Rethinking Family Values

Evergreen State College history professor Stephanie Coontz's critique of the myths surrounding the American family in her book, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, has garnered international attention. It has also helped her interject a passionate, progressive voice into the national debate about family values, from the op-ed pages of the New York Times to Oprah. Kent Chadwick interviewed Coontz.Tell me a bit about your background. I'm from a pioneer family in the West, so I grew up on a lot of the myths about American families. On the other hand, my father was a union organizer and I learned something about class realities fairly early. I went to school at the University of California at Berkeley and did my graduate work at the University of Washington. I was involved in the peace movement. After an absence from academia, I came back to teach at Evergreen. There I threw myself into American social history and women's history. I wrote a very academic work on the history of American family life, The Social Origins of Private Lives, that took me eight years of research. When I emerged from the writing of that book I noticed that all the right-wing groups that I had known of when I was in the peace movement had changed their names, added a lot of women to their boards, and had suddenly started talking about the family instead of about communism and the Cold War. I decided to use the historical research that I had done, combined with some contemporary research, to talk about the myths I was beginning to hear bruited about on family issues. That new book, The Way We Never Were, was published in 1992. By my good luck, but society's bad luck, that happened to be the exact time that this issue popped into the public arena. Just a month before my book came out, Dan Quayle made his famous Murphy Brown speech, in which he also -- many people forget this -- blamed the L.A. riots and the urban crisis on Murphy Brown's bad example to black women in the cities. And he said that marriage was the best anti-poverty program, that you really didn't need urban anti-poverty programs. I found this outrageous, and my willingness to take my historical work into the public sphere catapulted me into the center of this family values debate and I've been in it ever since. The Democratic party has caved in to the right wing's analysis on this. Now the main Democratic party think tank says the same thing that Quayle said. That's absurd. Whatever the virtues of marriage, it is not a program for children. And it's not a workable program . According to the Census Department if you united every single kid in America with both biological parents, and that's by no means a good idea in all cases, two-thirds of the kids today who are poor would still be poor.There was a waiting audience for your analysis. Yes. I think that's it. People were waiting to have somebody affirm their own suspicions about this family values campaign. They were happy to have a historian who could come and say, "You know, there's not much historical basis for this."You mentioned in the epilogue in The Way We Never Were that the family crisis, as people see it, is part of a much larger social crisis. You also have mentioned the different kinds of changes taking place in our social structure and economic structures. What do you see as happening in the future? I'm not a futurist. I don't have a complete political program that I think would solve the crisis. What I bring to this discussion is an analysis that can help us redirect the questions we ask. Then collectively, through our debate, we can come up with better answers. Right now we're asking the wrong questions: "What's wrong with American families?" or "What's wrong with American education?" Those simple little questions do not address the major change that is occurring in every aspect of American life -- a change that is every bit as far-reaching and as wrenching as the transition to wage labor was in the 1820s. It would be as if people then were saying "What's wrong with our farm schools?" "What's wrong with our farm families that they're not raising self-sufficient farmers anymore?" We can look back now and see that those would be laughable questions, because there was no way that a little farm school or farm family could have held the wage labor and market system at bay. And yet we're asking that of families today who are going through a change every bit as major. It's a change in our inter-generational relations, in our age structures, our distribution of population, our racial dynamics. There's a change in the experience of youth itself, the old life course trajectories no longer work. There's a change in the kind of jobs you can look forward to. There's a change in the post-war wage bargain with corporations and with it the post-war gender bargain, so that gender relations are being completely transformed. Parent-child relations are totally different. Parents do not pass on the same skills that 20 years ago they thought they could pass on. All of these things together constitute a total change in the way we have to organize our expectations of ourselves, our schools, our families. On top of it, we've had a redistribution of earnings that economist Lester Thurow points out is unprecedented. No country without having experienced a revolution or a civil war or an external war, has ever had such a sharp redistribution of earnings as we've had in the past two decades.How would you characterize the way they've shifted? It's been a steadily increasing, accelerated difference between rich and poor. Over the last 20 years all of the increase in real income has gone to the top 20 percent of the population. Meanwhile the share of the poorest population has fallen. The middle is being gradually squeezed. Today the real wages of a high school graduate are lower than they were in 1963. The result has been that although productivity and profits have been rising, the wages of the people responsible for the rise of productivity have actually been falling. The correspondence of reward and effort is all out of kilter. You have a situation for which all of our old expectations of family, school, are interpersonal relations are not working.What do you see as the driving forces in the income redistribution? There are tremendous debates among economists about this. The one thing that serious economists all agree upon is that it's not driven by changes in the family. All I can say as a family historian is that nine-tenths of the debate has been pointed in the wrong direction. It's been blaming us for not educating our kids well enough, blaming the schools or blaming the families. And in both cases it is vastly exaggerated. Clearly what we are seeing, though, is the end of the progressive aspects of a pure market economy. Maybe we need to have "markets," plural, with a small "m," instead of one "Market." Maybe we can take planning in some areas of the economy and politics and put it at a local level where it is locally controlled.Are there some lessons to be learned from the 1820s, creative responses to the rise of wage labor that tried to adjust for families, for unions, for social groups? One of the things that we know from history is that workers' organizations do best when they have community roots rather than when they focus on just one industry fight. This tendency of unions in America to think that they can just settle things within their own firm is very, very recent. It was a result of the post-war boom and what's been called the wage bargain of the 1950s, whereby unions gave up considerable political clout and essentially refrained from mobilizing outside the factory gates in return for trickle-down concessions from corporations. That kind of labor movement has come to a dead end. So we have to think in terms of mobilizing outside the kind of narrow channels of traditional unionism. Historically, the working class was defined very narrowly. It was defined, essentially, as white males in unionized or industrial jobs. It left out minorities and, of course, women. Now we have to redefine, not only what the working class is, but what counts as working class struggle and how you establish working class solidarity.Which myths do you see the left as now having to abandon? In the '60s, when liberals were in power and there was a lot of blind faith in the state, it was our task to throw doubt upon the motives of the state. I think today, after the big lie promulgated by Charles Murray in his book Losing Ground, that all government policies, per se, hurt people, in a sense we now have to do the liberals work for them. We have to explain that state power is not in itself necessarily bad, that state intervention, even though it had its own interests and was corrupt in many ways, has actually helped, for example, women and children. And what bothers me the most is the way the left talks today as if they've forgotten a lesson that the right has learned very well: you don't assume that everybody already agrees with you. If you are a political activist, you want to move them somewhere else, but you have to start where they are if you are going to get them to follow you. Some of my most moving experiences have been on the call-in shows when you get a chance to interact with people who are worried. They'll call and ask a question that you could give a knee-jerk response to. When you don't, people are relieved. I've had people burst into tears on the phone and say, "Oh, that's true. I couldn't just accept an either/or answer." The complexity of the real situation resonates in their lives. What an opportunity that is for us who would like a more democratic society. That means people are ready to sit down, if we can provide the forums for them to do so, and engage in opinion changing rather than just measuring their pulse every few moments, telling the politicians what the pulse rate is, and letting the politicians build their campaigns on that.


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