American conservatives look back with affection on a time when the “traditional family” assured stability for everyone, but historian Stephanie Coontz reminds us that, like any dream of a golden age, the traditional family evaporates upon close examination. In her recently revised and updated 1992 book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Coontz conveys the complex and rapidly changing nature of the family, marriage, and gender relations. It’s often said that people who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it, but Coontz says, “I’m concerned they think they can repeat the past — which is dangerous.”
Coontz was educated at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Washington in the 1960s. Instead of pursuing a PhD, she became active in the antiwar and civil-rights movements, serving as a leader in the National Peace Action Coalition. In 1975 she began teaching history and family studies full time at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and has also taught in Hawaii and Japan. She is the author of several books, including Marriage: A History and A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. In the revised and updated version of The Way We Never Were, published this spring, Coontz examines such topics as same-sex marriage and increasing income inequity. Her website is stephaniecoontz.com.
At the age of seventy-one Coontz is semiretired from her teaching post at Evergreen State but still a fierce advocate for “good history and responsible social policy” as Director of Research and Public Education for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Council on Contemporary Families. When the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited her work in his majority opinion.
I met Coontz for this interview at her organic farm on the outskirts of Olympia, where she lives with her husband, Will Reissner. Her life was in considerable turmoil: she’d only recently recovered from pneumonia, and her son Kris, a third-year medical resident at Tulane Medical Center in Louisiana, had been badly injured in a hit-and-run accident. I’d given Coontz the option of canceling, but she’d said the interview would provide a needed distraction. When I arrived, she told me, “I’ve been crying a lot, so if I need a break, I’ll let you know.”
We talked for three hours at her dining-room table while Reissner tended to the farm animals outside. Halfway through, Coontz made us lunch with produce from her garden. Even when she showed her frustration with those who disagreed with her, she remained calm and witty. “I don’t like to be too harsh,” she said. “I’m always looking for the kindest way to deliver information.”
Leviton: In The Way We Never Were you identify many myths about marriage, family, and society — a sort of false collective memory that Americans have. What do we get wrong?
Coontz: In this country we are particularly prone to myth-building, perhaps because we built our whole nation on the myth that this was an empty continent, just waiting for us; that we weren’t taking it from anybody.
In the nineteenth century, an emerging market society created the myth of self-reliance. Forgetting the actual experience of settling America, people came to believe that everyone, if they had grit, could pull themselves up alone; they didn’t have to rely on others. Self-reliance was initially seen as a male character trait but later was applied to families in general: families are self-reliant because the men go out and get everything and the women provide the care at home, and the rest of the world can go to hell. The self-reliance myth has now begun to influence women as well.
The “family values” myth is a much more recent development. That phrase wasn’t even familiar to most Americans until 1976. It does not at all describe the kind of moral structures and family relationships that our forefathers and foremothers idealized.
Leviton: What does “family values” mean?
Coontz: That you don’t have sex before marriage, and if you do get married, you stay married if at all possible. Also that marriage is the focus of your obligations, and family is the most important thing in life.
I’ve argued that “family values” are actually antisocial in some ways, because they usually don’t involve connections to other families. I’m always struck by the great difference between the early Americans’ religious beliefs and the current Republican notion of values. The early Americans believed you had responsibilities to the larger community. They didn’t talk about a “Christian family,” because it was too narrow and exclusive. They believed in a Christianity that reached out. Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia General Assembly rejected the notion that we should have any state sponsorship of one religious faith over another. They wanted to be welcoming to Jews, Hindus, and Muslims. The highest value was to make yourself available to the public.
Leviton: So the conservative idea that men should earn the money and women should stay home and raise the kids was never really traditional?
Coontz: For centuries there was no such thing as a male breadwinner the way most people think of it. Look at medieval paintings, and you’ll see couples running businesses together. Sometimes men would go to sea or take jobs some distance away, and while they were gone, their wives would run the farm or business entirely by themselves.
On a farm the man might plow the fields, but the woman churned the butter — which is a hard job. Believe me, I’ve done it! [Laughs.] Men didn’t “bring home the bacon”; men and women together raised and slaughtered the hogs, and the women took the bacon to market to sell. The man might have been the “head” of the house, because male dominance was the norm, but his wife knew how to do most everything associated with the household and the family business. In the American colonies if a couple ran an inn and the wife died, the authorities would revoke the man’s business license until he remarried; it was obvious he couldn’t run the inn without help.
And men were not uninvolved in social life — quite the opposite. Today, if I invite a male friend to dinner, he often jokes, “Let me have you speak to my social secretary,” meaning his wife. The idea is that women organize dinners, holidays, weddings, funerals, baby showers, and so on. But that wasn’t always true. It was originally men who did that, because social gatherings were a huge source of political and economic power. If you read the diaries of men from hundreds of years ago, you’ll see they were just as interested in throwing parties as the women.
Leviton: As you’ve studied the history of marriage and family, have you ever found what you might call a “natural” set of gender roles?
Coontz: I don’t think so. Women are the ones who bear children, and there are a few fairly constant adaptations to that reality. (I use the word adaptations because I don’t believe these roles are hard-wired into us.) Any society that is small and vulnerable is not going to risk sending its pregnant or nursing mothers on hunting expeditions or to war. Plenty of societies gather food and provisions as a group, though, and women do participate. In many Native American societies some women did join the hunt, either because they were past childbearing age or because they had made a decision not to be mothers. Men have been historically assigned the jobs that require the most physical strength, but women are quite strong; they can work the fields and perform strenuous labor when they aren’t pregnant or nursing.
Leviton: In the U.S. right now highly educated people are more likely to view staying single and having children out of wedlock as OK, but they themselves are more likely to get married and less likely to have children before marriage. If they are so open-minded, why is their behavior so conventional?
Coontz: It’s a good example of how people’s values are poor predictors of what they are going to do, which is why changing someone’s values usually doesn’t cause him or her to behave a certain way. More-educated people tend to recognize there are legitimate reasons why an unmarried woman might have a child. For example, maybe she doesn’t trust her partner to be a good father. But these same more-educated people avoid single parenthood themselves. They would rather get a good education, establish a career, and find a supportive partner first, because they feel confident they can have all that and are willing to wait until they do.
Leviton: My daughter once told me she plans to have a child by the time she turns thirty-two, even if she isn’t married.
Coontz: You might want to tell her that the average age of marriage is trending upward. Even if she reaches forty without a husband, she’s still likely to get married during her lifetime. Also, for a woman in her twenties today, every year she postpones marriage reduces her risk of divorce.
The rules are changing quickly. For the first time in the modern era, the majority of couples are living together before getting married. Not only is cohabitation no longer a threat to marriage, but having an out-of-wedlock baby and then going on to marry no longer puts a couple at a higher risk for divorce. Back in 1990 that would have raised the odds of a couple divorcing by 60 percent. Today it doesn’t raise them at all.
One fascinating thing about studying marriage and families is that these rules are in flux: what worked well in one era doesn’t necessarily work well in another.
Leviton: What are some other examples of how marriage has changed?
Coontz: High-school-educated couples used to be the most marrying type of all; now their marriage rates are almost as low as the high-school dropouts’. College-educated and high-earning women used to be the least likely to marry; now they are the most likely. The marriage partnership has shifted to favor people with more resources, education, and emotional maturity and fewer sources of stress.
Marriage has become harder, not because people did it better in the past, but because we have higher expectations of what a marriage should be. It’s more based on negotiation and the principle that both members will contribute to the breadwinning and the child-rearing. Marriage takes more work than it used to. If you have a demanding job or are wondering where your next paycheck will come from, maybe you don’t have room for marriage in your life. That kind of anxiety deteriorates relationships rapidly.
Prior to the 1990s, having an egalitarian division of labor decreased the quality of your marriage. In 2013 one long-term study showed that couples who divided housework evenly reported less marital and sexual satisfaction and less sex. The study used data from the early nineties, however, which meant those marriages had been entered into in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, when sharing housework was a fairly deviant thing to do. Other researchers went back and studied marriages formed in the nineties and found that the couples who share chores equally now report the highest marital satisfaction and the most sex. A complete turnaround.
For centuries people might have dreamt about love, but it wasn’t any reason to get married. It’s no accident that most of the love matches of classic literature end in tragedy.
Leviton: I grew up in a Jewish home, and my parents expected me to marry another Jew. Do couples who share the same religion or spiritual values have a better chance to stay together?
Coontz: It depends on what exactly they are sharing. People who have shared goals that they act upon, whether they are religious or not, tend to have better marriages. My husband and I are completely secular, but we both care about the labor movement and the environment. We find the same reports infuriating when we read the newspaper and the same stories moving when we watch TV. Those shared values are a huge boost for our marriage.
Couples who belong to churches, temples, or mosques that reach beyond the houses of worship do have a better chance of staying together. But religious belief without membership in a faith organization and shared, meaningful activities doesn’t protect people from divorce at all.
Leviton: You’ve referred to increasing gender equality and increasing economic inequality as two “tectonic plates” pushing against each other under the surface of our culture.
Coontz: Since the 1950s there’s been a large increase in the percentage of people who believe it’s wrong to deny others opportunities or rights based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. This equality revolution is incomplete and uneven and still meets furious resistance, but it’s real.
The growth of economic inequality over the same period, however, has been equally striking. The real wages and benefits of less-educated workers have declined. Middle-income workers experience more economic insecurity. Between 1979 and 2012 the income of families in the top 5 percent increased by 75 percent, while for the bottom 60 percent income has fallen or remained flat. The chance that an individual will experience poverty for at least a year has increased dramatically. The risk of being laid off is pervasive, from high-paying and low-paying jobs alike.
These shifts — which I don’t see abating — are not unrelated to the increase in equality in other areas. For example, more gender equality means fewer women need to be rescued economically by men. Women can say no to marriage and carve out their own lives. And when people do marry, they tend to choose a spouse with roughly equal earnings. A man who’s a doctor or an executive is not looking to marry his nurse or secretary anymore. The doctor wants to marry another doctor. This has tended to exacerbate inequality between social classes even as it promotes equality within the marriage.
Leviton: In your new epilogue to the revised edition of The Way We Never Were, you offer statistical evidence that declining marriage rates in black communities, which right-wing politicians often ascribe to the “poor choices” of their inhabitants, are really a result of economic forces.
Coontz: Economics and persistent racism. I especially respect the work of sociologist Jennifer Lundquist, who has shown that in the military, where blacks have actual equality — meaning access to the same income security, the same medical care, the same child care, the same neighborhoods as whites — their marriage rates are higher than whites’ marriage rates.
Leviton: Your work was cited in Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage. Let’s talk about that ruling.
Coontz: Kennedy wrote a beautiful and impassioned opinion about how great marriage is, and if you happen to be in a really good one, it will make you swell with pride to read it. But it is not a description of how marriage has always been. He claims marriage conferred honor and well-being on couples throughout history. I’m sorry, but at first it conferred those benefits only on men. As late as the 1970s most states defined rape as a man having forcible intercourse with a woman other than his wife. Legally a husband could not be charged with raping his spouse. That hardly confers honor or well-being on her.
Not to knock marriage — I’m in a good one — but as a historian I find it laughable that a Supreme Court justice would reify marriage as universally good. It certainly did not start out that way. People had to work for a long time to make marriage as an institution good. And marriage cannot work well unless people can leave it.
Justice John Roberts, who wrote the dissent, gave an even more ignorant view of what marriage was like in the past. He claimed that for millennia, in all civilizations, the word marriage meant only one thing: a union of a man and a woman that existed to make sure children were raised “in the stable conditions of a lifelong relationship.”
I am always amused when people tell me marriage was invented to give each child a mother and father. Not at all. Every culture with a strong institution of marriage also says that unless a child’s parents are wedded, the child has no claim on the mother or father. Throughout the ages many kids were abandoned because of the institution of marriage, not protected by it.
As for the union of “one man and one woman”: Has Roberts never read the Bible? The first five books are about the historically most preferred form of marriage, which is one man and several women. None of the petitioners challenged him when he claimed there’d never been such a thing as same-sex marriage, but we do know of societies that have it, though it’s rare. There have been many less-common types of marriage in human history. There have been “ghost marriages,” in which two families who have agreed to marry their children also arrange that if one of the intended spouses dies, the remaining partner will marry his or her ghost. There are societies in which there’s no difference between marriage and cohabitation. There are societies like that of the Na, in China’s Yunnan Province, in which marriage is not a significant institution at all. Brothers and sisters live together, jointly raising whatever children the women have. They’ve existed for thousands of years without marriage.
Even when the outward form of marriage might look the same, it’s often different inside. Marriage used to mean a man was the boss of his wife and owned everything she brought to the union. When radicals suggested she be allowed to keep her own jewels or earnings, there was an outcry: “Oh, no! This will destroy marriage!”
Leviton: So if the purpose of marriage isn’t the good of the children or the honor and well-being of the couple, what is it?
Coontz: In many societies it ensures that children will carry on the family name. It has also long been one of the main tools used to make sure that families are not isolated from each other. As I was researching The Way We Never Were, I began to realize that marriage initially had to do with getting in-laws, turning strangers into relatives so you wouldn’t have to fight them, or because it made an advantageous trading alliance. As societies became more stratified, though, marriage became a hotbed of intrigue and scheming. Some kings would kill their spouses when marriages didn’t turn out to be as advantageous as originally thought.
Leviton: Does marriage serve a religious purpose?
Coontz: Marriage was originally a private arrangement between families and not sanctioned by any church. Early Christianity did not put marriage at the center. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even his own life — such a person cannot be my disciple.”
For a long time you became married simply by declaring it, or by having your parents agree to the union. Even in early-medieval Europe, when the Catholic Church was beginning to gain authority over many areas of society, weddings were conducted by the bride’s and groom’s fathers. A priest might be asked to give a blessing at the end, but it was really the business of the parents.
As kings and bishops jockeyed for power, however, marriage became a way to legitimize claims on political rule and inheritance, and it had to be clear that a marriage was witnessed and accepted by everyone. Religious authorities assumed the power to decide who was married or not, and whether a marriage would be annulled. If some nobleman was trying to break up a marriage — his own or someone else’s — the Church could come in and say, “No, we consider the couple properly married.”
At the same time, the Christian Church opened the door to the possibility of the “love match.” The Church said that if two people swore they had exchanged “words of consent,” it would accept them as married. I suspect this was one more way of thwarting the political alliances of aristocrats.
Leviton: Some scholars claim that “romantic love” as we know it was invented in the Middle Ages.
Coontz: People certainly had the idea of romantic love before that — they just didn’t accept it as a primary motive for marriage. I’ve heard of a man from the Tatai tribe in Pakistan who had four wives and reportedly married only the fourth “for love.” [Laughs.] For centuries people might have dreamt about love, but it wasn’t any reason to get married. It’s no accident that most of the love matches of classic literature end in tragedy.
The most extreme rejection of married love could be found in the French aristocracy before the 1789 revolution: they held that marriage was a strictly mercenary arrangement, and no true love could exist in it. Only adulterous love was possible.
Even when love in marriage was viewed as a possibility, it was considered more important to make an advantageous match. Seventeenth-century British diarist Samuel Pepys married for love and later lamented his wife’s lack of a dowry and social position. Eventually he disinherited his eldest nephew for making the same type of marriage he had made himself.
Leviton: What about in societies without rigorous class systems and inheritances? Was love considered a reason to get married there?
Coontz: In egalitarian tribal societies the young singles seem to have made connections on their own, even if they were pushed in the right direction by parents. In many villages premarital sex was quite accepted, but if the woman stayed overnight and started cooking a meal in the morning, people would conclude, “Oh, they must be married.” [Laughs.] In European villages, too, you could let somebody fall in love, within reason. But the family was such an important center of production that bakers tended to marry other bakers, and shoemakers other shoemakers. You needed someone to help run your business. Love was more of an add-on.
Whether in an African village or a European peasant community, there was pressure to reject anyone who didn’t have land or local connections. The stakes weren’t as high as in the royal courts, but there was still a strong sense that a marriage had to help the community or the extended family; it had to serve a purpose other than love.
Leviton: How long did it take for the “love match” to become predominant in marriage?
Coontz: It developed at different rates for different social classes and in different countries. Aristocrats were slower to adopt it than the lower classes. Long after it had been accepted elsewhere, France was still shaking its head over this idea of “marriage by mystification.” Shakespeare wrote about love matches that worked and those that didn’t. In his tragedies, to be in love with the wrong person leads to disaster. In his comedies, Shakespeare allows love matches, but they are mostly arranged by friends or through magic. There’s a sense that love is something you can manipulate people into feeling.
Two hundred years before Shakespeare, Chaucer wrote about a love match in “The Franklin’s Tale,” but most couples in his Canterbury Tales do not marry for love. People thought it was good to have love in a marriage, but their definition of it was far from romantic passion. The best love was a sort of trust that allowed you to work well together.
Then came the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the individual. The French and American Revolutions both promoted the rights of the individual and the “pursuit of happiness,” but not everyone agreed. After the American Revolution one man took out an advertisement in a newspaper trying to find his wife, who had run off. It read, “My wife has left me for no better reason than want of love.” [Laughs.] That’s a perfect example of this transitional period: she was leaving because she didn’t love him, and he was thinking, What kind of a reason is that?
Leviton: The 1800s were a time of tremendous change. You’ve said, “In the nineteenth century women turn into strangers to men.” What happened?
Coontz: The love match represented a new kind of freedom for young people, but it was also risky for women. A woman had to worry that if she fell in love, she might end up with someone who couldn’t support her or would abuse her.
Society as a whole was frightened by the emergence of romantic love. If young people married for love, they wouldn’t necessarily marry the “right” people. They might refuse to marry or demand a divorce if the love died.
Afraid that love would undermine marriage, people created the notion that marriage was necessary because men and women were opposites who couldn’t survive without each other. Women were now seen as more sensitive, more nurturing, and more moral than men — but also weaker, less capable of working outside the home, and less sexual. This was contrary to the medieval view of women as the sexier gender. Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” has a big gap between her teeth, which was taken as a sign of lechery. Prior to the late eighteenth century, women were not seen as weaker or less capable than men, just lower in the social hierarchy. There’s a famous sermon Benjamin Wadsworth gave for wives in the American colonies in which he says that even if the wife is smarter, of higher birth, and wealthier than the husband, “God has made him thy head, and set him above thee, and made it thy duty to love and reverence him.”
In the nineteenth century this attitude gave way to the idea that marriage should be based on love, not obedience, and that a woman needed to be protected by her husband. She was no longer seen as a worker who produces goods to be traded in the marketplace; she sustained the family in a moral sense. A woman’s real work was now the work of love.
The Bible says a virtuous woman is one who works all the time. In the early days of the American republic, virtue also referred to people’s work ethic and “valor.” In the late 1800s it became about sex. Women were to be modest, quiet, weak, and in need of teaching. Men were to provide for them and teach them. Men learned to confuse showing off with love, and women learned to confuse intimidation with infatuation. These new ideals became the basis of 150 years of romance novels and are still screwing us up today.
One quality that helps a marriage work is when partners respect each other and are each grateful for what the other brings to the relationship. Relationships run on an economy of gratitude. . . . A belief in the goodwill of the other person is critical.
Leviton: How did women respond to being characterized as retiring, pure, moral, chaste beings?
Coontz: They often tried to turn it into a different source of pride and power. One thing they did was emphasize their moral strength. Men were interested only in the world of bank notes and commerce, they believed, whereas women championed morality. Women became important members of the temperance movement, the Salvation Army, and efforts to protect factory workers.
For many women this change in attitudes represented a step up. If they were middle-class, they could now be exempted from hard labor and become educated. That in turn created higher aspirations, which eventually led to the feminist movement. Many of the same advantages were not available to poor women, however.
Leviton: If women were to be protected, did this cut down on domestic violence?
Coontz: Given how high domestic-violence rates remained until the 1960s, I don’t think we can say there was a profound change in behavior. Domestic violence did become more shameful for men, but it still went on. In a landmark 1874 case in North Carolina, the right of a husband to beat his wife was rescinded, but the ruling also said, “If no permanent injury has been inflicted, nor malice, cruelty nor dangerous violence shown by the husband, it is better to draw the curtain, shut out the public gaze, and leave the parties to forget and forgive.” How do you think that worked out for women?
Leviton: There was also an important change to courtship. How did that come about?
Coontz: If women were so precious and incapable of taking care of themselves that they couldn’t venture into the world, then society needed a new way to get men and women together. The solution was to invite the men to “come calling” to the family home. Particularly among the American middle class, this was a well-developed institution. Working-class people met in public places and called it “dating,” but the implication was that it was close to prostitution. Today some people make a similar distinction between dating and “hooking up.”
The girl or her parents had to issue an invitation for a man to come calling. It was considered bad etiquette for a man to invite himself, just as fifty years later it became bad form for a woman to ask for a date. Calling was how people policed this dangerous new idea that men and women should be allowed to make their own choices about marriage: the meetings would be monitored in the family home, and the parents would be sure no dashing rake was invited.
Dating started to replace calling in the 1920s. In her history of dating, From Front Porch to Back Seat, Beth Bailey tells the story, taken from a women’s magazine of the time, of a man who comes to call and finds the woman all dressed up. “No,” she says, “this is a date — we’re going out.” The man is crestfallen because he doesn’t have enough money for a date.
This was a big transition. With dating, the man had to spend money on the woman, which led to the question of how the woman paid him back. One way was sexual favors, but another was to hang on his every word and ask the kind of questions that would make him feel good about himself. Women didn’t even think of this necessarily as flattery; it was reciprocity. This is when women began to think: How can I please him?
Leviton: So it’s not an inherent female characteristic to want to satisfy a man’s needs?
Coontz: An awareness of others’ needs is a human trait. Look at the anxiety men have in tribal societies about what kind of gifts to give and how to maintain trading relationships and negotiate obligations. But it gets deformed under some systems. In the early twentieth century dating created a new kind of pressure on women not to obey men as in the old days but to anticipate their needs.
Leviton: You mentioned scrutiny of female “virtue,” which relates to the matter of out-of-wedlock births. How has the idea of illegitimacy changed over the centuries?
Coontz: There were times and places when it wasn’t such a big deal. In peasant cultures nobody thought twice about it. In fact, showing you were fertile before marriage was probably an advantage.
But with this new middle-class morality, it became dangerous for an unmarried woman to sleep with someone. Today women often get pregnant and later go on to marry, but not back then. In nineteenth-century Germany if a woman slept with her fiancé before marriage, he was entitled to break off the engagement. Children born out of wedlock did not have access to any inheritance. As late as 1968 in the U.S. an out-of-wedlock child could not inherit debts owed to the mother, sue for her wrongful death, nor inherit from her parents.
In the U.S., the response to this nineteenth-century ideology was an increase in premarital chastity. Before the American Revolution, something like a third of all brides were pregnant. That stopped. Women got the message that messing around would ruin lives.
Leviton: Which brings us back to how romantic love was based on the assumption of an essential difference between men and women.
Coontz: The idea that men and women were completely different, and you could not have access to the skills and resources of the other sex unless you wed, put pressure on couples to get married and stay married. But there was now a tremendous strangeness in marriage, a strangeness we have eroticized so much it still serves as the basis for bestsellers like Fifty Shades of Grey. These books portray women as attracted to powerful men who frighten them. I find this dismaying because it stands in the way of the type of egalitarian relationships that most people now find satisfying in the long run.
This nineteenth-century attempt to make gender differences the basis of marriage wasn’t good for couples. Wives were not supposed to want sex anymore. (When the first sexual-advice book for men came out, men said how glad they were for it, because otherwise they would never have attempted to give their wives pleasure for fear of treating them like mistresses.) Women who suffered sleeplessness, anxiety, and irritability could be diagnosed with “hysteria,” which was viewed as a medical condition of the uterus, the treatment for which was for the doctor to manually stimulate the patient to orgasm — only they didn’t call them orgasms: they were “paroxysms.” The vibrator was invented around that time as a labor-saving device for physicians.
Sigmund Freud came along and redefined hysteria as a mental condition arising from past traumatic experiences, but he reinforced the repressive stereotypes that said a woman could be sexually healthy only if she was passive and wanted to be entered. Freud’s followers claimed that a woman’s sexual fulfillment would be impossible if she had any “masculine” qualities. For a woman to want to have a career was a danger sign. Women were encouraged to renounce all ambition beyond the home and the sexual satisfaction of their husbands. And female psychiatrists were often the strongest advocates of this. Helene Deutsch, who wrote the first book specifically about female psychology in 1923, said that the only way for a woman to fulfill her true being was to celebrate her husband’s achievements. The 1947 bestseller Modern Woman: The Lost Sex accused career women of symbolically castrating their husbands. In the authors’ view the only thing worse than a married career woman was an unmarried one. This is what women faced in the 1950s. It was pretty awful.
Leviton: Some people see the 1950s as a golden era for the American middle-class family and something we need to get back to.
Coontz: There was a lot of pressure on men and women to marry and start families then. A survey from 1957 found that four out of five Americans believed that anyone who preferred to remain single was either sick, neurotic, or immoral. Same-sex friendship was also declining because of a fear of homosexuality and lesbianism. Affection between women, and especially between men, which had formerly enjoyed widespread acceptance, suddenly became a sign of perversion. There was also an emphasis on cutting the “apron strings” that bound men to their mothers. Historian Rebecca Jo Plant has collected letters from the military publication Stars and Stripes in which enlisted men during World War I talk about how much they miss laying their head on their mother’s breast — totally unselfconscious mother veneration. The Freudians set out to break that connection. Men were told to bond to the nuclear family: leave your mother, stop hanging out with your friends, and find a wife.
Leviton: This places more pressure on the couple’s relationship, which now has to fulfill what used to be fulfilled by other social connections.
Coontz: Yes, it makes marriage a pressure cooker. In the fifties the advice given to women in Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and newspaper columns like “Dear Abby” was to negate every independent aspect of their personality. We’ve got records of psychological counseling in which a woman came in and said she thought her husband might be having an affair, and the counselor’s response was to ask if she’d been keeping up her appearance and figure. Women were told they would be happy and fulfilled only if they gave themselves completely to strong and confident men.
Leviton: During World War II women entered the workforce in large numbers, but in 1946 they were encouraged to go back home and have babies. How did they take this?
Coontz: A lot of them didn’t want to give up their jobs, but they were convinced that the men couldn’t find employment unless the women stepped aside. And there were plenty of carrots luring them to settle down: cheap housing, help with education, and so on. My mother told me she had really liked her wartime job but realized it was time for her to have a child. The drumbeat for women to find themselves through self-sacrifice probably had to do in part with a suspicion that many didn’t want to retreat from the world of work and autonomy. In fact, by the sixties, many women realized that being restricted to homemaking was making them miserable.
Leviton: In your book you refer to one mid-fifties study in which women said they were content with their stay-at-home roles but wanted a different life for their daughters. Isn’t that a contradiction?
Coontz: Although some women in the fifties were desperately unhappy, most were well-off in comparison to what they’d seen their mothers and grandmothers cope with. There were things they didn’t like about their situation, but, by God, they were living in a modern house and didn’t have to chop firewood every day. So they felt guilty when they wanted more for themselves. But they could still envision better lives for their daughters, with more education and opportunities.
Leviton: How were men feeling about marriage in the fifties? Were they, too, enjoying improvements compared to their grandfathers’ lives?
Coontz: Yes, they knew life was better. I think that’s why in the fifties people got married so young. Plenty of men could support a family on a starting salary and depend on it to rise every year.
Leviton: And yet there was an undercurrent of discontent, the suggestion that the breadwinner role was sort of hollow.
Coontz: Yes, particularly in the middle class. For blue-collar workers, who’d never before had a real shot at supporting a family on one income, I think this was a period of increased self-esteem. Even if the tasks in factories were repetitive, the wages were good, and workers were less likely to be killed or hospitalized in an industrial accident. Those showing discontent were in the types of white-collar jobs that women would soon enter. Men had to learn how to get along with other people in the office workplace and be agreeable to bosses. Some men resented this hierarchy, and it made them want to have more power at home. Other men wanted to be free of the pressure to conform. Many fantasized about not having to be breadwinners. Keep in mind, this period also gave us the Beat Generation, which glorified a bohemian lifestyle. But most men were not willing to live like the Beats: they wanted someone to cook their meals.
Leviton: The first issue of Playboy was published in 1953 and represented a kind of protest against puritanism. Its publisher, Hugh Hefner, thought men and women should enjoy sex and not get too attached to each other.
Coontz: Playboy offered a kind of false advocacy for female power. Hefner was a big supporter of abortion rights and birth control, but only because he didn’t want men to be tied down, not because he saw these as tools for women’s liberation.
Leviton: One thing that has changed about marriage since the 1950s is how long people live. Life expectancy has gone way up.
Coontz: “Till death do us part” is a bigger challenge today. Even though we are seeing a decline in divorce rates for people in their prime child-rearing ages, we’ve had a doubling of rates for people over fifty and a tripling for people over sixty-five. Couples have another twenty healthy years of life after the kids have moved out, and some realize that they just don’t want to spend those years with their spouse.
Leviton: What sorts of qualities should men and women look for in partners if they want their marriage to work?
Coontz: I am always leery of giving general advice, because individuals have different temperaments, priorities, and values. What is a great quality in a partner for one person might not be for another. But I can talk about how the predictors of marital success have changed over the decades.
In the 1950s the best predictor of a long marriage was how much each partner adhered to conventional gender roles. Also, because of cultural pressure and economic dependence on men, women tended to do whatever it took to make the marriage work, accommodating themselves to their husbands’ preferences. Today I think you have to know your partner as an individual, not as a gender stereotype, and you have to like him or her in a much more fundamental way. Flexibility is critical in today’s world, where cut-and-dried gender roles, in or out of the home, are no longer desirable to most people and no longer possible in many cases.
One quality that helps a marriage work is when partners respect each other and are each grateful for what the other brings to the relationship. Relationships run on an economy of gratitude. And if your partner needs to change his or her behavior, it’s important to ask for that change without attributing bad motives to the behavior. When you do argue, or when your partner gets angry, look for the soft emotion under the hard one and talk to that. A belief in the goodwill of the other person is critical.
Leviton: Are there any key signs that a long-term relationship is in trouble?
Coontz: Marriage expert John Gottman says contempt, stonewalling, defensiveness, and generalized criticism (as opposed to raising a specific issue you’d like to address) are major relationship killers. But family researchers are also becoming concerned about low-conflict relationships that just run out of steam because the partners have been too involved in work or parenting to renew and strengthen their ties. This may be a key factor in the rising divorce rate of people over fifty — not fighting so much as leading parallel lives without much interaction.
Leviton: Does not having friendships outside of the marriage cause problems?
Coontz: It can. It’s one thing to have a spouse who’s your closest friend, but it’s another to have a spouse who’s your only friend. That can spell trouble. Sometimes you need other perspectives. If you don’t have them, you may find that you actually have less to offer your spouse.
Leviton: What are the main reasons couples divorce nowadays?
Coontz: The majority of divorces are initiated by women, and among their most frequent complaints are their husband’s lack of commitment or attention — or its opposite, trying to exercise too much control — and unfairness in how responsibilities are divided. Both men and women also cite excessive drinking or drug use, financial irresponsibility, too much fighting, and infidelity. Whether an affair signals the end of a relationship, however, depends on the reason for the affair, the way it is resolved, and the dynamic between the couple. Many couples are able to move beyond such events, painful though they may be.
Leviton: Have the advantages of getting married declined?
Coontz: That’s a trick question. If you’re in a good marriage, the advantages have been increasing, but the automatic advantages of getting married have declined. When a marriage is really working today, it improves your health and wealth, but a bad marriage is actually a health risk, and people who marry and divorce are less happy and often worse off financially than those who never marry.
Some people may seek divorce too fast, but others wait too long. Well-intentioned attempts to slow down the process can backfire, leading to prolonged conflict or contempt that is destructive to children and spouses. When unhappy people stay together, bad behaviors such as infidelity and abuse can escalate, making an amicable parting of ways even harder.
Leviton: If women were paid the same as men for the same job and had the same opportunities in the workplace that men have, do you think fewer women would get married?
Coontz: Women’s economic independence, combined with the growing opportunities for singles to thrive outside marriage, suggests that marriage will never again be as widespread as it was in the past. But I would say that, at this point, the expansion of women’s equality and empowerment is the best hope for marriage and committed heterosexual partnerships to survive at all.
When women first started struggling for equality, it disrupted the social order. The men got defensive; divorce rates increased; women had fewer children, because they weren’t getting the support they needed. In Italy men started staying home with Mom, because their girlfriends and wives wouldn’t treat them as gods anymore. But in countries that have gender equality in combination with male participation in child care — because employment policies make it possible for couples to take equal responsibility — we are seeing lower divorce rates for women who work outside the home compared to homemakers. This hasn’t happened in the U.S. because we don’t have those employment policies, but several studies in England and northern Europe show that if men are willing to pitch in with housework, women are more willing to have a second baby. So people concerned about declining fertility rates in Western democracies might want to stop telling women to give up their careers and start telling men to help out.
Leviton: And we need policies like paid parental leave that provide real support for married couples.
Coontz: Absolutely. Our efforts are going in the wrong direction. People don’t get married because you preach at them; they get married because they are in a good relationship and because their lives are stable enough for them to believe this partnership could work. When wages were raised in Wisconsin, Michigan, and other places, marriage rates rose and divorce rates fell — this after hundreds of millions of tax dollars spent promoting marriage as a way to combat poverty and illegitimacy hadn’t made a dent in the divorce rate or the poverty rate.
We’re not going to get everyone to marry — which is a good thing, because some marriages are bad — but if we want to help those who do marry to stay married, paternity leave should be just as high on the agenda as maternity leave. To say it costs too much money is penny-wise, pound-foolish.
Leviton: You have done a lot of myth-busting in your books, but your work is clearly not done.
Coontz: I have a favorite quote from the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal: “Ignorance is never random.” The things we do not bother to learn are the ones we do not want to know or cannot deal with. If you’re reading a history book, you might skim over the part that’s telling you something you’d rather not take into account.
Conservative politicians are quick to tell us what’s wrong with the black family, or teenagers, or gay marriage, but they have made little effort to learn the facts. Listening to today’s political debates, I’ve been stunned by how many myths are still in circulation. Politicians suggest that if you get an education, get a job, and get married, then you won’t be poor anymore. Yeah, right. And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. That sequence is a description of what successful people are able to do, not a recipe for becoming a successful person.
Leviton: Do families receive less government support now than they used to?
Coontz: It depends what kind of support you are talking about. There were no supports for working parents prior to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. So we have more than we used to. Unfortunately that act is now inadequate, because 60 percent of children grow up in homes in which all adults are in the labor force. The U.S. has failed to keep up with the growing need for policies that allow people to combine work and family responsibilities. That’s one reason parents in the U.S. report themselves to be considerably less happy than non-parents, in contrast to countries such as Sweden, where parents are happier than nonparents, because the government supports working parents.
Leviton: Are you optimistic that civil rights and gender equality will continue to expand?
Coontz: In some ways I am. Most people today are convinced that it’s wrong to deny rights on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, and religion. The problem is that some now want to deny the extent to which discrimination still exists in society. To be “colorblind” or “genderblind” means losing sight of the way that discrimination has been institutionalized and can continue to operate even without specific intent. And in fact, despite progress for middle-class minorities and women, we’ve barely made a dent in the concentrated poverty in which many blacks and Latinos are trapped. We’ve actually seen reproductive rights rolled back for poor people, with some fairly disastrous results. Self-induced abortions are going up in places like Texas. We know that women who are denied abortions are much more likely to become depressed and be victims of domestic violence than comparable women who are able to get them. If we don’t look at what’s happening to low-income women and just keep believing that women already have equality, the situation could get even worse. We can’t be like those people who think that, because we have a black president, racism is over, and any black person who doesn’t climb the economic ladder must have a personal problem.
Leviton: Is there a year in our history you would want to return us to?
Coontz: No, there’s no golden age. You can cherry-pick one aspect of the past you’d like to have back, but, sorry, that’s not the way the world works. You’d have to take the package deal. A return to the late nineteenth century could put a child in the arms of a loving, middle-class mother whose husband didn’t abuse her, or in an abusive home from which there was no escape, or in a sweatshop. They all existed at the same time.