Stephanie Coontz is a professor of history at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families. She is widely recognized as one of the leading authorities on the history of the American family.
Coontz has authored numerous books and articles, including, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and The Way We Really Are. In 2005 Viking-Penguin published, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage—a tremendously important book that's just been released in paperback.
Marriage, A History argues that marriage has evolved from the economic and political alliance of two or more family groups, to an individual love-match, which over the past thirty years has catalyzed the creation of new family forms like gay and lesbian families and helped dissolve the division of labor between husband as breadwinner and wife as homemaker. The result, says Coontz, is not the end of the family as we know it, but instead its revitalization as a more just and equitable institution.
I sat down to talk to Coontz at the tenth anniversary conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, an organization she helped to found.
In your books, you've demonstrated how the family is constantly evolving. But have you identified any traits shared by all families that successfully cultivate the health and well being of their members?
In the broadest sense, there are some universals. For example, helping members to go outside the family – I think there's been an incest taboo for a good reason, for thousands of years. We even find a primitive version of it in chimpanzees. It's important to create individuals who not only can build successful relations within the group, but that are not so physically or emotionally incestuous. The good family teaches its members to reach out and form bonds with others.
So the family is a facilitator of human diversity.
Or rather, of social connection. The healthiest families are those families that don't try to be everything and do everything. But I do think that what makes a family work really depends on social circumstances.
Let's take the question of marriage. I think that in the 1950s you could build a successful marriage and rear kids who were going to do pretty well on the basis of a union of two gender stereotypes. And it wasn't really necessary to have the depth of intimacy and friendship that is required now. That could lead to all sorts of abuses, and did. But on the whole, it could produce pretty decent people in the context of that time.
Today, that doesn't work. When you have two people coming together at an older age, they are both economically and emotionally independent in very important ways. Men don't require women to do their housekeeping services, women don't require men to support them. In that circumstance, the level of friendship has to be much deeper and the level of intimacy needs to be much deeper. You can't raise your kids with the same degree of authoritativeness—or especially, with the same level of authoritarianism—that they could, many years ago.
And each of these changes, I think, creates new problems. We solve old problems but create new ones. A good example is parenting. We have solved so many old problems in parenting. There is so much less child abuse, both emotional and physical, than there used to be in the past. There is a real interest in developing the child's individuality—not necessarily individualism.
But, some parents go too far in the opposite direction and forget the need to establish generational boundaries and not be their kid's best friend. So over and over again, what families need changes with the social and historical context and we create new challenges in the process of solving old problems.
As new family forms are emerging—and I mean the whole range, including reverse traditional families, gay and lesbian families, stepfamilies, and so on—how might that evolution contribute to the well-being of family members and society as a whole? How does the evolution hurt well-being?
Well, it's another one of those trade-offs. Families have always been diverse, but that diversity was swept under the rug, and they were made to be ashamed of it. They were not helped, nobody analyzed their potential strengths and helped address their absolutely clear weaknesses. So as we've brought this diversity into visibility and increasingly legitimized that diversity, we've opened the way for all sorts of positive things. For example, preventing people from being forced to stay in a heterosexual marriage when, in fact, their impulses go the other way, or forcing people to stay in an unfair or unsatisfying marriage, which has been a huge relief for many people, I mean, literally a life saver. In every state that adopted no-fault divorce, the next five years saw twenty-percent declines in the suicide rates of wives.
But again, it certainly opened up more opportunities for people to make more bad choices, more opportunities for failure. It's opened new opportunities to misjudge how much work it takes to build a new family form in an environment where the economy, the work practices, the school schedules, and the emotional expectations favor—privilege—one family form. So you have some people being overly optimistic about how easy it is to carve out a new life – they might say, "Oh, I can be a single mom, no problem," and they're not prepared for the difficulties they'll encounter.
So I think that it does have some negative effects, but I would emphasize that these changes are not going back underground. They've had tremendous positive effects by rescuing people from very difficult situations and they pose us the challenge of helping people make more informed choices.
In Marriage, A History, you show love and intimacy have become more important to marriages. How has that evolution contributed to the rise in male caregiving?
This is one of the real, unambiguous good news stories that we're finding. When the women's movement first encouraged women to make these demands on their husbands, to spend more time at home, it caused a lot of conflict in families. And I think the conservatives are quite right to say that women's liberation destabilized marriage.
But as men made adjustments—and they really have—the result has been tremendous good news, that, first of all, these adjustments have strengthened marriage. Men who do more caregiving have more satisfying marriages, they are less likely to have their wives leave them, and their kids do better. It's a win-win situation, because if the parents do divorce, men who have been involved in such caregiving are much less likely to walk away from their kids. They have developed an independent relationship with the kids that is no longer mediated through the mom, and they don't have that old-fashioned idea that, "Since I no longer get the mom's services, so I can't relate to the kids either."
So I think that there are all sorts of positive things about it. There's a myth in sociology and among many feminists that there's been a stalled revolution, that there's been a lagged one, but the fact is that men are changing very rapidly. In fact, as a historian, I have to say that they are changing, in a period of thirty years, in ways that took most women 150 years of thinking and activism. Every cohort of men is doing more in the house, and if you look within a cohort, the longer a man's wife has worked, the more likely he is to do caregiving and housework. This is a huge change.
How has the rising importance of love in marriage contributed to the emergence of gay and lesbian families?
Social conservatives claim, as James Dobson put it, that gay and lesbian marriage is turning 5,000 years of tradition on its head. I actually believe that 5,000 years of tradition has been turned on its head, but it was heterosexuals who did it, and they changed marriage in ways that encouraged gays and lesbians to say, now this institution applies to us – after, in fact, having rejected that institution, because of its rigidity and inequality. I think this is good evidence that the institution has been evolving in a way that means it is not inherently oppressive.
Now I have gotten attacked by a couple of feminist authors for saying that. They want me to keep arguing that there's something inherent in the institution of marriage. I think, in fact, we've transformed it and discovered that it's not inherently oppressive, except in so far as it is put forward as the only way to honor long-term obligations. But if it is not, then I think marriage has become much fairer through the ages and much more capable of really being equal, and I think that's why many gays and lesbians have started to embrace marriage.
You describe a lot of change. What hasn't changed?
There are still a lot of rigid gender roles. It's a lot worse around the world, where women still face incredible amounts of domestic violence. There are massive gender inequities on a global scale to be addressed, and there is the residue, and a serious residue, of inequality at home, too. But the biggest problem we need to address is the peculiarly American assumption that individuals can learn individual responsibility without any social responsibility. We ask individuals to keep commitments that we don't ask corporations or politicians to keep, and that needs to change.