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The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap [Hardcover]

Stephanie Coontz
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

31 Oct 1992
The Way We Never Were examines two centuries of American family life and shatters a series of myths and half-truths that burden modern families. Placing current family dilemmas in the context of far-reaching economic, political, and demographic changes, Coontz sheds new light on such contemporary concerns as parenting, privacy, love, the division of labor along gender lines, the black family, feminism, and sexual practice.


Product details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (31 Oct 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465001351
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465001354
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.7 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,645,528 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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About the Author

Stephanie Coontz is a member of the faculty of Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, where she is a historian and an expert on American culture. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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First Sentence
WHEN I begin teaching a course on family history, I often ask my students to write down ideas that spring to mind when they think of the "traditional family." Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A refreshingly realistic myth-buster 9 April 1998
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Americans, especially those of the conservative persuasion, tend to idealize the 'Fifties as Paradise Lost: schools taught readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic; sex was confined to the bedrooms of married couples; teenagers were virginal and children docile; God's in his heaven, Eisenhower's in the White House, all's right with the world ...
In fact, as Coontz points out, the era wasn't all that innocent (her statistics on teenage pregnancies and shotgun weddings are a real eye-opener). Furthermore, the myth of the suburban two-parent, two-child family, self-sufficient economically and emotionally, was not only fostered and perpetuated for economic reasons, but a historical anomaly even in the U.S. (not to mention the rest of the world).
What Roberta Pollack Seid did in "Never Too Thin" for the MetLife weight tables, and Susan Faludi did in "Backlash" for the assertion that "a single woman over 40 has more chance of getting killed by a terrorist than of getting married," Stephanie Coontz does for the nuclear family. Her political agenda shows at times, but in general the facts she marshals are persuasive no matter whether you agree with it or not.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating study of American family life 6 May 1998
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
This book is by turns enlightening and astounding. Coontz takes on the pervasive myths surrounding the American Family (tm) and shows how the generalizations many of us take for granted don't tell the whole story. From the idyllic legends of the 1950s, to the role of feminism and other civil rights movements, to the persistent (and often ugly) myths surrounding the families of minorities--Coontz tackles them all, with persuasive arguments and an almost mind-numbing amount of data.
She suggests strongly that it isn't family life itself that's the problem, but our own attitudes to it and our responses to far-reaching changes that can be traced back to the 19th century and beyond. Among her more provocative assertions is the statement that our image of the "ideal" 1950s nuclear family is far more myth than fact; in fact, she says, the nuclear family was itself an anomaly, offset both before and after by very different ways of life.
The core of Coontz's argument seems to be that family life is shaped far more by social and economic forces than by any ideals we may hold. Corollary to this is the compelling argument that the very values of individual striving and success, so cherished in American culture, both contributed to the development of the nuclear family and to its disintegration. Agree or disagree--Coontz definitely has an agenda, and it often shows--this book is well worth reading, if only because it will make you re-examine some of your own assumptions about what many have taken to be the core structure of American life.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting 24 Nov 2003
Format:Paperback
Setting out to shatter the idea that the 1950s was the perfect era, and that America's problems could be fixed if only we could somehow reclaim the values of that era, she gives a history of marriage and family culture in general, and an examination of the 1950s in particular. Her portrayal of the American family as being in perpetual flux and periodic crisis is quite fascinating, as is her review of many cultural trends occurring before, during, and after the 1950s.
First off, let me say that this book is highly polemical in nature. Sadly, Professor Coontz apparently did not have confidence that the data she presents would prove sufficiently strong to support her case, so she practiced a certain amount of hyperbole. Any anti-1950s spin that could be grasped was shoved into the book, some of it of a highly speculative nature. (For example: "Surely some of the bizarre behaviors that Joan Crawford exhibited toward her children, according to her daughter's bitter remembrance, Mommie Dearest, flowed from the frustration of being forced into a domestic role about which she was intensely ambivalent." - P36)
That said, I did find Professor Coontz's history of the American family quite interesting and informative. As a fan of the generational studies of Messrs. Howe and Strauss, I was fascinated by the way that this author's study ties in with theirs.
So, let me say that this book is quite interesting, and is valuable reading material for anyone interested in a historical look at the American Family. I would suggest that you skim certain oppressively political sections of this book, but that you do read it.
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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  50 reviews
57 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Much needed balance 9 Nov 2004
By K. Abbott - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I was born in 1970, and my childhood memories are of sun-bathed days riding my bike and playing with my friends in the safe streets of rural England. Mummies and Daddies formed coherent units, there was a real sense of community, and life has been downhill from there. Right? Except that, as an adult, I know better. One couple across the road were staying in a miserable marriage in which affairs were used to express anger; another neighbour beat the living daylights out of his wife; two children from my school walked miles to the police station to report that they were being beaten and starved; paedophile rings were being dealt with; cases of incest, rape, and violent crime were not so unusual; and the fact is that I have no memory of these things because they were kept from me.

The argument that the past was better because one remembers it being so does not, I fear, hold water. Historians and sociologists fight a losing battle against nostalgia and the very human desire to return to a golden age when things were simpler, more wholesome, easier to deal with than the realities we face as adults. Books like Coontz's 'The Way We Never Were' are vital to understanding and facing the complexities of the world instead of retreating in fear to a world of projected simplicity and order that never really existed.
60 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A refreshingly realistic myth-buster 9 April 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Americans, especially those of the conservative persuasion, tend to idealize the 'Fifties as Paradise Lost: schools taught readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic; sex was confined to the bedrooms of married couples; teenagers were virginal and children docile; God's in his heaven, Eisenhower's in the White House, all's right with the world ...
In fact, as Coontz points out, the era wasn't all that innocent (her statistics on teenage pregnancies and shotgun weddings are a real eye-opener). Furthermore, the myth of the suburban two-parent, two-child family, self-sufficient economically and emotionally, was not only fostered and perpetuated for economic reasons, but a historical anomaly even in the U.S. (not to mention the rest of the world).
What Roberta Pollack Seid did in "Never Too Thin" for the MetLife weight tables, and Susan Faludi did in "Backlash" for the assertion that "a single woman over 40 has more chance of getting killed by a terrorist than of getting married," Stephanie Coontz does for the nuclear family. Her political agenda shows at times, but in general the facts she marshals are persuasive no matter whether you agree with it or not.
82 of 98 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must get for your local conservative politician 17 Jun 2001
By Robin Orlowski - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Since its inception, the religious right has attempted to convince America that the world would be better and all of our social problems would be resolved if we could magically transport back to the 1950's as represented in Leave it to Beaver and countless other comedies designed to "imitate" the emerging WASP middle-class suburban lifestyle.
Yet as Stephanie Coontz points out, this was a Hollywood myth that never existed in real life. Instead, women were maimed from illegal abortions, gays were bashed at an alarming rate, schools were segregated, the disabled were hidden and sexual and domestic violence supposedly did not happen to "good" people. Telling it like it really was is not a PC fairy tale, but a practical reality if we are to finally confront and undo some of America's social problems.
Politicians, particularly on the right, have been successful in exploiting and appropriating this myth for their own personal means precisely because there have been few watchdogs to challenge them. Were this possible, we would discover the new left had its roots in the backlash against Senator Joe McCarthy and his communist witch hunts. The cover picture with a young Robin Morgan is particularly ironic in light of the fact that the former "Mama" child star reincarnated herself as one of the most prolific and articulate leaders of the new left and women's liberation in the 1960's.
Family Values have become such an emotional election issue because we are not really sure what they mean. Sure, any politician (indeed most do out of a fear of being perceived as anti-family) can embrace the concept and even make a career out of such proclamations, but our realities have been less than stellar pictures.
The section on teenage pregnancy and unwed mothers confirms that the higher rates occurred before the legalization of birth control and the relegalization of abortion and the only difference is that girls who chose to keep their babies are not shipped off to maternity homes or forced to leave school. Additionally, she points out the young girls who engage in sexual activity are not feminists because they are more likely than non-sexually active peers to have very strong dependence needs and desires as well as traditional gender roles.
I also believe Coontz should have done more investigating on the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse and the legal system that essentially encouraged it by allowing it to go unchecked. In the greatest of ironies, the decade where GLBT Americans enjoyed the least amount of rights was also the times when child hood sexual abuse was the highest. However, I realize Coontz was trying to provide a general overview with this book and believe that the subsection could provide enough material for a separate book of its own.
While I realize it may be difficult for some readers to reconcile starry-eyed visions with this more pragmatic account, the resulting intellectual growth is a concise picture of what America was really like. Perhaps now, the religious right will quit screaming and join the proactive discussion on family life.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Invaluable 23 Mar 2002
By pnotley@hotmail.com - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
It's not easy being a historian of the family. The media has an instinctive prejudice against the understanding of any ideas which are complex and subtle. Given the right and center right bias of much American political discourse it is hard for a liberal or socialist to get a word in edgewise. Much of the research occurs in scholarly articles that most people never hear of and which will only be noticed if they can be dramatic or alarming.
So hats off to Pr. Coontz's wonderful work, which cuts through the cant of "family values." Coontz starts off by noticing the media's tendency to hype alarming and misleading figures. She defuses the infamous 1986 Newsweek suggestion that women over 40 have more chance of being killed by a terrorist than of marrying for the first time. She points out that one reason why parents may be spending 40% less time with their children since 1965 is that the number of children has dropped 28%. The next two chapters point out some of the mythologies of family life in the fifties, and the complex relationships between liberal ideology and the status of women.
Really invaluable is the next chapter, on the conservative cant of "self-reliance." As she points out people have always had to rely on family partnerships, godparents, mutual neighborhood aid, ethnic and labour lodges: the Ayn Rand ideal is an utter fantasy. She points out that the Little House on the Prairie books were written by Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter to remove all the help the family received from the community. More important she points out how the American west and American highways, housing and suburbs have all been generously subsidized. In 1988 federal tax subsidies for homeowners were four times as high as direct spending for low-income housing assistance. Coontz also points out that there is precious little evidence that welfare encourages two parent family break-up: a 1987 General Accounting Office report of more than one hundred studies found little connection. Other studies have pointed out that "high-benefit states tend to have a relatively lower proportion of their children in poverty than low-benefit states" while mothers on AFDC have only one-fourth the number of babies while they are on welfare as those mothers who are not. And though poverty programs in the United States were among the least generous in the OECD, they could work when they were allowed to even when the economy stagnated: infant mortality fell in half between 1965 and 1980, a far greater reduction than in the previous 15 years.
Coontz provides an invaluable historical perspective on all sorts of issues, such as how the rise of a privatized family moralism coincided with the corrupt and selfish politics of the Gilded Age. If people are upset at the rise in premarital sex, they should note that it has helped reduce prostitution, where in 19th century Savannah there was one prostitute for every 39 men. Coontz also provides useful chapters on the complex nature of state intervention in the family, the history behind women's work, the rise of consumerism. In comparison to these the works of Christopher Lasch, let alone the contributors to Commentary and the New Republic, appear thin and shallow.
Coontz helpfully points out that the teenage childbirth rate has fallen by half since 1957, though a far larger proportion occur to unmarried mothers and the teenage pregnancy rate is at least twice that of other Western countries. She also defuses the panic about the toxic effects of day care and divorce, which are too often recklessly exaggerated. The chapter on the black family is especially useful, although it could be updated more. She reminds us that two parent families existed under slavery and were the norm after emancipation. She points out the intense strains these families were placed under, not only in the post-Reconstruction South, but also under the vicious racism of the North. (The position of blacks in antebellum Philadelphia and Boston actually worsened). She points out how blacks bore the brunt of the deindustrializaiton and economic stagnation of the seventies. The average real income of young black men fell 50% from 1973 to 1986. According to the most rigorous studies if black family structures had stayed the same in 1984 as in 1973, the proportion of black children living in poverty would have fallen from 41% to 38%, instead of rising slightly to 43%. Coontz concludes with thoughtful and useful moderate social democratic reforms which would do so much to ameliorate matters. But of course that would mean challenging the dogmas of the right and the opportunism of the centrists who prefer to view unions, racial minorities and feminists as scapegoats for their failure to attract support. So in the end, nothing happened.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must-read! 15 Jun 2000
By Suzanne Pettit - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book is a gem! Here is a thoroughly researched explanation of many of the attitudes toward family that pervade the American psyche today and keep us from moving forward. Growing up in a "broken" home, under non-traditional circumstances, I always felt like a freak -- like my family and I were substandard. I looked upon my parents as failures. As I read this book, I came to understand what they were up against as a young couple coming of age in the '50's -- trying to live up to an unrealistic and, ultimately, detrimental image of what a family was supposed to be. Thank you, Ms. Coontz, for allowing me to see my parents as people, and to find a new love and respect for them. And, for helping me to reconsider my own value system.
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