The late historian Alan Dawley once remarked that when Americans say "That’s history," they usually mean "you can forget about it." This lack of historical perspective is a huge source of both personal and political confusion in the United States. We live today in a sound-bite society that creates what media critic Jeffrey Scheur calls "the politics of zingers." Americans are constantly barraged by out-of-context factoids and breathless reports about short-term fluctuations that supposedly reveal new trends - or abrupt reversals of old trends.
You can get whiplash just trying to stay on top of the pronouncements. "Crime’s up," "now it’s down," "now it’s up" - all in comparison to one or two years ago, with no attention to how the figures of two years ago compare with, say, the previous 20. One day the issue dominating the airwaves is the fear that feminism has gone too far: "Women are taking over the ranks of higher education. What is the future of men?" The next day, it’s that feminism is dead: "No, wait, it’s okay, because educated women are opting out as soon as they get those big careers to go back to full-time motherhood."
Even respectable academics can’t always resist making ahistorical claims in the endless competition to be heard over the dueling sound bites. And this is one of the perils of taking history and social science research public. A feminist researcher claimed in 1988 that the feminization of poverty was proceeding so rapidly that all the poor in America would be women and children by the end of the century. It was such a successful sound bite that the feminization of poverty is now an article of faith for many people, when in fact the most striking historical trend of the 1980s was the relative increase in male poverty. The ratio of women’s poverty rates to men’s increased between 1950 and 1980, but since 1980 poverty has been defeminized, at least for women of working age, as women have gained more ability to support themselves and men have lost access to "family wage" jobs.
Or take the call I received from a women’s foundation about their new campaign to fight the "epidemic of domestic violence." Now of course I believe domestic violence is a serious and widespread social problem - much more so than is recognized by people who want to promote marriage as a solution to problems of America’s children - but if we’re going to call it an epidemic, when did it start, and during what periods were women comparatively safer from such violence?
It’s hard to call people to account for making such claims in a society where so many political leaders, professional pundits, and media producers live from moment to moment. In fact, the preoccupation with immediacy has become so great that hardly anyone says "that’s history" any more. Now the catch phrase is "that’s SO last month." What does a poor historian have to offer, when our data deals with decades and even centuries? Quite a lot, I have come to believe as I have worked with the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) to bring historical and sociological perspective to current debates over family change.
Historians are now almost the sole keepers of the institutional memory that allows people to evaluate the claims of pundits and ideologues that something is new or unprecedented - or alternatively, that some institution or behavior has existed unchanged through the ages and therefore can’t be tampered with. We perform a vital public service when we help Americans discard the ahistorical assumptions that deform many contemporary debates. And far from compromising our integrity as researchers by engaging in these discussions, I believe that it actually makes us better historians, more effective teachers, and more complex thinkers. So I want to talk about how applying historical perspective helps us better understand the current role and status of women, and how in turn engaging with such contemporary issues can change some of the ways we think and write about history.
I do not subscribe to the old saw that "those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it" - in fact, I think that’s an absolutely incoherent, ahistorical idea. But I do believe that people who don’t understand history are doomed to believe they can repeat it. So they are unlikely to be able to identify the places where we have the best possibility of moving forward.
Historical perspective is a key component of what Daniel Goleman has called "emotional intelligence": the ability to read people and events correctly, to handle relationships smoothly, and to fend off "emotional hijacking" by our own inner impulses or by those who appeal to our fears, desires, and rages. Emotional intelligence is what Aristotle meant when he talked about "the ability to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way." And the ability to do that, in both personal and political matters, depends to some extent on the ability to think historically.
In a way I’m embarrassed to blur the distinction between thoughts and feelings, because I frequently tell my students I don’t want to hear their feelings about the book we’re reading - I want to hear their thoughts. I’ve been known to defend something I feel like doing or not doing, but can’t give a good reason for, by snapping at my husband, "That’s why we call them feelings." But in fact, a lot of emotions derive from intellectual and moral judgments about what is fair or just or socially permissible. As such they are based on thought and knowledge; and if they are not based on contextualized thoughts and accurate knowledge, they are more volatile and potentially more destructive. So historical perspective is not just an academic discipline. It’s a life skill, a way of helping people focus and manage their emotions.
Historical perspective enables us to read social change more accurately so that we are not thrown either into blind panic or false hope by the short-term fluctuations and variations we encounter. And it is a powerful defense against ideological hijacking by people who try to use our fears, hopes, and impulses to divert us from reasoned discussion of our options. Let me start with an example of how historical perspective can help people at the personal level. I have come to believe that history can be as useful as therapy in helping people get beyond the paralyzing guilt, blame, self-pity, and self-righteousness that deform so many discussions of both interpersonal and social issues today. I find that I am a better parent and partner when I apply my understanding of the evolution of age and gender tensions to my relationship with my spouse or my son. And that’s not just because I’m a history geek. It works for other people as well.
Psychologist John Snarey has compared men who became effective fathers to those who did not. He found - contrary to the "damaged child" school of thought - that many men were able to overcome the legacy of very poor paternal role models and painful childhoods. What separated the men who became effective child-rearing fathers from those who did not is that the successful fathers "placed their own fathers’ shortcomings in context and thus were able to take extenuating circumstances into account." By "transforming their anger with their own fathers into a sense of sadness for and understanding of the conditions under which their own fathers had functioned," these men were able to use the kind of parenting they wished they had had as a model for the parenting they offered their own children. That’s doing history.
But often people aren’t able to clearly identify how to get where they wish to go from where they are. And when that happens, they often experience their discontent with what they have as a sense of loss. The more I have gotten involved in interacting with the public about discussions of family life, the more I’ve learned to treat people’s nostalgia, however misplaced, with respect. Gunnar Mrydal once wrote that "ignorance is never random." I have come to think that nostalgia is never random either.
I’ve spent a lot of my career trying to puncture people’s myths about a Golden Age of family life in the past, and I still think that’s important. But what I once saw as mindless illusions about the past now strike me, more sympathetically, as poorly articulated hopes for the future. People use nostalgia for the past as a way of expressing discontent or anxiety about their current lives and communicating their desire to live a different way in the future. Nostalgia for the past is a form of wishful thinking about the future. When we understand that, we can explain history much more effectively, with less risk of sounding like know-it-all academics who are out of touch with real people’s hopes and fears.
Recently, for instance, I have gotten a lot of press calls about the instant best seller, The Dangerous Book for Boys, which hearkens back to an era when dads spent a lot of time with their kids, teaching them useful things to know. Ten years ago, I probably would have snorted, pointing out that this might have been an appropriate nostalgia among men in, say, the 1870s, when fathers actually were losing their ability to pass on useful skills to their sons. But it rings a little hollow when we realize that modern dads, far from being more disconnected from their kids than 50 years ago, are doing more things with them.
In fact, according to a study by Suzanne Bianchi, John Robinson, and Melissa Milkie, fathers more than doubled the time they spent with children between 1965 and 2000, with each generation of dads doing more than the last. And these dads aren’t just making up for moms’ increased time away at work: Married mothers increased their time in child care and interaction with kids by 21 percent in the same period, even though they increased their work hours even more. So what’s this nostalgia about? I believe it’s a measure of what parents WANT, not what they used to have. As parenting expectations have risen - as they’ve had to squeeze more hours into the day and more tasks into each hour - parents are feeling stressed. Their nostalgia is a legitimate critique of the kinds of burdens we place on working families, and a plea for respite. They want to have time to spend with their families without multi-tasking. We should not humiliate them for romanticizing the past but gently lead them to that understanding.
Once I began to think less judgmentally about these issues, I could explain history more effectively to the public and to my students, and I found myself thinking about history in a different, more compassionate way. We know, for example, that there are still important gender inequities in American society and that men have some real advantages compared to women of the same class. But when you actually talk with men and women struggling with work-family issues in an economy where family wage jobs are disappearing for the bottom half of workers; when you look at the harsh demands placed on boys, who have no socially acceptable equivalent of the female label "tomboy" when they think or act outside the masculine box; when you see the men who are not bumping into a glass ceiling because they are stuck doing the dirty, dangerous jobs in the basement and boiler room - you get a different take on notions like "male privilege," or what R. W. Connell calls "the patriarchal dividend."
I don’t know many men who look forward each month to receiving their patriarchal dividend and anticipating how they’ll spend it. For a lot of working-class men, the promised dividend is only on paper, because the stock is now worthless. And very few working-class men experience their lives as privileged. In discardingthose kinds of labels, I have found that I usually can convince a white man that he DOES HAVE a historically constructed leverage against women and racial/ethnic minorities.
The other side of romanticizing the past, of course, is underestimatinghow far we have come. So while I’ll come back to how my work in the public arena has changed the way I think about history, first I want to give you an example of how the Council on Contemporary Families has been able to mobilize the historicalperspective and sociological insights of its members to begin redirecting the discussion of current trends in women’s roles and reframing the issue of whether the women’s movement has failed or the gender revolution is over.
You’ve probably heard the stories about how a "post-feminist" generation of wives and mothers has "opted out" of the workforce. These stories are based on a few kernels of real data. Between 1993 and 2000, labor force participation did fall slightly for highly-educated wives. Between 1998 and 2000, the labor force participation of women with babies under one year of age dropped for the first time in more than 30 years, falling from 59 percent to 55 percent. Then, between 2000 and 2004, the labor force participation of mothers with preschoolers also fell, from 65 to 64 percent. The Instant Conventional Wisdom was that educated women were turning their backs on the feminist goals of their mothers or grandmothers and opting out of careers in order to spend more time being moms.
This is a place where a lot of people without historical perspective were hijacked by their hopes or fears. Anti-feminists jumped on the news accounts with glee, happily announcing the arrival of a "post-feminist" generation that had rejected the "excesses" of the women’s movement. On the flip side, many feminists were totally dismayed. The Feminine Mistake, by Leslie Bennetts, came out in 2007 - to massive publicity - warning that women were jeopardizing the gains of the 1960s and 1970s by opting out of paid employment. Get to Work was the title and injunction of another book by feminist economist Linda Hirshman,published in 2006.
But a little historical perspective could have nipped much of the glee and angst in the bud. For one thing, those three different developments were the result of DIFFERENT forces acting on different sectors of the population. For another, they all look totally different in long-range perspective. And that is what we sought to show with a series of briefing papers prepared by researchers associated with the CCF.
Six years, point out researchers David Cotter, Paula England, and Joan Hermsen, is far too short a time period to tell us anything about the big picture. In 1960 only 19 percent of married mothers with preschool children were in the labor force. As late as 1970, only 30 percent of such mothers had been employed in the last year.
But then there were huge increases. The figure rose from 30 percent in 1970 to 46 percent in 1980, and to 60 percent by 1990. In other words, the employment of mothers of preschoolers tripled in just 30 years. Any historian - or mathematically literate person, for that matter - could have predicted that such a rapid pace of
change would have to slow down. And sure enough, the workforce participation of mothers rose at a much slower rate during the 1990s, so that by 2000,"only" 65 percent of mothers of preschoolers were working. But really, "only"? Labor force participation for highly-educated women did drop from 1993 to 2000. Economist Heather Boushey suggests that this was largely because of the huge income gains for highly-educated workers in this period. (The top 5 percent of households saw their after-tax income rise by 52 percent during the 1990s). These gains made it unnecessary, or impossible, for both partners to work the long hours that are now standard in high-powered careers. Indeed, other research suggests that for wives, husbands’ work hours are a stronger predictor of dropping out of work than either their income or the fact of having a child.
As for the dip in the labor force participation of mothers with children under one year of age between 1998 and 2000, this could have been the same phenomenon, or it might have been a result of the fact that women have made enough gains in the workforce that some of them can individually negotiate the kind of sensible parental leaves that are routinely given to ALL working moms in other advanced industrial societies.
Between 2000 and 2004, the labor force participation of all mothers with children under 5 did drop slightly, from 65 to 64 percent. But this time there was a recession going on, and one where, for the first time in 20 years, women were hit harder than men. All women, mothers and non-mothers, regardless of their educational level saw a drop in their labor force participation. But the percentage was back up to 65 percent by 2006. In our present political and social environment, we may have neared an upper limit of just how much moms can work. America’s refusal to regulate work hours and our inadequate family-leave policies may be shutting many mothers out or pushing them out of the workforce. But that’s very different from women "opting" out.
Here’s another interesting difference between the "traditional" breadwinner families we imagine and today’s breadwinner families: the women most likely to become stay-at-home moms today are the ones whose husbands can least afford to support a family. Women whose husbands’ earnings are in the bottom 25 percent
are the only sector of the population where full-time mothers outnumber those who combine paid work with parenting. A whopping 52 percent of these wives are out of the paid labor force, compared with only 20 percent of wives whose husbands’ earnings are in the middle range. Historical changes have transformed the cost-benefit dynamics of stay-at-home parenting. Most of these low-income women stay out of the labor force not because they can afford to stay home but because they can‘t afford to go to work.
Even in families where the husbands are in the top 5 percent - men who earn more than $120,000 a year - 60 percent of moms work outside the homes. And despite the slight dip in the late 1990s, highly educated women are more likely to combine work with motherhood than less-educated women. This is even truer today than it was in 1980, at the height of the feminist movement. Yes, women at all income and education levels are still more likely than men to drop out of work for motherhood. But in historical perspective, the important thing is that they are LESS likely to do so than in the past. The real story is that the likelihood that a woman will leave her job because of her children is half what it was in 1984.
Contrary to the myth that this has produced a "stalled revolution" in housework, with more women doing a "second shift," what really seems to have been going on is a process that sociologists call "lagged adaptation." Yes, it took men a while to begin to step up to the plate in housework and childcare (which is probably part of the reason divorce rates soared in the late 1970s and early 1980s). And no, they still don’t do as much as women. But the longer a man’s wife works, the more housework he does, and each cohort is doing more than the last, researchers Molly Lang and Barbara Risman point out in another briefing paper for the CCF.
When the Work & Families Institute compared the workday hours that Gen-X and Boomer fathers spend caring for and doing things with their children in 2002, they found that Gen-X fathers were spending significantly more time with their children, an average of 3.4 hours per workday versus an average of 2.2 hours for Boomer fathers - a difference of more than 1 hour.
In housework too, the tendency has been toward convergence, despite some holdovers from the past. Research by Robinson and Godbey shows that by 1985 men were spending more than four hours per week longer doing housework and child care than in 1965. Between 1985 and 2000 fathers continued to increase their time doing housework and childcare, while mothers’ time doing housework continued to decrease. And when you take into accountthe fact that on average wives still work fewer paid hours than husbands do, there is actual parity in the amount of hours men and women work, and there has been for some time.
Now I am acutely aware that there have been trade-offs and contradictory trends associated with the gradual equalization of gender roles in marriage. But again, historical perspective can help us explain to people that this is the way social change always occurs: It’s not the "fault" or the "failure" of the women’s movement. Gains in one area are often accompanied by losses in another, especially in revolutions that democratize political, legal, and social processes without equalizing economic differentials. So one way that middle-class couples are spending more time with their kids and organizing their chores more fairly is by hiring the labor of low-income women; and unfortunately,the ability of many dual-earner families to flourish rests on the availability of such low-wage workers. Similarly, one reason marriages are more egalitarian is that increasingly, marriage is, in sociologist Frank Furstenberg’s words, a "luxury good" for educated and stable workers.
The legal and cultural democratization of family life, like all democratic revolutions, has been messy. The right to divorce has been a boon for many women. In every state that adopted no-fault divorce, according to economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, the next five years saw a 20 percent decline in the suicide rate of wives, and an even bigger drop in the rate at which women murdered their husbands. Many women and children have escaped destructive marriages. In other cases, the ability of a wife to seek a divorce has increased her leverage
inside marriage. But easy divorce decreases the bargaining power of the person who wants or needs the marriage most, which has led to bad outcomes for many female homemakers.
Similarly, the abolition of illegitimacy laws has been a world-historic gain, ending centuries of incredibly harsh injustice. But it has also eroded the pressure on a man to marry a girlfriend if she gets pregnant, and may have encouraged some deprived young women to underestimate the challenges and over-estimate the rewards of going it alone.
The more I look at the contradictions, ambivalences, and ambiguities of contemporary families, the more conscious I am of looking at the trade-offs of societal change in history as well - the losses that come in one area with the gains in another, and the future potential for change that sometimes lies in seeming setbacks. What Hegel and Marx pointed out about ideas and social formations is also true of families: the same processes that are essential to maintain a particular relationship or institution simultaneously create oppositions that eventually transform, undermine, or even destroy it. For better and for worse.
Applying my studies of family history to contemporary family issues has helped me think in a different way than I used to about the continuing inequities that women face and how to conceptualize them in relation to the past - the old question of the continuity of women’s subordination.
For example, wage discrimination against women still exists, but it operates through different mechanisms than it did in the past. It seems to be triggered more by parenthood than by gender per se. Childless women earn 97 percent of what men make. The big wage gap today is between mothers and other workers.
In part, of course, this is a heritage of separate and unequal conceptions of gender, making mothers more likely to quit or downgrade their work than fathers,who tend to increase their work hours after the birth of a child. So I suppose we could file this under continuity. But the mechanism through which such inequality is reproduced is different from when women worked alongside men doing equal work but had no control over the property they helped accumulate; and it’s also different from when women were hired for segregated jobs with clearly fixed
pay differentials, or could be fired once they married or had kids.
Or take the example of the second shift and the pretty convincing evidence that men and women have parity in terms of total work hours. You’re not going to convince many people that it’s unfair for a man who works 42 hours on the job each week to do the same amount of household labor as a wife who works only 30 hours outside the home. (And in passing, by the way, here is one place where full-time homemakers have benefited even more than working women from the changes in gender roles: their husbands are doing more housework even though the women aren’t doing more paid work.) What many people fail to notice when they simply celebrate this fact is that what is equitable inside a happy marriage doesn’t translate into equal opportunity to go it alone in the case of divorce. But again, the disadvantages women face today are reproduced and experienced in a qualitatively differentway than they were in the past, and I think it has deepened my understanding of men’s and women’s history to see in practice how processes that disadvantage women in the larger economic arena can be experienced as equity - or even as male altruism and self-sacrifice - within the individual family.
So the more I study the history of marriage and gender relations,the more convinced I am that we need to be wary of overarching generalizations about gender inequalities that don’t take these complexities and qualitative changes into account.
Many women’s historians have faulted studies such as Laslett’s massive "history" of illegitimacy, which treated out-of-wedlock births as though they were a single "thing" that could be studied independently of their historical context and cultural meanings. But we sometimes fall into the same trap when we talk about the subordination of women or the privileges of men, as if these are unitary single things that can be measured and compared from one society to the next or even seen as comparable from one social group to the next.
I have long been bothered by the overuse of the word patriarchy - or even worse, The Patriarchy. I think this term conceals important variations in the form, content, and consequences of male dominance, as well as the possibilities for resistance. I would reserve the term patriarchy to describe a family system in which male
control over property intersects with the household head’s control over the labor of women and children, a situation that historically produced much closer congruence in forms of political, economic, and interpersonal domination than prevails in today’s complex and fluid tangle of power relations and gender norms. The situation is much more complicated today, and I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the tools at my disposal for thinking about gender inequities and power differentials.
Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that racial hierarchies,once imposed primarily through coercion, now rest on "a complex system of compromises, legitimizing ideologies,…political rules, and bureaucratic regulations." The result, they say, is a "messy racial hegemony" marked by contradictory, conflicted, and ambiguous relationships. The concept of a "messy" hegemony might also be taken to apply to changing gender relations, both in society at large and within individual families. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan use the term "scattered hegemonies" in a book by that name.
But I’m not even sure that the notion of hegemony, however we modify it, does justice to the complexity of what’s happening today. The legal and political bases for male domination over women are almost completely gone. Some institutions perpetuate historical male advantages and female disadvantages through seemingly neutral mechanisms that simultaneously disadvantage many working-class men and privilege a few women. A sense of male entitlement - or female non-entitlement - still exists among many men (and women), but it sometimes intersects and sometimes works at cross-purposes with many other socially-constructed identities, interests, and desires, producing outcomes very hard to analyze primarily in terms of male privilegeor female subordination.
So I’ve come to think that we may need to make more fine-grained distinctions between types of male-female inequalities and power differentials, such as domestic violence researchers are now making between common couple violence and intimate terrorism. Perhaps we should talk about institutionalized sexism to explain some
kinds of processes and structures that reproduce male-female inequality even though they are seemingly gender neutral, and use the term de-institutionalized sexism to describe the misogyny of some lower-class men whose historic routes to male identity and power have been blocked.
There are more questions than answers here, but I do think we need to make more of an effort to unpack and disaggregate types of gender inequality - for example, making distinctions between structures and beliefs that penalize care-givers, ones that penalize women, and ones that actually aid in the exploitation of men, such as
the internalized notion of being the primary breadwinner and being too macho to protest unsafe working conditions. I’d also like to see us pay more attention to the sources of male pain and male altruism instead of letting those topics be claimed by those in the Fathers’ Rights movement who try to hijack men’s understandable sense of confusion or loss and channel it into rage.
And my final question is even more tentative, which is probably good because it is bound to be much more controversial. I wonder if it is time to back off from routinely foregrounding gender in our historical work, even when we are studying women. It is one thing if we use the gender lens as a corrective to historical accounts that focus on class, race, religion, ethnicity, or family types and don’t consider how the experience and identity in all these groups varies by gender. But as gender recedes in importance as a direct legal and political mechanism for organizing social inequality, I worry that we may have moved too far away from class dynamics, or at least adopted a gender lens that filters out some experiences and social forces even as it brings others into focus.
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham warns that race language tends to cloak other organizing principles such as gender and class while it also "blurs and disguises, suppresses and negates its own complex interplay" with these other social relations. I worry that gender language is now blurring other organizing principles, most notably that of class, in the same way.
Of course we can never go back to a mechanistic approach to class that ignores the way that race, gender, national identity, and sexuality create modes of cooperation and coercion that structure the development and dynamics of class. But we do need to think about multiple, overlapping, competing, and sometimes offsetting forms of inequality, and I am not sure that the gender lens always does that. However, looking at history through the lens of gender is extremely useful in countering one-sided generalizations about historical change. And this is where the work being done by the Washington State Historical Society and the Women’s History Consortium comes into play. Their focus on women’s history will help the public appreciate the past without romanticizing it and recognize how far women have come without allowing anyone to pretend there isn’t more to do.
Stephanie Coontz teaches History and Family Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia and is director of Research and Public Education for the Chicago-based Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent books are Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage and American Families: A Multicultural Reader.