Studying U.S. Families: 'Men Are Where Women Were 30 Years Ago'

An interview with Stephanie Coontz, author of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s
Glyn Lowe Photoworks/Flickr

On subjects ranging from reproductive rights to gay marriage to the role of the First Lady, there is, perhaps, no more widely quoted expert than Stephanie Coontz. Professor Coontz, whose background is in history, has taught Family Studies at Evergreen College since 1975—before the discipline was even created. She is also Co-Chair and Director of Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families and a frequent contributor to The New York Times’ Sunday Review.

Coontz spoke with me about how family studies has developed as a field of study, why she doesn’t call herself a “feminist teacher,” and our new expectations for marriage.


Where does “family studies” fit as a discipline?

It’s unclear where it falls. Some home economics departments are called “family life” departments. It can also be taught by sociologists or historians. I teach at Evergreen College, which doesn’t have disciplinary boundaries. We do a lot of team teaching, purposely picking topics where there’s no discipline that has a lock on the answers, or even the questions. I teach with anthropologists, political scientists, economists, as well as sociologists. And poets! So “family studies” is kind of ideal for a place like Evergreen. It poses more challenges to universities with traditional disciplinary boundaries.

How do you put together your curriculum?

I want to establish, like the famous line of L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” That’s the most important thing to get across. You have to start by getting students to understand that very basic emotion, moral structures, ways of relating to people that they take for granted have not always existed, and may right now be in the process of changing. Students get pretty quickly that different societies have different rules, but they tend to see those as masking people’s true emotions and impulses. It’s really important to look at the variability. So my starting point is to get them to participate in exercises and readings that make them understand that there are other ways of understanding the world.

How have your students’ attitudes changed over time?

I’ve seen what we’ve seen in society as a whole—an extraordinary increase in students’ acceptance of private life as a legitimate topic of study, and the acceptance of gender equality. But you also get a polarization of how people understand the inequality that does exist. The ones who are opposed to inequality, who have a material stake or idealistic interest in furthering equality, are still using the language of the '60s. They’re calling people who oppose it “racist” or “sexist” or “patriarchal.” But you can have inequality perpetuated in different ways. It’s no longer legally enforced, and it’s no longer socially acceptable to say that people are inferior. That means that you have to look at people who do perpetuate inequality in a different, more humane way, than just saying that they’re outright racist. Once you have everyone accepting that people ought to be equal, it’s harder to explain what inequality there is in a way that’s nuanced enough to change people’s minds and give them the tools they need to analyze it accurately.

You wrote in a New York Times opinion piece that the gender revolution “has hit a wall.” What do you mean by that?

To start, I should say that one of the differences between me and my sociologist colleagues is that more of them are willing to say that we have a stalled revolution. They look at the kind of plateau we got in the ’90s, the fact that the wage gap hasn’t really changed a lot overall, and they’re more willing to say that it was an incomplete revolution. Which, of course, it is. But as a historian, I’m more conscious of how far we’ve come, and also tend to take a longer-term framework before I say we’ve stalled out. I think there’s considerable evidence that a lot of change is going on. There are a lot of rapid changes going on right now in terms of what men are doing in the home. So I don’t think we’ve hit a real stall in terms of what people want, and how they want their families to develop and gender relations to develop. What I am trying to argue is that we have gotten to the point where it’s hard to move forward without more structural changes.

What kind of structural changes do you think we need?

It’s so hard to continue the revolution in family life in a situation where there’s so little support for family-friendly work policies, where there’s not good child care available, when there isn’t parental leave. Why don’t we have them? America has this long history of asking people to purchase everything, from their own playgrounds to hospitals, instead of seeing that there should be a collective investment in playgrounds for everybody, in health care for everybody. The result is that for those who are lucky enough and skilled enough, or just lucky enough to inherit it, all sorts of opportunities are there. But for others, you hit a wall.

In the US, in many ways, we have higher opportunities for high-earning women and highly-educated women than in many other countries. Sweden and Norway have fewer women who earn above the average male salary than we do. But our gender gap is wider because our gap between high and low wages is wider, and because many more women have to drop out of work for periods of time. That said, the very fact that we don’t have these work policies means that women who can, for whatever reason, be a Sheryl Sandberg, have a supportive husband, get ahead enough to get the kind of salary where they can get help—they can really move forward. The big problem for the US is to get a parental leave policy in place, particularly for low-income women, to juggle work and family. At the same time, we need to go the route of Norway and Quebec and get a use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave, so we don’t reinforce women’s association with family life and childcare.

Presented by

Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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