we got it! But if the way we really were wasn’t the way our myths would have it, and the way we say we want it, I would ask my guest what is the way she wants it to be in the here and now, and in our future…as far as family life in America is concerned. If it was broken when we got, what do you want for the future?

Coontz: Well, I, I think that there are things we can take from the past. I’m not, certainly not denying that. But there’s no magic family form, no magic bullet, no wonderful invulnerable shield that we can find in past family life that’s going to protect us from the kinds of changes that are going on today. There are obviously some parameters for creating healthy families and healthy children. But you now there’s been so much variety cross-culturally, and historically, that the only pattern I can see that really is universal is that families do best when they understand that they’re not going to meet everybody’s needs. That they’ll do their best to meet the needs they can, and they’ll provide ways to link their kids up and each other up with social support networks both in fictive kind and extended kin and community, and political and economic support networks.

Heffner: You say “social networks”. In a sense, what I got from your book was the feeling that what you want, what you’re aiming at, and that’s why I asked the first question that I do, is more akin to social network than to what we, at least, believe we once knew as personal family life. Is that unfair?

Coontz: Well, you know, I’m very hesitant to say what I want because I think that we have to shape our families in accordance with new economic and demographic realities, such as the role of elders in this society, such as the changing roles of women. And that it’s very hard for us to predict what eventual form the family would take. I mean if you asked me when I was six what I wanted when I grew up, I would have said, “to bake and to, you know, to have an entire cake and eat it raw, instead of my mother making me to wait”. I think in, in one sense it’s premature for us to ask what the perfect family’s going to look like. The best thing though that I can say as a family historian is that families have worked best when you didn’t expect to get everything from one family, when you did have neighbors, you had uncles, aunts. Most families in history have been realistic enough to know not every mother and child is going to hit it off just perfectly. Instead of berating the mother for doing it, or the child for not being perfect, they say, “Well, go to an aunt”, “Go to a friend”, “Go to somebody else”, and they had mechanisms for doing it. I think we need to, to be aware of those.

Heffner: So in a sense, you’re looking for a return to the way it was, only not in the 1950s only, but in the past. That, that…isn’t…doesn’t that in a sense belie the notion of the way we weren’t?

Coontz: Well, no, because I, I do think there are some things that we have lost, and when you actually cross-question people, when they’re talking about he collapse of the family, after the first five or ten minutes of venting about rotten parents, what they always end up talking about is a sense of neighborhood, a sense of predictability and where your job was in your community networks. And there has been some loss. But I don’t want to romanticize that. You know as, as I know as social historians that often communities in the old days were extraordinarily exclusive and restricted. You know, no African-Americans allowed, no Jews allowed, nobody of a different religion allowed. So, while there are things we can learn from the past about the necessity to construct community bonds and embed the family in larger networks, I don’t think there’s any model in the past.

Heffner: You say you don’t believe that there was any model. Don’t you feel that we need, in terms of the pictures in our heads, images that relate to something ideal to which we can repair? We do in term so four political philosophy. Don’t we, in terms, don’t we need the same sort of standard, not that you get beaten up on if you don’t abide by it, but some sort of idealized image to which we can aim?

Coontz: I don’t think an idealized image is going to be very useful. We could get more concrete. You know, what would, what would somebody pick…the 1950s, the 1930…I’ve heard recently as another one, the Judeo-Christian image of the Colonial Period. Each one of those we can go into and show how that , how trying to live up to an idealized image neither reflects their real reality of the time, nor presents us with very good values to act upon. I think it is possible to draw upon processes. I mean…I have my favorite…one of my favorite things that I’d like to see us get a, some substitute for in modern life, was the old colonial “lying in” practice. When a woman had a baby, she would “lie in” and then her, her female kin and neighbors would come and they would do all the work for her for about six weeks, and they would have a “groaning” party and the groaning was, was a pun because she would get up for the first time and she would cook enough food so that the table would groan under its weight, but it also, of course, referred to the groans that she had made during child birth. Now that’s the sort of thing that I would love to draw on from history. But it’s not like a model that we can re-create; it’s an idea that represents that process of linking family up with other community institutions.

Heffner: You’re talking about linking families up…or…with other families, or with government provided institutions, organizations?

Coontz: Well, too often in our society we make a hard and fast division between those because it’s either…we’ve either thought well either you get family help from private charities, from networks who presumably are more personal, or you get it from impersonal government. Historically, that’s not a very useful distinction. In the first place we know that private individuals and charities have often been far more arbitrary and interventionist than government institutions because they aren’t subject to constitutional oversights. The other side of it, of course, is that the…many of the government institutions that have developed have been developed in ways that specifically distance themselves from personal networks an, and develop these kind of bureaucracies. Somehow we have to look for a good way of combining government aid with self-help, with ways that encourage people to organize themselves. And, of course, in the past we know that families have never gone it alone. The pioneer family, the 1950s family, all of them had massive, incredibly generous and unlike today, non-stigmatized government help that gave them the confidence and the means to reach out to other families and actually take initiative on their own as well.

Heffner: Tell me about what you referred to a moment ago, as nostalgia about the 30s. Now you said you understood that the 30s were coming in for their share of praise. After all, my wife and I grew up in the 30s and we raised our kids in the 50s. What, what is seen as the difference?

Coontz: Well, it’s funny because, you know, I usually ask people when I go to talk who, who sway to me “I’d like to go back to a more traditional family life” to pick a date. And for a while, it was always the 1950s that they picked. And I think that although some nostalgia still persists about the 1950s, we’re beginning to get enough testimony, things like Miss America 1958, you know, who finally admits…you know, who’s finally been able to, to tell us that her socially prominent all-American father violated her all through those years. When girls did come forward in the 1950s, therapists told them that they were engaging in unconscious oedipal fantasies. Black Americans remind us, “Hey, the poverty rate of two parent, married couple Black families was 50% in the 1950s”. I think as this sort of information comes out people are, are less inclined to romanticize the 50s. So, recently I’ve noticed that when I go places people raise with me the 1930s family.

Heffner: That because they don’t know the downside of the 30s?

Coontz: I think so. I think that they think in terms of Waltons television re-runs. And, of course, as anybody from the 30s knows, it was not people just sitting around singing Bing Crosby songs and all working happily together. Men withdrew from family life…you know, Americans have this long-standing individualism…there was a psychological study done in the Great Depression and in other countries. Men interpreted their unemployment as a failure of the system. But many men, many more men than anywhere else in America, interpreted it as a failure of their manhood. And unfortunately so did their wives sometimes. 1930s families were often just cauldrons of those kinds of gender resentments and tensions.

Heffner: You know, the question that occurs to me is what is the subjective need, the subjective necessity involved in first embracing the 50s, and now when the 50s prove to be perhaps not as ideal a model, looking to the 30s. And you indicate that the 30s, and I can testify to that, was not that ideal a model. What, what, what is the subjective necessity for, for going back? Are things really that bad today that we have to look to the past?

Coontz: Well, there are some things that are bad today and I’d like to, to get to that…

Heffner: Please.

Coontz: …in our talk. But first I want to deal with that question because it puzzles me, too, you know. Part of it seems to be a universal trait, no sooner had the Colonists arrived then the first generation of them was looking back to “the good old days” and talking about the collapse of the family, and every ten years, you know, you can, you can just go into any decade and people will be bemoaning the collapse of family life and the modern generation. I do think though that it gets accelerated and exacerbated in particular kinds of periods…one that we’re going through right now. The last time it really got exacerbated was at the end of the nineteenth century when we were making the transition to a mass industrial society, old ways of finding jobs, perpetuating jobs were changing. Old roots to security and to middle class independence were disappearing, and we had new slums, the immigrants coming in, new customs. The old Protestant, White middle class ways were under challenge. And instead of looking at those kinds of economic and political changes and saying, “How can we change both our institutions and our culture and our value system in progressive ways to deal with this, and minimize the problems with what we’re having and build on the strengths?”, people began to say, “Oh, well, it’s just the collapse of the family…it’s that these people in the slums don’t have the right family life”. Or women, this was the period when abortion, which used to be legal, was criminalized on grounds that women were causing this problem because of their selfish individualism. Well, I think there is a case to be made that we’re going through a parallel change in the way we organize what you might call our “social reproduction”. And that many people experience this as a threat to personal patterns of reproduction. After all, the post-War period of rising real wages, when you could…the American dream was that each generation would live better than the next, that’s…that’s gone. Real wages have been falling since ’73. Every, every recovery from every recession has been on the basis of the multiplication of low wage jobs. There is a tremendous change in our demography, in our political system. And it’s tempting now, as it was back in the 1880s, to try to balance all those tensions on the backs of women, or to say “Well, if only you guys would organize your family better”, and that part of it becomes punitive and scape-goating, “Then we wouldn’t have problems of poverty”. After the LA riots a nationally known economist came on TV blithely ignoring the fact that CEOs now make 160 times as much as their average workers, and said, “The main cause of inequality in America…the main one…is family structure, and if we could just convince people to get married, they wouldn’t…there wouldn’t be a poverty problem in America”. And I thought, “What about the 74,000 people GM just decided to lay off. Did they only decide to say off single parents”? Come on.

Heffner: Well now, when, when I first read The Way We Never Were, I became aware of the fact that you were saying “Hey, look, except for a period in the 50s, and then you explained that in terms of the wealth of the post World War II period, in terms of the build up of all of those resources, and then our ability to tap into them, you were saying there had been in a very real sense, a continuum…

Coontz: Yes.

Heffner: …all throughout our history of the…shall I call it…the destruction of that…of those family values that we try now to identify with something bad that just happened.

Coontz: Well…

Heffner: What does that mean to the future?

Coontz: Well, two issues. First of all, yes, you’re absolutely right. The tendencies toward individualism in America and toward a decline in internal family solidarity have been there for a long time. The US has had the highest divorce rate in the world since 1889, well before the Feminist Movement. And that’s, that’s an important thing to understand. Some of the, the rise in individualism has been healthy, of course. I mean when we think about how women’s individuality was denied through history, how children were considered to be just property of their parents, who could be physically abused and that it was just natural extension of parental rights…so a part of this individualism is good, and I think that it should be embraced. On the other hand, there are aspects of individualism that are very destructive of community bonds. And one of the interesting things about America, and I think extreme things about America, unlike other major democracies, is that we’ve been so attached to the notion of individualism, so unwilling to put limits to the individual pursuit of wealth and private enterprise, that we have been unable to imagine any alternative to that except the family. And so it’s a question of it’s, in, in the real world, in what used to be the “man’s world”, it’s “every man for himself” and “devil take the hindmost”. And at home you’ve got the saintly Mom who takes care of all caring and dependence.

Heffner: What do you see as the alternative to that way we never were, that family notion?

Coontz: Well, I think that it’s a destructive notion. First of all, because it does force women to deny half of themselves, in order to be only altruistic. At the same time as it denies half of men, it denies their nurturing qualities, and their altruistic qualities. So it’s destructive in that way. Secondly, it’s destructive because it teaches people to, to only look for obligation and caring and commitment in the, in the family. And I think it actually sows the seeds of the kinds of family disruptions that, that we see when people are not able to maintain commitments. Because if the only place you owe obligation is in the family, the family becomes almost unbearable…it becomes something that you need to escape from.

Heffner: Is this…

Coontz: I the alternative…I’m sorry…

Heffner: No, no, no. Please, go ahead.

Coontz: …well let me just…

Heffner: Sure.

Coontz: …do that. The, the alternative, I think, is to, first of all, share nurturing and individualism, altruism and ambition a little more equally between the sexes. And secondly, to develop a society that accepts some limits on individualism outside the family, that doesn’t make this a totally polarized idea that outside the family it’s “every man for himself’, and inside the family it’s “nobody for themselves”.

Heffner: In a sense you, you, you repeat the anecdote here of your own experience with your child in a community outside of this country in which you were continuing to manifest your direct concern for this immediate individual…your child, in others in the society were concerned with children…

Coontz: Yes.

Heffner: …whoever was within their site of vision, their, their line of vision, they were concerned about. You’re talking about a, a social transformation, a cultural transformation, aren’t you?

Coontz: Well, yes. I mean it’s, it’s…in the long run a pretty radical one. But in, in the short run there are some…I think there are many impulses to community in America. And that we have to just sweep away the myths that, that have, have told us that those impulses are somehow wrong or dependent or not the natural way of Americans doing things and that our grandparents always did make it on our own, and that if we do feel dependent and needy, it’s some wounded inner child, instead of some natural human impulse. So you see, I’m saying that a lot of our mythology about the family actually prevents us from acting on the really good human impulses and community institutions that we, we actually have available.

Heffner: You know, I’m interested…you say, “Yes, it is a pretty radical idea in the long run”. This was the sense that I gathered from this book that you are talking about a rather radical transformation. It seems to me, too, a rather healthy one. But there’s no joking that when you write about the way we were, or the way we never were, you’re doing more than anecdotally putting to rest the notion that in the 50s we did such-and-such and all throughout our history we had been different from the way we are. You’re prescribing a social revolution. Right? Fair?

Coontz: Yeah, sure. (Laughter) Yeah, and, at the very least, I certainly don’t have any solutions. You know, 20 years ago I might have had solutions. Now I don’t have a lot of concrete solutions. I do have some hope because I find that when I go out to talk places about the family, even to groups that invited me in order to demonize me…”Here’s somebody, you know, some radical feminist who doesn’t believe in family values”…the first ten minutes we talk about this kind of issue and whether single parents can raise children and then we move on and I say, “Well, what concretely do you think about when you think about a collapse of family values?”. It turns out that most of the time they’re talking about community values. They’re talking about wanting to…knowing there’s something morally wrong in our society and wanting to discuss it, and they only have the vocabulary to discuss it in personal terms. And if you encourage them to say, “Well, let’s, let’s broaden the discussion of morality. Let’s not do what the politicians do…say ‘there’s moral issues over here and then there’s technical issues over here’…the economy, which is either a cost/benefit equation or some kind of thing like the weather that we can’t do anything about…why pass moral judgments on the weather…oh, hey, they’re laying off outside today, you know”. People begin to transfer that concern about the family without forgetting it, and of course, we have to have that concern, but they begin to realize that so…that in our society we don’t have ways of discussing those other social and economic commitments and obligations. We can talk about deserting fathers, and not deserting corporations. And, yes, I think we should be broadening, and that is kind of a radical prescription, I guess.

Heffner: Then you write in terms of current political use of the notion of the way we were. Do you see any sweeping change taking place, particularly given the reaction to all of the slogans about family values?

Coontz: Well, I think the family values…the rapid rise and fall of the family values…

Heffner: And fall?

Coontz: …yes…it’s a very good example. I think what happened is Republican strategists started from polls that show that 71% of American people think there’s a moral crisis in America. And they said, “Oh, okay, that’s easy. We can translate that”. (Laughter) And they took this moralistic approach. It turns out the people are concerned about morals, but they don’t want these moralistic crusades. The last poll I saw said only 3% of American people thought that should be the major issue in the campaign. So I think it’s a very good illustration of the fact that Americans are searching for a vocabulary and a political language in which they can discuss things that are larger than people’s sexual habits, and their personal character, and they can discuss issues of how community is organized, what obligations we owe…not just parent to child, but elders to youngers in general, to employers to workers, and vice versa. People are searching for that kind of dialogue, and I get so disturbed as a family historian because what should be a wonderful field that can contribute to it, is being used by politicians as a substitute, a diversion from talking about those issues.

Heffner: But you seem optimistically to feel that there is a kind of feeling about the country that will, in time, lend itself to your picture of the way we will be in the future.

Coontz: I do. I do. I get…I…when you get on talk shows people call in and the first five or ten minutes, again, they’ll cry. I did none last year before Thanksgiving where a woman was making Thanksgiving and just…she called in, she said, “I’m crying…my kids are divorced. What have I done wrong”? And by the end of the conversation she was saying, “But I’m so tired of the politicians and the therapists and the inner child people asking me to, to find out what I’ve done wrong”.

Heffner: Come back in 20 years and we’ll talk about the way we have become. Thanks so much for joining me today, Ms. Coontz.

Coontz: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. In the meantime, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.