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Stephanie Coontz

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  • The New Instability

    by Stephanie Coontz

    OVER the past 40 years, the geography of family life has been destabilized by two powerful forces pulling in opposite directions and occasionally scraping against each other, much like tectonic plates. One is the striking progress toward equality between men and women. The other is the equally striking growth of socioeconomic inequality and insecurity.

  • Women Have Come a Long Way, but Have Far to Go

    by Stephanie Coontz

    OLYMPIA, Wash. -- This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which initially outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin -- but not on the basis of gender. The word "sex" was added to the act as a last-minute amendment by a senator who opposed racial integration and may have hoped to thereby kill the bill entirely. Even after the law passed, few people expected the prohibition of gender discrimination to be enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the group charged with implementing the act.


  • Why the "War on Poverty" Isn't Over

    by HNN Editor

    (CNN) -- In a State of the Union address 50 years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared "unconditional war on poverty." Over the next year and a half, anti-poverty warriors developed new health insurance programs for the elderly and the poor, increased Social Security benefits and introduced food stamps and nutritional supplements for low-income pregnant women and infants. They established Head Start programs for young children, Upward Bound and Job Corps programs for teenagers, and work-study opportunities for college students.

    It is often forgotten that this was a bipartisan campaign. A Republican president, Richard Nixon, and legislators from both sides of the aisle expanded the War on Poverty in the early 1970s. Nixon extended the reach of the food stamp program, added an automatic cost-of-living increase to Social Security and instituted the Supplemental Security Income system to benefit disabled adults and children. He even proposed a guaranteed national income though that died in the Senate after passing in the House.

    The truth is that the war on poverty produced some stunning successes, many of which are still felt today. And it likely could have produced more if politicians hadn't abandoned it in the 1980s, at the very moment that America's working families were facing heightened assaults on their living standards.

    In 1963, despite more than 15 years of prior economic expansion, the child poverty rate was almost 25%. By the early 1970s it had been lowered to 15%. Between 1967 and 1975, poverty among elders was cut in half....


  • The Not-So-Good Old Days

    From my latest NYT column:

    MY column last month about the dangers of nostalgia inspired many readers to write to me about their family memories of the 1950s and ’60s. Some shared poignant stories about the discrimination they encountered as blacks, women, gay men or lesbians. Others described how much easier it was for their working-class fathers to support a family back then.

    Manufacturing workers have reason to regret the passing of an era. Between 1945 and 1978, their real earnings almost doubled — rising by 95 percent — but then, over the next 34 years, they actually fell by 2.3 percent. Supporters of women’s reproductive rights might feel nostalgic for an era when three former presidents, the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Democrats Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson, were happy to serve as honorary co-chairmen of a Planned Parenthood fund-raising committee.


  • The Triumph of the Working Mother

    My latest column in the New York Times:

    FIFTY years ago, Betty Friedan made a startling prediction in her controversial best seller, “The Feminine Mystique.” If American housewives would embark on lifelong careers, she claimed, they would be happier and healthier, their marriages would be more satisfying, and their children would thrive.

    At the time, experts believed that a married woman should work only to kill time while searching for a husband or to fill time after the children had left home. A wife who pursued a career was considered a maladjusted woman who would damage her marriage and her kids.

    Today, with almost two-thirds of married mothers employed and women the sole or main breadwinner in 40 percent of households, according to a Pew study released Wednesday, we can test these competing points of view.


  • Beware Social Nostalgia

    My latest column in the New York Times:

    AS a historian, I’ve spent much of my career warning people about the dangers of nostalgia. But as a mother, watching my son graduate from medical school on Thursday, I have been awash in nostalgia all week.

    In personal life, the warm glow of nostalgia amplifies good memories and minimizes bad ones about experiences and relationships, encouraging us to revisit and renew our ties with friends and family. It always involves a little harmless self-deception, like forgetting the pain of childbirth.

    In society at large, however, nostalgia can distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation.


  • Thanks for the Feedback!

    Thanks to the many people who sent me ideas for historical material to discuss on my NYT columns. There were many I couldn't use, but in two cases, I was able to suggest how the researcher could do his or her own op ed on the topic. One of those has been published and another is in the works. Meanwhile I will have my first guest column in this Sunday's NYT and was able to work in some material from Susan Matt's recent book on Homesickness.


  • Calling All Family Historians: Ideas for New York Times Column?

    The New York Times has asked me to be a guest columnist in May and June while one of their regulars is on vacation. This is a bit more intimidating than when I actually have an idea for a column and approach them, so I am trolling for ideas from fellow historians. Are there any interesting, little-know pieces of data or information about families or gender relations in the past that might intrigue readers of the Times? Any counter-intuitive or surprising trends or patterns that contradict conventional views of how family ad gender relationships "used" to be?  If so, send me them (via email, Twitter, or by leaving a comment below) along with your preferred citation, and I may be able to highlight your work in the New York Times.


  • Assessing Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”

    My latest, on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In for MomsRising.org:

    Sheryl Sandberg’s well-researched new book, Lean In, focuses on helping women who aspire to careers identify and overcome negative societal messages they have internalized over the years – old scripts that undermine women’s self-confidence and hold them back from achieving their full potential on the job.

    It’s not every day that a high-achieving woman proclaims herself a feminist, so I have been surprised by the amount of venom heaped on Sandberg’s book. Some commentators complain that Sandberg places too little emphasis on the institutional barriers and prejudices that stand in the way of women’s struggle for equality and that she “blames the victim” when she points out things women do — or fail to do — that hold us back from exercising leadership roles. Others charge that Sandberg’s advice for overcoming these socially-ingrained habits is only relevant to women with jobs where individual initiative is rewarded and with partners who will step up to the plate when asked to share family responsibilities.


  • Help Needed: What's the History of Father-Daughter Dances?

    In my work as Director of Research of the Council on Contemporary Families, I often get questions from journalists. A reporter for a national newspaper  would like to know the history of father-daughter dances or balls. (These were recently challenged by the ACLU.) If anyone can help on this topic -- or knows someone who can -- please contact me ASAP at coontzs@evergreen.edu.

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