Stephanie Coontz on feminism and the American family

Feminism changes Western family life. In America, more people than ever before are choosing to remain childless. Stephanie Coontz, one of our time's most noted social scientists, explains.

FLORIDA, October 20, 2012 — All too often, people mistake fiction for fact. Considering that we live in an era where the lines between entertainment and information have been blurred almost beyond comprehension, this becomes an indescribably challenging problem.  

We also live in an era of delayed marriage or, in many cases, no marriage at all. More people than ever before are choosing to cohabit or remain single. The once marginalized childless trend is gaining popularity as well.

Needless to say, these developments have left more than a few self-styled traditionalists less than pleased.   

Stephanie Coontz is one of our time’s foremost social scientists. She has written about the American family at length, and uncovered more than a few inconvenient truths in the process. 

In the first part of a candid discussion with me, she explained about how “family values” might be defined, among other things. Now, she explains her opinions regarding why so many idolize the 1950s, whether or not unmarried life is a positive consequence of increased opportunities, how feminism has impacted Western family norms, and much more.     

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Joseph F. Cotto: Why, in your opinion, do so many continue to idolize the ‘50s?

Dr. Stephanie Coontz: Partly, I think, because many people tend to confuse old sit coms with documentaries. Also, if you weren’t personally experiencing discrimination, poverty, abuse or family dysfunction, you didn’t hear about the many who were.

But there was also a very different social and economic climate, especially for white men who were not highly educated. We came out of the war with a huge head-start over our former allies and enemies alike and our economic advantage was magnified   by tremendous government and private investment in infrastructure, leading to an unprecedented economic boom. The greater clout of unions and employers’ lack of access to outsourcing helped ensure that workers in the manufacturing industry experienced rising real wages throughout a 25-year-long period of expansion. 

Cheap housing and new schools allowed many working-class parents to move to new suburbs and prepare their children for more socioeconomic mobility. Technological innovations had not yet combined with intensified global competition to ratchet up the time pressures on professionals. So if you had a “good enough” family, there were many ways in which family life was more predictable and less stressful. If you didn’t, though, you were out of luck, because there was no place to turn.

Cotto: These days, more people than ever before are delaying marriage or choosing not to marry at all. Is this a positive consequence of increased socioeconomic opportunity? 

Dr. Coontz: It’s positive for some people and negative for others. For Americans who delay marriage to complete their education or pursue a career, their chances of eventual marriage are very high, and when they do marry they have a lower risk of divorce. Those who do not marry at all have more options as singles than ever before. So this is largely a positive consequences of their greater socioeconomic opportunities. 

But as less-educated and lower-income workers lose ground in this economy, they often delay or forgo marriage because so many individuals in the potential partners they meet look like economic liabilities rather than assets, and because they have little confidence in their ability to build a stable enough life to sustain a long-term relationship. So for these people, non-marriage is a consequence of decreased socioeconomic opportunities, and in turn it exacerbates their disadvantage.

Cotto: Fewer people are having children today than in past decades. Many find this to be troublesome. What are your opinions about the subject?

Dr. Coontz: I don’t really worry about people for whom remaining child-free is their first choice. I do think, however, that the growth of this segment raises an economic challenge that some business leaders have been slow to grasp: it’s probably not realistic to build your hopes for prosperity on the idea that we can sustain ever-increasing production to meet an ever-expanding population.

I do worry about people who would prefer more children but feel forced to restrict their fertility, either because they don’t have enough work to pay for the growing costs of raising a child or because they cannot achieve the workplace flexibility they would need to have more than one child.

Cotto: A great deal claim that feminism has disrupted Western family norms, bringing about considerable strife. What do you think about this argument?

Dr. Coontz: I think feminism brought strife into the open, because it gave women the social support, legal right, and economic clout to ask for change in the traditional power structure and division of labor in the family. But to the extent that many men have responded positively to those requests it has improved family life, giving women and children more rights and earning them more consideration. Today, couples who share the egalitarian beliefs and practices first advocated by feminists report higher quality marriages. And women or children who would formerly have had to stick it out in abusive or high-conflict homes have more options to escape. 

Of course, every gain comes with trade-offs, and there are still real challenges to be worked out as we negotiate these changes in gender roles and values.

Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering how you came to be such a noted academic and writer about family issues. Tell us a bit about your life and career.

Dr. Coontz: I sort of fell into studying families more than 30 years ago, when I was asked to write a history of women in America. I decided I wanted to write about women and men in relation to each other, but of course, back in the 1970s, women and men were still pretty much segregated in occupations and political life. Finally it occurred to me that there was one place where men and women interacted in close proximity and roughly equal numbers, and that was the family. So I’ve been studying families ever since, and over the past 17 years I have had the privilege of working with researchers and practitioners from many different disciplines in the Council on Contemporary Families. 

It’s a very exciting time to research families, because so much of what we used to think we knew about “the rules” of family life is in flux. It’s also a very important time, because family diversity is here to stay. By comparing notes and learning from each other’s field we have begun to understand that every family arrangement has distinctive strengths and vulnerabilities. Only by avoiding glib over-generalizations about “the family” can we help ALL families cope with the challenges and opportunities of the contemporary worlds.

 

 


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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