Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Way We Never Were: American Families & the Nostalgia Trap” as Want to Read:
The Way We Never Were: American Families & the Nostalgia Trap
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

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

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  1,503 Ratings  ·  144 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
Paperback, 432 pages
Published October 6th 1993 by Basic Books Inc. (NY) (first published 1992)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Way We Never Were, please sign up.

Popular Answered Questions

This question contains spoilers… (view spoiler)
Nathan In the 2000 edition he writes that it is what feminism has failed to bring about that limits society and that women working outside has had positive…moreIn the 2000 edition he writes that it is what feminism has failed to bring about that limits society and that women working outside has had positive effects on women, families and America in general.
It appears to rely only on verifiable, reproducible scientific observations; none of the persons who support Donald Trump has read this book!(less)

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  Rating Details
Jun 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 12, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is another title which I picked in “honor” of this presidential election year – a time when thoughts turn to the possibility and desirability of social change, and we ponder whether we should or could set things back to The Way They Were, back in some previous era (when, to mangle Garrison Keillor's iconic phrase, all the women were good housekeepers, all the men were good providers, and all the children were clean and respectful.)

Originally published in 1992, the edition I read has a 2016
Mar 29, 2011 marked it as to-read
Looks unsurprising but perhaps useful for arguments with the next pushy social conservative I meet.
Well, if you thought Donna Reed represented a long line of traditional family values, or even the typical 1950s family, it seems you were mistaken. Stephanie Coontz is here to disabuse you of that notion. She unpacks several myths, one at a time, including the idea that American families were always self-reliant, the idea that women were always stay-at-home, hands-on mothers, the idea that alcoholism, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy are modern-day problems, etc.

This book was informative, and the
Feb 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 03, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Erik Graff
Jul 26, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Americans
Recommended to Erik by: Elizabeth Margetich
This is an accessible, highly entertaining and salutory demythologization of prevalent beliefs about the decline of the American society and its traditional "family values" by an Evergreen State University professor with a gift for teaching. All Fox television commentators and Tea Party leaders should be forced to read and review the thing.

Sep 14, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 22, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: politics-history
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
Jul 02, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Jul 07, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Apr 17, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 16, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 18, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Christy Stewart
Packed with facts and stats with little commentary (this is a good thing)

The subject I hadn't ever considered and now will think hard on is the idea of romantic love being a counter-balance to societal individualism.
May 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing
For anyone who still thinks the Nelsons or the Huxtables were normal.
Apr 14, 2017 rated it liked it
Interesting subject matter. A bit dry in presentation. Should make for good discussion at Book Club..
Sep 09, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: not-finished
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
Dec 02, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Coontz takes on unwed mothers, divorce, single-parent incomes, black families, nuclear families, and more. While the publication date is 1991, it's, sadly, far from outdatd. We continue as a country to try to "go back" to families and values that never actually existed. You could update her statistics by 25 years and still be able to use a substantial part of her arguments today.

The most compelling argument Coontz makes, by far, is that we don't have a family crisis, we have a community crisis.
Aug 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 04, 2008 rated it it was ok
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
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
Nov 14, 2015 added it
This book reads like a textbook, so those seeking a super-light nonfiction fluff piece should beware, but If you really want to think about how society and culture affect one another over time, this is a great read. I found myself taking notes on the blank pages at the back of the book. Go ahead, quiz me. I'm ready. Stephanie Koontz knows her stuff., and she argues, very intelligently, that a lot of the things we take for granted about "family values" never really existed. We fall in love with i ...more
Mar 29, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Debra Marsh
Mar 12, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Oct 03, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 29, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
New Book for spring! 1 2 Jan 24, 2016 07:13AM  
Orcapod Sunday Bo...: Meeting this Sunday 3 3 Oct 13, 2011 12:06PM  
Orcapod Sunday Bo...: I have a few copies of The Way We Never Were if anyone needs to borrow... 1 4 Sep 20, 2011 09:34PM  
  • Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media
  • Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation
  • Homeward Bound: American Families In The Cold War Era
  • Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex
  • Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe V Wade
  • Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America
  • For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts' Advice to Women
  • White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture
  • The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued
  • Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics
  • From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America
  • Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home
  • Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform
  • Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage
  • I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage
  • The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today
  • The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point
  • Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law
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...

Share This Book

“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.” 9 likes
“Contrary to popular opinion, 'Leave it to Beaver' was not a documentary.” 4 likes
More quotes…