The Way We Never Were: American Families & the Nostalgia Trap
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The Way We Never Were: American Families & the Nostalgia Trap

3.96 of 5 stars 3.96  ·  rating details  ·  910 ratings  ·  89 reviews
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 line...more
Paperback, 432 pages
Published October 6th 1993 by Basic Books Inc. (NY) (first published 1992)
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Coontz presents the historical facts of American family life and political and economic movements in hopes of demonstrating that the families of the past were not so idyllic and the families of the present are not so dysfunctional as they are often portrayed. She argues that historical mythologizing about family life distracts us from constructively examining how best to serve families and communities. She points out that drug abuse was more widespread a hundred years ago, alcohol consumption wa...more
Mar 29, 2011 Kelly marked it as to-read
Looks unsurprising but perhaps useful for arguments with the next pushy social conservative I meet.
This is another of the sociology books that has caused me to be pretty skeptical of most blanket statements we hear about how things are. This, in particular, is about our collective past. Coontz uncovers facts and figures that contradict the popular myth of the family of the 50s, 60s and earlier, as well as shining a light on both conservatives' and liberals' tendencies to blame the other for society's ills. Though it contributed to making me a skeptic, it is also encouraging. If you like your...more
I wish I wrote this book! Coontz makes the overarching argument that those who hearken back to the “good old days” when families were intact and morally superior—leading to a better overall society—are, at best, misinformed. When I picked up the book, I was nervous that Coontz’s myth-busting was going to be a superficial list of statistics on how much better we are now, based on progress in areas such as interpersonal violence and gender equality. I was pleasantly surprised that Coontz does much...more
This book is BLOWING my tiny mind.
Assumptions so deep and unexamined that they seem like Truth are carefully teased out into the open, and examined in the light of history. You think that we've got new and original family problems these days? Unprecedented government meddling into family affairs? Rigid definitions or overly lax ones? Hah-- nothing is new under the sun. Coontz takes us through American history and explores chapter-by-chapter such Truthy ideas as Families stand on their own two f...more
Every political cycle we see an increase of claims that the American family is in decline and many of our woes are due to this decline. Stephanie Coontz examines the data over the history of American families from colonial days to the early 90's raising serious questions about this view of traditional American families as seen “through the distorted lens of historical mythologizing”. Coontz believes that many of the social issues today are blamed on the dissolution of the traditional family when...more
We Americans have long cherished certain images of ourselves, many of which fall under the heading, "This is How Life Should Be Lived." The problem is not that these images don't exist outside the US--many have never really existed for us!

Here's just one example. "Always stand on your own two feet" (ie., the Horatio Alger-like reliance on self alone). The book cites Senator Phil Gramm, co-author of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings amendment and famous for his opposition to "government handouts": Born t...more
My mother is a professor of American history, and many of my earliest memories pertaining to her professional life involve her unabashed enthusiasm for this book. Now that I've finally taken the time to read it, I understand why it made such a strong impression. Given that Coontz's book is now more than two decades old, I was expecting that it would perhaps have little to offer someone mired in the concerns of a twenty-first century young adult. And while I found myself glossing over much of the...more
For anyone who still thinks the Nelsons or the Huxtables were normal.
This is an interesting book even though it's quite old now, 1992...hard to believe it's 20 years old. I'll just quote a couple of paragraphs. "The 1950's family was a new invention and a historical fluke based on a unique and temporary conjuncture of economical, social and political factors. During WWII, Americans had saved at a rate more than three times higher than in the decades before or since. Their buying power was further enhanced by our extrodinary competitive advantage at the end of the...more
Traditional family values are a concept tossed around by right wing conservatives, usually as they attempt to restrict rights of anyone who doesn’t agree with them. We hear about families in crisis and the breakdown of society and how if we could only return to traditional values, life would be just peachy again. In The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz illustrates how those traditional family values never actually existed. The idea of 1950s families being more self-reliant than modern familie...more
this book started out well, easy to read, etc. but it turned out to be a text book and although i got thru 2/3 i remember almost nothing except that things are not as we remember but the facts and figures are lost to me. i finally started marking passages.

most of what coonz says is that economy determined family life styles so in the colonies the family was an entire work unit each one contributing to the final work product. as industrialization took over work went out of the house mostly for un...more
Stephanie Coontz is a serious scholar and historian of relationships, marriage, and families. Here she provides strong evidence that many of the traits we consider normal and traditional are actually historical aberrations that occurred mostly among some white, middle-class families in the USA in the 1950s. In doing so, she draws upon her deep knowledge of the way that families have evolved over time, revealing that our "family values" have always been specific to our time, place, class, ethnici...more
Coontz presents a much-needed argument on the futility of conservative nostalgia for "the good old days," chock-full of statistics. Anyone advocating a patriarchal family model taken from back in time when men, women, and children knew their place needs to study the history of the American family first, and Coontz adeptly proves that few have. Gender roles have almost always been determined by economic systems, and throughout history couples have engaged in premarital sex, domestic violence has...more
An important book debunking the myth of the "traditional" family, and the political claims often made about the deterioration of the family as the core of various social ills. Originally written in 1992, and updated in 2000, it is as relevant today as a decade ago, as these same myths still hamper our social and political progress. Aside from certain dated references, Coontz could very well have written and released this book this year and no one would be the wiser.

It's more of a research book...more
This totally changed the way I think about the history of the past century. There are so many assumptions we make about how life was "back then" that are slightly skewed and even completely incorrect. This book is chock full of well-referenced information on many aspects of American living since the early 1900s. Touching on economics, ideals, gender roles, child rearing philosophy, marriage, religion, families, this book has taught me so much about our history that I never learned in school. I'd...more
I started this book after having it fervently shoved into my hands (this personal copy being heavily highlighted & annotated, you understand) by an old friend & former English professor who used it in her general studies classes. She thought it would help me understand, frankly, that the demise of my marriage is hardly a new event in the course of human history - or one to be necessarily deeply lamented.

I started this book with every intention of reading it & being able to converse w...more
this is a very, very interesting book. it's also a terribly slow read. i found myself re-reading paragraphs and pages, just to be sure that i really understood what the author was getting at. that said, it was sufficiently fascinating that i did finally finish it!

the author's position on marriage, family, race, sex, and other topics makes a lot of sense and seems to be pretty well substantiated. basically, she's saying that all eras idolize another, earlier era, and the way things were done "in...more
Mar 29, 2009 Lyn rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2009
Very interesting read. There is a lot of buzz about "traditional families" but what does that really mean? Coontz looks at the history of families in the US to see what the true "traditional" families have been. Turns out it isn't at all what we think. The traditional family where dad went to work and mom and kids stayed home has been the privilege of only the very wealthy.

I knocked a star or so off because of two things: the book reads like a text book - I read enough non-fiction that is engagi...more
Debra Marsh
One of my professors referred to this book in the question he asked me for my written exams. So, I decided to read it in preparation for my oral exams. The author seemed to have an agenda, so I did not know how far the information she presented can be trusted. Nevertheless, this book really made me think and question certain beliefs I have long held about "traditional" families. I would highly recommend it for that reason alone. Books that cause you to really think and ponder an issue are, in my...more
This book helped me filter through all the crap that politicians, special interest groups, and cultural institutions tell us about how we should live our lives. The argument of "it's always been that way" or "it's natural" or "that's our legacy" is a bunch of crap. The stereotype of the 50s is not how Americans have generally lived; it's not even how they lived in the 50s. The family on Leave it to Beaver does not reflect a reality we've lost, it was fictional. I think reading this book made me...more
Though the book lags a bit in some areas and gets a bit repetitive, it was, on the whole, very well written and exciting. The main premise is that the 1950s nuclear family really only existed for a few decades, and its existence was mostly the product of America's unique economic situation. But, it didn't spread to all families in all classes and races. And the economic climate that made it possible to have a one-income family with several kids and a house in the suburbs had mostly changed by th...more
really good book. just continuing where she left off with her "origins of a private life," or something to that effect. you know perfectly well that if i ever find that book i will most likely be reading it b/c for some reason i can't escape from the coontz. but that it's a bad thing, she does good work. i don't always agree with her interpretations, but hey that's how history works. this one in my opinion is better than her later one, "the way we really are." goes forth and debunks lots of good...more
This is the TRUE story of American families, as opposed to the non-existent "good old days" that a lot of people want to go back to. The author looks at families from the colonial era to the modern day, and thematically discusses issues like child and spousal abuse, women working outside the home, the invasion of family privacy, "non-traditional" families, welfare, etc. Her arguments are surprising but well supported by endnotes.
Theresa Sivelle
Okay, I got to page 218, but that was as far as I could go. Was glad to hear that no one else in my book club was able to get through it either. There was some interesting information, but it was way too much work to get to it. This would probably make a great educational type book but didn't make for good casual reading, which was pretty much the concensus from my bellow book club readers.
Ah, this is such a classic. My former professor at Evergreen wrote it, also just a cool lady. But essentially, she takes logic and data and applies them to the mythos of the 1950's "nuclear family" and debunks every stereotype we had about what a family looks like. That families have always changed with the social and economic structures of their times. A great book.
Melissa Johnson
Chapters 1 through 8 provide an insightful analysis of the rhetoric and realities of the American family. The last three chapters are little too polemical to be good history. Still, worthwhile information to have in your back pocket the next time someone starts decrying the disintegration of "traditional" family values.
Scott Dishman
I had to read this book for my liberal arts class in college. Definitely not something I would pick off the shelves.

If you like to read historical data on families then this is the book for you. I read only parts of the book to include most chapters as the book did no hold a interest for me.
Jul 07, 2011 (a)lyss(a) rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in ever getting married
Stephanie is a very witty and talented writer. She lays out the history of marriage in several books and makes some fascinating comparisons between the 1950's and now. She points out glaring mistakes in calling anything in the US "traditional" and dissects thoughts of the times.
In The Way We Never Were , Stephanie Coontz challenges nostalgia over the "traditional" family. She provides counterpoints to conservative and liberal viewpoints which tend to blame societal woes on the degradation of the American family. In doing so, she utilizes fascinating statistics to show that recollection of the American family is largely false and a retreat to isolation within the household would do more to harm society than help it. Instead, Coontz suggests a heightened civic responbil...more
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Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families, which she chaired from 2001-04. Coontz is the author of "A Strange Stirring": The Feminine Mystique and the Wives of "The Greatest Generation" (Basic Books, forthcoming 2010) and the award-winning Marri...more
More about Stephanie Coontz...
Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique & American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families 1600-1900 (Haymarket) American Families: A Multicultural Reader

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“Like most visions of a 'golden age', the 'traditional family' evaporates on closer examination. It is an ahistorical amalgam of structures, values, and behaviors that never coexisted in the same time and place.” 5 likes
“Contrary to popular opinion, 'Leave it to Beaver' was not a documentary.” 1 likes
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