STEPHANIE COONTZ. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York: Basic Books, 1992. 391 pages. $27.00.
In 1989, historian Stephanie Coontz published a scholarly book on the American family, The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families, 1660-1900. Now Coontz has reworked and expanded her earlier study to produce an important book that will be enjoyed by experts and general readers alike.
The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap proceeds from the simple premise that current discussions of family policy are futile until we recognize and banish the myths that have grown up around the subject of families in past time. The Way We Never Were is organized topically with each of the ten chapters focusing on what the author identifies as a predominant "myth" about the American family. These myths include the "traditional family" of the 1950s; the idea of family privacy; the development of gender roles; the so-called sexual revolution; the dysfunctional black family, and the current "crisis of the family."
On a dozen or so topics--the underclass, teen pregnancy, daycare,, feminism, television and the family, and so on--Coontz first summarizes the "state of the debate" and then presents an original perspective. This book has fresh insights on almost every page. For example, after deftly summarizing how dichotomous gender roles developed in the early nineteenth century so that male individualism was balanced by female altruism, Coontz points out that since "the sexual division of labor in the nineteenth-century middle-class family...depended on the existence of African-American, immigrant, and working-class families with very different age and gender roles" (65), "the Victorian family" of myth was coterminous with the white, middle-class family. Without the Irish maid and the black Mammy--both "working women"--the Victorian family could not have maintained its own rigid divisions of gender roles. Similarly, in a chapter ironically entitled, "We Always Stood on Our Own Feet," Coontz shows that what she calls "the myth of self-reliance" has obscured the extent to which families have depended on government. Coontz demolishes the myth of family self-sufficiency by listing numerous ways in which "Americans have been dependent on collective institutions beyond the family, including government, from the very beginning"(70). Such "dependency" has never been confined to the poor. "Middle-class and affluent Americans have been every bit as dependent on public support. …