Review – Coontz, “The Way We Never Were”

Stephanie Coontz, “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap” (1992) – In one of the books on the use of social science research evidence in policymaking that I am looking at for my job, the author talks to Stephanie Coontz, a cultural historian, about her decision to write books for a more popular audience. Coontz said she specifically sought to challenge the policy environment surrounding questions of the family- and to do that, you had to write in a way policy actors could read and understand. She undertook this primarily in her book about the history of marriage (this during the gay marriage debates), but also this book, which takes aim at a vast array of historical assumptions about American families which shaped a whole range of domestic policy debates in the 1980s and 1990s.

This frame appears almost quaint now that various sentimental images of the American family are literally used in the propaganda of fascist groups and to justify the Trump administration’s border policies. But we shouldn’t underestimate the stakes in the 80s and 90s either. Our failings in that era help pave the way for what came after, but policies like welfare and housing “reform” did real harm to a lot of people, to say nothing of the systematic harmful neglect of lgbtq people and people of color that went on under the rubric of “tradition” and “family values.” Defenders justified many of the policies that did the damage as maintainable of or returning to one or another mythical version of the American past, and in particular a mythic American family of some golden era- the colonial period, the Victorian era, the ever-popular 1950s… I’m told nowadays the 1980s are quite popular with the chuds, especially the younger ones, but that came after.

All of these pasts were — are — radically, cartoonishly simplified when it came to family and household structures. Casting the nuclear family into the, well, pre-nuclear era as some sort of norm is flatly wrong, given how often people lived in extended family groups, either were or hired live-in domestic help, lived apart from family due to migration, etc. The idea that people had more “family values” is almost diametrically incorrect for any period before the end of the Second World War in this country, where a man’s actions in the public sphere were considered to be more important to his personality than what happened in the domestic, and where even in times when women were more confined to the domestic sphere, they were expected to use that to have a substantial impact on the outside through “moral improvement” and so on. “Family values” would, as a phrase and as an actual value set, sound selfish and vaguely cowardly to earlier generations of Americans.

Even if those things — “family values” and the nuclear family — were more characteristic of the 1950s, A. that was basically new at the time, was much less universal than we think, and made a lot of people, especially women, miserable and B. depended on massive government welfare spending. Ward and June relied on government handouts in everything from roads to old age pensions (so grandpa and grandma didn’t have to spoil the party) to jobs to education. And even if it wasn’t the federal government providing it before the 1950s, welfare or dependency on others of some sort was always definitional to the American family structure, and usually more to that of the comparatively well-off than to the truly destitute.

Consistently, from at least the late-19th century, bourgeois reformers sought to use governmental power to both nudge families towards accepting a lifestyle model refined from very specific clades of the upper-middle class (starting with that of the northeastern bourgeoisie), and discipline those, generally poorer or otherwise marginalized, who did not meet their standards. All the while, they generally hid the hand of government power in creating the structures that made the accepted family model possible, treating it as the natural outcome of market forces and good character. Schematically, this particular alignment of forces — the politics of family and its occlusion as being a politics — sees to be an artifact of the post-Commune, post-1870s-depression global upper class freakout. This would make many of our ideas about family, including widely accepted and cherished ideas about things like childhood and romantic love, products of the long counterrevolution… history! A harsh friend.

Coontz marshals a wide range of materials from history and the social sciences, as well as primary sources, to make her points. It’s all pretty neatly laid out for undergrads- my copy looks like it went through at least two previous owners (to judge by the number of highlighter colors used and its general condition) and it seemed pretty well-followed throughout. It does eventually take on a fish-in-a-barrel quality which can get a bit wearying, especially considering what we know about what happened post-1992, none of which is hardly Coontz’s fault of course. One of the main reasons I read it is for a writing project where I am trying to get beneath the dreams that go in to creating “traditions” and imagining them back in the past. Coontz’s book is a useful compendium and dissection of some of the main fantasies that continue to structure how Americans see their lives. ****’

Review – Coontz, “The Way We Never Were”

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