“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
The Changing Face of Family Life Values
Older people can often be heard lamenting the demise of “the good old days” when children respected their elders, adults behaved civilly towards one another, and good manners were a sign of superior child rearing. However, many believe that the good old days were largely a myth, and were only “good” for a small percentage of the population that consisted primarily of white males.
In her book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Author Stephanie Coontz attempts to separate the myths surrounding reminiscence of the good old days from the often harsh realities that women and children faced in the past. She points out how phrases such as “a man’s house is his castle” illustrated and perpetuated some of those realities.
In an interview on the topic of marriage and gender equality, Ms. Coontz was asked to elaborate on her statement that while marriage has changed more in the last 30 years than in the past 3,000, some aspects are now less stable. In her opinion, part of the reason that marriage was such a powerful institution was due to its rigidity. The lack of economic alternatives for women coupled with social stigma and discrimination against unmarried women are examples of that rigidity. A strict division of gender roles encouraged mutual dependence based on economic necessity.
Something Old, Something New
Today, economic changes have reduced that necessity, and with it, the stability of family life and values associated with the institution of marriage. Women have higher expectations of equality and are more willing to leave marriages in which they feel mistreated. She also makes the point that despite progress towards equality, in choosing a mate, many women’s attractions are still based on the social conditioning of the past. That conditioning included choosing a mate using criteria such as economic and emotional stability, rather than sexual attraction.
Sexual attraction was often reserved for “bad boys” with an air of mystery, unpredictability, or even danger, qualities that are unlikely to be useful in sustaining family life and values, or even a long-term relationship. Ms. Coontz believes that one of the challenges of reducing the instability of marriage in an age in which women often marry based on attraction is that of making equality sexy.
While marriage is becoming more equal, one of the reasons that it has become more difficult to sustain family life and values is that both men and women still have difficulty giving themselves permission to let go of old social conditioning. Women have been given the message that although they can now have careers, they must also still maintain their attractive femininity and do the majority of household work. Men have been given the message that they are expected to give up economic control and participate more in household chores, but are also still expected to play the role of protector and provider.
The result is an increase in unreasonable expectations surrounding family life and values and more pressure on both genders in relationships. One reviewer of Ms. Coontz’s timely book points out that continuing to believe in a mythical past reality can make us less able to deal with present reality. Nostalgia about mythical good old days can also keep us from both enjoying the very real progress towards equality that has been made, and furthering it.
Furthering Positive Change
In another interview in the Atlantic she cautions against alienating potential allies in the struggle for equality in family life and values by using terms such as “sexist” and “patriarchal” to describe those who knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate inequality. While she acknowledges progress towards equality in terms of men taking on a bigger role in child care and household duties, she believes that structural changes are needed for lasting positive change. Social policies that support family life and values, such as subsidized child care and parental leave, must begin to reflect the reality that most people now want equality in relationships between genders.
Although women in the U.S. have many more career opportunities than women in many other countries, the gap between wage earners is much wider. Due to the lack of a sufficient child care infrastructure, including family leave policies that reflect family life and values, many mothers are forced to leave the work force for several years. The result is that their wages upon returning to the workforce are significantly lower than those of women without children. For a future in which marriage is more mutually satisfying and children are free of the pressure caused by gender stereotypes of the past, the long slow struggle towards equality is well worth our collective continued effort.