Coontz, Stephanie 1944-
COONTZ, Stephanie 1944-
PERSONAL: Born August 31, 1944, in Seattle, WA; daughter of Sydney H. Coontz (an economist) and Patricia (McIntosh) Waddington; children: Kristopher. Education: University of California—Berkeley, B.A., 1966; University of Washington—Seattle, M.A., 1970.
ADDRESSES: Home—Olympia, WA; and Makaha, HI. Office—Department of History and Women's Studies, 3127 Seminar Bldg., Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA 98505.
CAREER: Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA, faculty member in departments of history and women's studies, 1975–. Council on Contemporary Families, National co-chair, 2001–2004, director of research and public education, 2004–. Kobe University of Commerce, exchange professor, 1986; Washington Humanities Commission, lecturer, 1989–91; National Faculty, visiting scholar, 1990–2000; University of Hawaii at Hilo, exchange professor, 1992, visiting associate professor of sociology, 1994.
MEMBER: Organization of American Historians, American Studies Association, American Historical Association, National Council on Family Relations.
AWARDS, HONORS: Woodrow Wilson fellowship, 1968–69; Governor's Writers Award, 1988; American Academy of Pediatrics award, 1995; Council on Contemporary Families "Visionary Leadership" award, 2004.
(With Peta Henderson) Women's Work, Men's Property: On the Origins of Gender and Class, Verso (New York, NY), 1986.
The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families, Verso (New York, NY), 1988.
America's Families: Fables and Facts, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1991.
The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1992.
The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1997.
(Editor) American Families: A Multicultural Reader, 1998.
(Editor, with Maya Parson and Gabrielle Raley) American Families: A Multicultural Reader, Routledge (New York, NY), 1999.
Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Viking (New York, NY), 2005.
Also contributor to periodicals, including New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Harper's, Journal of Marriage and Family, and Vogue. Coontz's works have been translated into Spanish, French, German, and Japanese.
SIDELIGHTS: Stephanie Coontz has examined the myths and realities of American families in two books: The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families. In the first volume, Coontz proposes that the popular idea of a typical American family during the 1950s—a bread-winning father, homemaker mother, and two or three children—was never the societal norm. She discusses the reality of family relationships during various eras in American history and probes the reasons that the 1950s myth is held in such high esteem. New York Times Book Review reviewer Donald Katz called The Way We Never Were "often brilliant and invariably provocative." Noting that the book appeared during a time when election campaigns were full of rhetoric about "family values," Katz commented: "Coontz tries to turn the focus of a tedious public debate away from an idealized image of individual roles and domestic life by using economic and social data to describe an America in which people are struggling every day to make ends meet and raise their children." New York Review of Books critic Nicholas Lemann also praised The Way We Never Were as "important and useful."
Coontz continues her explorations of American family life in 1997 with The Way We Really Are. The book offers suggestions on ways to improve social programs to better serve the many unique family situations that exist in America today. New York Times Book Review contributor Eden Ross Lipson felt that The Way We Really Are "should offer reassurance to people in every kind of family muddling through every stressful stage." Martha Baskin was similarly enthusiastic, writing in the Progressive: "It is refreshing to find a book that leaps beyond the radical right's slurs against single parents, 'careerist' mothers, and non-traditional families and goes straight to the massive changes needed in the country's attitudes and institutions. Now all we need to know is how to bring those changes about. Considering Coontz's recent books, she's probably not short on ideas."
Having previously asserted that the "good old days" of the perfect 1950s family never existed, "Coontz sharply reverses course" with her 2005 book, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy; or How Love Conquered Marriage, according to Allan Carlson in the National Review. Here, the author concludes that for a brief, halcyon period in the history of marriage there was a time when the June Cleaver-and-Harriet Nelson model flourished. The married couples of the post World War II marriage boom should be viewed "as quasi-revolutionaries, the shapers of history who unconsciously ushered in the new age of liberated love, cohabitation, easy divorce, and same-sex marriage," Carlson related. Kay S. Hymowitz, writing in Commentary, similarly observed that "Coontz seems to have had second thoughts about the way we really were." Even the author herself admitted, "This is not the book I thought I was going to write."
In her detailed examination of the history of marriage, Coontz finds that for thousands of years marriage was an institution that evolved out of the need for stable societies. Thus, noted Hymowitz, she rejects the feminist notion that "marriage developed as a way to control women," as well as the socio-biological viewpoint "that marriage was a necessary means for protecting vulnerable women and infants." Instead, marriage was a way for families to form bonds with other families, thus benefiting everyone by building land and wealth resources for all. Eventually, as power hierarchies evolved and kingdoms were established, the institution became a political tool as well, with states forming alliances through marriage. The notion of love as a reason for marriage did not come about until about two centuries ago, says Coontz, when the Enlightenment spawned new ideas about "self-fulfillment and the pursuit of happiness," as Barbara Kantrowitz reported in a Newsweek review. Eventually, social blockades such as "inequality between men's and women's roles, little social mobility, unreliable birth control and harsh penalties for illegitimacy" began to be broken down, related Kantrowitz, and there was a brief period from the 1950s to the 1960s where marriage achieved a personal dimension that political conservatives view as goalworthy. However, Coontz feels that this state actually served to lay the groundwork for a still-evolving relationship that includes divorce without stigma and the available option of having various intimate partnerships. This, the author concludes, is a positive development in the history of relationships, though it may mean that marriage has become an obsolete institution.
Reviewers of Marriage, a History, found both praiseworthy points and flaws in Coontz's arguments. Several critics, for example, found the author's theme about love in marriage simplistic. As Laura Kipnis wrote in Harper's, love in marriage existed before the Enlightenment, and just because societal controls of marriage have eased does not mean that other factors have not taken over. "To declare that the love marriage constitutes some kind of historical break with the social controls of the past is to succumb to a certain … romanticism," Kipnis asserted. She added, "A different way of reading the present marital moment might be to observe the ways that older models of marrying for economic or political advantage have simply become incorporated into modern procedures." For instance, marrying for money or stability is still a common practice. Carlson noted that Coontz's use of the Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet television shows as models is also simplistic, for it ignores the many other cultural byproducts that included nontraditional family situations. He also commented that Coontz "all but ignores" the effects of the industrial revolution on society and marriage. Hymowitz lauded Coontz for "her focus on political and economic development," noting that it "adds an important dimension" to the study of the history of marriage. Chicago Tribune contributor Beth Bailey disagreed with the critics, feeling that "Coontz's larger message … transcends left and right," taking neither one side nor the other in the marriage debate. Bailey observed that "the book is carefully and exhaustively researched, and those who care can trace her sources as well as her logic. But what makes this book so truly important is its honesty and its courage." A Publishers Weekly contributor declared that the author offers "an excellent balance between the scholarly and the readable in this timely, important book."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Coontz, Stephanie, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Viking (New York, NY), 2005.
American Prospect, May, 2005, Ann Crittenden, "Knot for All," review of Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, p. 38.
AScribe Law News Service, April 26, 2005, "Council on Contemporary Family Leaders Steven Mintz and Stephanie Coontz Bust Myths of Marriage, Childhood, Parenting."
Chicago Tribune, May 15, 2005, Beth Bailey, "The Marriage Crisis," review of Marriage, a History.
Commentary, July-August, 2005, Kay S. Hymowitz, "Kith, Kin & Kids," review of Marriage, a History, p. 79.
Harper's Magazine, June, 2005, Laura Kipnis, "Love or Money: The Matrimonial Mystique," review of Marriage, a History, p. 83.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2005, review of Marriage, a History, p. 271.
National Review, July 18, 2005, Allan Carlson, "Love Story?," review of Marriage, a History, p. 45.
Newsweek, June 6, 2005, Barbara Kantrowitz, "What's Love Got to Do with It?," review of Marriage, a History, p. 51.
New York Review of Books, February 3, 1994, Nicholas Lemann, review of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, pp. 9-13.
New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1992, Donald Katz, review of The Way We Never Were, p. 21; September 14, 1997, Eden Ross Lipson, review of The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families, p. 23.
Progressive, September, 1997, Martha Baskin, review of The Way We Really Are, p. 44.
Publishers Weekly, March 14, 2005, review of Marriage, a History, p. 56.
U.S. Catholic, May, 1998, Patrick McCormick, review of The Way We Really Are, p. 47.
AllReaders.com, http://www.allreaders.com/ (September 23, 2005), David Loftus, review of The Way We Never Were.
AlterNet, http://www.alternet.org/ (July 21, 2005), "The Myth of Marriage," review of Marriage, a History.
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (September 23, 2005), Lori Leibovich, "Christ Was Quite Anti-Family," interview with Coontz.
Washington Post Online, http://www.washingtonpost.com/ (August 29, 2005), Judith Warner, review of Marriage, a History.