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The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap [Kindle Edition]

Stephanie Coontz
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)

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Book Description

The Way We Never Were examines two centuries of American family life and shatters a series of myths and half-truths that burden modern families. Placing current family dilemmas in the context of far-reaching economic, political, and demographic changes, Coontz sheds new light on such contemporary concerns as parenting, privacy, love, the division of labor along gender lines, the black family, feminism, and sexual practice.

Editorial Reviews Review

Did you ever wonder about the historical accuracy of those "traditional family values" touted in the heated arguments that insist our cultural ills can be remedied by their return? Of course, myth is rooted in fact, and certain phenomena of the 1950s generated the Ozzie and Harriet icon. The decade proved profamily--the birthrate rose dramatically; social problems that nag--gangs, drugs, violence--weren't even on the horizon. Affluence had become almost a right; the middle class was growing. "In fact," writes Coontz, "the 'traditional' family of the 1950s was a qualitatively new phenomenon. At the end of the 1940s, all the trends characterizing the rest of the twentieth century suddenly reversed themselves." This clear-eyed, bracing, and exhaustively researched study of American families and the nostalgia trap proves--beyond the shadow of a doubt--that Leave It to Beaver was not a documentary.

Gender, too, is always on Coontz's mind. In the third chapter ("My Mother Was a Saint"), she offers an analysis of the contradictions and chasms inherent in the "traditional" division of labor. She reveals, next, how rarely the family exhibited economic and emotional self-reliance, suggesting that the shift from community to nuclear family was not healthy. Coontz combines a clear prose style with bold assertions, backed up by an astonishing fleet of researched, myth-skewing facts. The 88 pages of endnotes dramatize both her commitment to and deep knowledge of the subject. Brilliant, beautifully organized, iconoclastic, and (relentlessly) informative The Way We Never Were breathes fresh air into a too often suffocatingly "hot" and agenda-sullied subject. In the penultimate chapter, for example, a crisp reframing of the myth of black-family collapse leads to a reinterpretation of the "family crisis" in general, putting it in the larger context of social, economic, and political ills.

The book began in response to the urgent questions about the family crisis posed her by nonacademic audiences. Attempting neither to defend "tradition" in the era of family collapse, nor to liberate society from its constraints, Coontz instead cuts through the kind of sentimental, ahistorical thinking that has created unrealistic expectations of the ideal family. "I show how these myths distort the diverse experiences of other groups in America," Coontz writes, "and argue that they don't even describe most white, middle-class families accurately." The bold truth of history after all is that "there is no one family form that has ever protected people from poverty or social disruption, and no traditional arrangement that provides a workable model for how we might organize family relations in the modern world."

Some of America's most precious myths are not only precarious, but down right perverted, and we would be fools to ignore Stephanie Coontz's clarion call. --Hollis Giammatteo

From Publishers Weekly

The golden age of the American family never existed, asserts Coontz ( The Social Origns of Private Life ) in a wonderfully perceptive, myth-debunking report. The "Leave It to Beaver" ideal of breadwinner father, full-time homemaker mother and dependent children was a fiction of the 1950s, she shows. Real families of that period were rife with conflict, repression and anxiety, frequently poor and much less idyllic than many assume; teen pregnancy rates in the '50s were higher than today. Further, Coontz contends, the nuclear family was elevated to a central source of personal satisfaction only in the late 19th century, thereby weakening people's community ties and sense of civic obligation. Coontz disputes the idea that children can be raised properly only in traditional families. Viewing modern domestic problems as symptoms of a much larger socioeconomic crisis, she demonstrates that no single type of household has ever protected Americans from social disruption or poverty. An important contribution to the current debate on family values.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • File Size: 6359 KB
  • Print Length: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (November 4, 1992)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B001FSJ994
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #163,005 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
57 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Much needed balance November 9, 2004
I was born in 1970, and my childhood memories are of sun-bathed days riding my bike and playing with my friends in the safe streets of rural England. Mummies and Daddies formed coherent units, there was a real sense of community, and life has been downhill from there. Right? Except that, as an adult, I know better. One couple across the road were staying in a miserable marriage in which affairs were used to express anger; another neighbour beat the living daylights out of his wife; two children from my school walked miles to the police station to report that they were being beaten and starved; paedophile rings were being dealt with; cases of incest, rape, and violent crime were not so unusual; and the fact is that I have no memory of these things because they were kept from me.

The argument that the past was better because one remembers it being so does not, I fear, hold water. Historians and sociologists fight a losing battle against nostalgia and the very human desire to return to a golden age when things were simpler, more wholesome, easier to deal with than the realities we face as adults. Books like Coontz's 'The Way We Never Were' are vital to understanding and facing the complexities of the world instead of retreating in fear to a world of projected simplicity and order that never really existed.
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62 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A refreshingly realistic myth-buster April 9, 1998
By A Customer
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.
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82 of 98 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must get for your local conservative politician June 17, 2001
Since its inception, the religious right has attempted to convince America that the world would be better and all of our social problems would be resolved if we could magically transport back to the 1950's as represented in Leave it to Beaver and countless other comedies designed to "imitate" the emerging WASP middle-class suburban lifestyle.
Yet as Stephanie Coontz points out, this was a Hollywood myth that never existed in real life. Instead, women were maimed from illegal abortions, gays were bashed at an alarming rate, schools were segregated, the disabled were hidden and sexual and domestic violence supposedly did not happen to "good" people. Telling it like it really was is not a PC fairy tale, but a practical reality if we are to finally confront and undo some of America's social problems.
Politicians, particularly on the right, have been successful in exploiting and appropriating this myth for their own personal means precisely because there have been few watchdogs to challenge them. Were this possible, we would discover the new left had its roots in the backlash against Senator Joe McCarthy and his communist witch hunts. The cover picture with a young Robin Morgan is particularly ironic in light of the fact that the former "Mama" child star reincarnated herself as one of the most prolific and articulate leaders of the new left and women's liberation in the 1960's.
Family Values have become such an emotional election issue because we are not really sure what they mean. Sure, any politician (indeed most do out of a fear of being perceived as anti-family) can embrace the concept and even make a career out of such proclamations, but our realities have been less than stellar pictures.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Invaluable March 23, 2002
It's not easy being a historian of the family. The media has an instinctive prejudice against the understanding of any ideas which are complex and subtle. Given the right and center right bias of much American political discourse it is hard for a liberal or socialist to get a word in edgewise. Much of the research occurs in scholarly articles that most people never hear of and which will only be noticed if they can be dramatic or alarming.
So hats off to Pr. Coontz's wonderful work, which cuts through the cant of "family values." Coontz starts off by noticing the media's tendency to hype alarming and misleading figures. She defuses the infamous 1986 Newsweek suggestion that women over 40 have more chance of being killed by a terrorist than of marrying for the first time. She points out that one reason why parents may be spending 40% less time with their children since 1965 is that the number of children has dropped 28%. The next two chapters point out some of the mythologies of family life in the fifties, and the complex relationships between liberal ideology and the status of women.
Really invaluable is the next chapter, on the conservative cant of "self-reliance." As she points out people have always had to rely on family partnerships, godparents, mutual neighborhood aid, ethnic and labour lodges: the Ayn Rand ideal is an utter fantasy. She points out that the Little House on the Prairie books were written by Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter to remove all the help the family received from the community. More important she points out how the American west and American highways, housing and suburbs have all been generously subsidized. In 1988 federal tax subsidies for homeowners were four times as high as direct spending for low-income housing assistance.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars OK as an academic text book
My book group chose this title thinking it might lead to some animated discussion. For the first time in our history not one member finished the whole book. Read more
Published 2 months ago by CaroBee
1.0 out of 5 stars Awful
Completely biased. Too much opinion, not enough fact. Obviously a left wing man-hater, looking for the government to take on the role of sugar daddy. Waste of my time and money.
Published 3 months ago by Andrea L. Aicher
1.0 out of 5 stars BIAS
I could't imaging why college history teacher chose this book to read it for students?! Full of bias, arguments that doesn't make sens, contradicting facts and manipulated... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Pawel
5.0 out of 5 stars A thrill ride
Mrs. Coontz has done it again with this book. She starts out dispelling the dream world that is "the traditional family" and doesn't let up until the very end.
Published 5 months ago by Wesley Hargis
5.0 out of 5 stars Revealing
Ms Coontz is well known in the field of gender studies. SHe is a prolific author. In THE WAY WE NEVER WERE she slices through myths and stories many people have lived with as... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Peter M. Herford
5.0 out of 5 stars A fact-driven look at the truth behing American culture
This compelling book is heavily peppered with cited examples and research-based evidence that shatters the notion of a perfect or classic American lifestyle, especially that... Read more
Published 5 months ago by DrDoc
5.0 out of 5 stars Finally the truth is known!
This book unravels the fake history of the America Family created by Hollywood movies and television. Read more
Published 9 months ago by buster brown
5.0 out of 5 stars I have given away many copies of this book
This is a great book - It is well written and the topic is not just interesting but personal.

It explores the difference between real life and idealist views of real... Read more
Published 10 months ago by jtex
1.0 out of 5 stars Its not about families, its about politics
I picked this up second hand, wish they had thrown it out instead of donating it. First you have start off being stupid to accept her premise. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Jerrie Brock
5.0 out of 5 stars Great!
Great, I needed the book for school and needed it before a certain date and got it before that date!
Published 13 months ago by briza ling
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