When I read Stephanie Coontz’s book The Way We Never Were while I was writing my book on motherhood and feminism, three things happened. One, I fell in love with her. Two, I wished I had become a historian. And three, I became forever suspicious, and righteously so I might add, of what Coontz called “the nostalgia trap” and I became more acutely aware of how we are culturally stuck in that trap. We do rather sulk about how things are not like they used to be. Because for some reason, whatever age we’re in, it’s not as good as the age we used to be in. I don’t think this is an exclusively contemporary phenomenon. But I do think that, particularly for members of the U.S., some eras have more nostalgic currency than others. In particular, “the 1950s” is used as a representation of all good that is gone and lamentably so. People often brood over the 1950s, and about how lovely it was and pure and innocent and brave and true.
The problem with the hallowed 1950s in part is that the image of domestic order and ease and bliss that captivates us so did not accurately represent much of anybody in that decade. Certainly not anyone who was poor or working class, certainly not a large number of women from the middle class, whose rates of depression were high and dissatisfaction higher. And certainly not the teenaged women whose historically unparalleled rates of pregnancy outnumber any U.S. decade before or since. Even though our guiding imagery for families in “the fifties” reflects a mythical, magical order, ease, and bliss of full time domestic life, it’s an image that is not grounded in any cultural reality whatsoever so the way in which it captivates us is rather quizzical.
Another problem with our perception of the 1950s is that it was not, in fact, the last era when mothers were revered, when at-home work really meant something, when caring for the home had dignity and status. It is this argument that my idol Stephanie Coontz takes to task in her New York Times Op-Ed piece “When We Hated Mom” just this past Mother’s Day. Specifically, Coontz argues that Suzanne Venker and Phyllis Schlafly’s new book, The Flipside of Feminism, which makes these very drippingly sentimental claims about the hallowed fifties and which [ho hum] says all of that good was ripped from us by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and the feminist movement that ensued. Coontz explains that Venker and Schlafly’s book reflects a misreading of history, and then explains exactly why. The truth of the matter, as it turns out, is that mom was not in fact revered in the fifties, and really hadn’t been for some 100 years, and that child care and at-home work actually gained social status as a result of feminist movement, thank you very much.
Check out Coontz’s work that I’ve talked about above. Easily readable stuff that will change your worldview.