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.
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.
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.