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.

Is there a problem or issue that defines the modern feminist movement? Or is it fuzzier?

I think it’s fuzzier. You have the lipstick feminists, the power feminists, the class-oriented feminists, the conservative feminists, feminists who oppose abortion—all these different competing variants of feminism. And it’s no longer as much of an identifier as it was when most people didn’t believe women should have equal rights. Now everyone claims that women should have equal rights. But some of them say women don’t want to be the same as men, they’re more interested than men are in family life. That’s not really true—they’re socialized into this and channeled into making these decisions, and men are penalized for making those decisions. But the debates are harder to have because everybody, except a few trolls who honestly think that men are better than women, thinks it. So what does it mean to be a feminist? It’s not easy to explain.

I’ll be provocative here and tell you something: I don’t describe myself as a feminist teacher. If I’m giving a lecture in public I never, initially, identify as a feminist. Calling myself a feminist in the 1960’s or ‘70s made it clear to people that I was for equal opportunities for women, at a time when not everybody was. But saying it now confuses some people. I wish it didn’t, but it does. I’ve spoken to enough working-class audiences over the years where, yes, women are still paid less than men, but women’s wages have been rising and men’s have been falling. So the audience thinks, wait a minute, are you saying we should keep it up until we surpass our men while they’re losing ground? You have to explain that no, that’s not what it’s about. So I tend to use neutral words.

Eli Finkel wrote a piece called The All-or-Nothing Marriage, arguing that our expectations for marriage today are much higher than they used to be. What do you think?

One of the things I’m interested in teaching my students is the notion of paradoxes and trades. The same things that could be really helpful in constructing and sustaining a successful institution or relationship or sources of real power in your life may also set in motion dynamics that undermine it. This is a theoretical point, but it’s also personally empowering. They can look at their life or outside institutions and see that the things that make it strong can also make it weak. That’s exactly what I think is happening with marriages. The very things that strengthen marriage as a relationship, make it potentially better as a relationship, fairer, more intimate, also made it more fragile as an institution. I think it’s true that we have tremendously high expectations from marriage. Especially when we have lower expectations of other institutions and relationships and sources of satisfaction. That creates a kind of pressure-cooker situation where you have to work at your marriage in ways that people never had to work at their marriage if you want to keep it living up to expanding expectations.

Is that a good thing?

I am not someone who thinks that we should lower our expectations. I studied what happens in low-expectation marriages. The good thing about high expectations, if they’re realistic, is that you challenge yourself to live up to them. If you start with low expectations, like so many people I interviewed from the ‘50s and ‘60s, who might say, “Oh, it’s a good enough marriage—he doesn’t hit me,” then it doesn’t set the bar very high. Where we’re facing a real problem is that not all of our expectations are realistic for one other person to meet. You have to work really hard to introduce novelty in your relationship, to figure out what are the ways to reach more intimacy. We’re demanding an intimacy that doesn’t just hit a plateau, but keeps building. That takes real work. So you have these choices. You either have to do that kind of work or you have to say, “No, I’m willing to get some of my needs met elsewhere.” Or you have to settle. And I don’t think you have to settle. I think you can say, I can simultaneously work to get my most important needs met with my spouse, and do understand that you have to work at it in a way that couples of the past never did. But not every moment will be one of total communication—we have to give ourselves permission to get satisfaction in our jobs, in our friendships, and our community. Without that, we put too much pressure on one other poor person.

You mentioned men’s changing role in family life. What do you think of the “end of men” type arguments?

In some senses, men are where women were 30 years ago. Fifty years ago, women were told, this is your place, stay in it. But about 30 years ago, it was, yes, you can do other things, but you must not compromise your femininity in doing it. You still have to be attractive and sexy. A lot of women have learned that you can throw out the old ideas about what makes you feminine. Men are at the point where they’re beginning to discover that there are things beyond the old notion of masculinity that are rewarding. Yes, intimacy is important. You ought to share housework with your wife. At the same time, they’re being told—and not just by society but by women who subscribe to these conflicting messages about masculinity—that they should be disclosing but not weak. They should be gentle but still willing to kill a mouse. They’re getting these messages that somehow they have to live up to a norm of masculinity that includes all the old protective, provider roles, but also the new ones.

This article was condensed and edited for clarity.