by Allan Carlson, Ph.D.

Review of: Stephanie Coontz, MARRIAGE, A HISTORY: FROM OBEDIENCE TO INTIMACY OR HOW LOVE CONQUERED MARRIAGE (New York: Viking, 2005), 313 pages.

The television spirits of Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver haunt historian Stephanie Coontz.  Along with Margaret Anderson (Father Knows Best), Donna Reed, Ricky Nelson, Ozzie, Ward, Wally, and the Beaver, these black-and-white specters from the 1950’s materialize as whole chapters in her books.  Like the fifteen angry co-authors of the recent volume, NOT JUNE CLEAVER: Women and Gender in Postwar America, Coontz sees “the 1950’s American Family” as the lodestone of American social history and these sit-com housewives as the bearers of an awesome, culture-shaping power.

The big news this year is that Coontz has changed her mind about the 1950’s family.  Her earlier book, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, has been standard reading for a dozen years in college level history and American studies courses.  Here, she vigorously insisted that “[c]ontrary to popular debate ‘Leave It To Beaver’ was not a documentary.”  Rather, the 1950’s represented “a very deviant decade” and the 1950’s family model found in the old sitcoms—wise, pipe-smoking fathers, well-dressed, happy, homemaking mothers, and endearing teenagers—was both “a new invention” and “a historical fluke.”

Her new book, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage, sharply reverses course.  Now, she essentially argues that Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver were documentaries, and of a largely positive nature.  Indeed, instead of being a statistical fluke, she says that the 1950’s family should be seen as the product of “a gigantic marital revolution,” the “culmination of a new system that had been evolving for more than 150 years.”  Rather than being tragic pawns of patriarchy, the spectral Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver actually emerge as quasi-revolutionaries, the shapers of history who unconsciously ushered in the new age of cohabitation, easy divorce, and same-sex marriage.

In her breezy new analysis of marriage, Coontz sees human history divided into three phases.  From ancient times until 1750, arranged patriarchal marriages focused on economic survival, property, and politics dominated everywhere.  Then, in the mid-18th Century, the “love revolution” broke out.  Men and women on the cutting edge now sought their soul mates and developed the “male provider marriage” as the preferred sentimental nest.  Just below the surface, though, the tension between fleeting love and life-long attachment broiled away, portending a greater upheaval.  For generations, several forces held the marital dike: belief in innate differences between women and men; pressure from relatives, employers, and the law; the unreliability of birth control and the stigma of illegitimacy; women’s continuing legal and economic dependence on men; and men’s domestic dependence on women.  The 1950’s brought a kind of perfection to this model, with “the Cleavers” and “the Nelsons” as true icons, “the result of a unique moment of equilibrium in the expansion of economic, political, and personal options.”

Then came the deluge, as a “perfect storm” emerging from “the subversive potential of the love revolution” swept away the seemingly solid 1950’s family.  Marriage became more joyful, loving, and satisfying; and also more optional and brittle.  Intentional singleness, cohabitation, non-marital births, care-giving dads at home, and same-sex marriage emerged as compelling lifestyle options.  The marriage model of two becoming one flesh became obsolete: “It is no longer possible to assume that two people can merge all their interests and belief.” Marriage vanished as an institution and as the primary center of commitment and caregiving.  Marriage now meant “love, honor, and negotiate,” and when any of these failed, quick and easy divorce and a move to other options were the answers.

There are aspects of Coontz’s argument that I admire.  I, too, agree that the 1950’s family model—its rise and fall—is the key to understanding our contemporary “culture war.”  I share her judgment on sociologists of the era such as Talcott Parsons, whose strange advice to wives was to pursue the role of “glamour girl” and whose confidence in the stability of the 1950’s family “seems hopelessly myopic.”  She is also correct in identifying portents of radical change during the 1950’s, including an uptick in divorce in the latter part of the decade, the quiet growth in the number of working wives in the service sector, and the allure of the Playboy ethos, where men revolted against the breadwinner family (e.g., “Miss Gold-Digger of 1953”) a decade before Betty Friedan sparkled a similar revolt among women.

Still, Marriage: A History exhibits fatal flaws in analysis.  On the one hand, the book is curiously Marxist in its relentless historical determinism, with “love” displacing “class conflict” as the driving force of history; as though Karl Marx had instead authored a romance novel or a soap opera.  Phrases such as “these changes have profoundly and irreversibly transformed modern marriage,” “we cannot turn back the clock,” and “wrenching, far-reaching, and irreversible” form a drumbeat that seeks to smother alternate interpretations.

On the other hand, the book is not Marxist enough.  It all but ignores the true “great disruption” in family affairs that occurred about two hundred years ago: the industrial revolution.  This upheaval displaced the home as the center of productive activity.  It pulled fathers, mothers, and children out of households for work in centralized factories.  It thrived on a hyper-individualism that denied the claims of family and community.  The historical pageant of the last two centuries has actually been the seeking of ways to shelter families from the full logic of the industrial principle.  This quest, not romance, was the true source of the breadwinner/homemaker model: the factories could have the fathers, but not the mothers and the children. 

Coontz’s cultural analysis is also remarkably shallow.  Her obsession with Leave It To Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, and other “new television shows that delivered nightly images of happy female homemakers in stable male breadwinner families” overlooks the true diversity of sit-com programming in the 1950’s.  As Paul Nathanson of McGill University has chronicled, the more common sit-com households of the 1950’s featured: married couples without children (The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy [the early, classic years], I Married Joan, and Amos’n’Andy); extended families (The Goldbergs, The Real McCoys, and Make Room for Daddy); single parent households (My Little Margie, Bachelor Father, and December Bride); surrogate families centered on the workplace (Our Miss Brooks, The Gale Storm Show, Private Secretary, The Ann Southern Show, You’ll Never Get Rich); and “complex” households (The Jack Benny Program and The Bob Cummings Show).  In this true Hollywood mix, Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver lived a minority lifestyle.

The vital role of religion in shaping recent family trends is also absent.  Coontz gives superficial treatment to Christian teaching on sex, marriage, and family from the early era through the 16th Century Reformation.  Religion then more or less disappears from her analysis.  This is unfortunate, for the evidence strongly suggests that the “Baby Boom” of the 1950’s was denomination-specific: a Roman Catholic thing.  Consider these numbers: the average number of children born to non-Catholics was 3.15 in 1951-53 and 3.14 in 1961-65; for Catholics, the respective figures were 3.54 and 4.25.  In the early 1950’s, only 10 percent of Catholics under age 40 had four or more children, a figure close to the Protestant figure of 9 percent.  By 1959, the Protestant figure was unchanged, while the Catholic number had shot up to 22 percent.

Coontz also studiously ignores the role that public policy played in undermining the already fragile 1950’s family.  She briefly mentions the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which she mistakably places in 1963), but neglects to cite the way in which Title VII prohibitions against sex discrimination in employment destroyed America’s family wage regime.  (Perhaps she is embarrassed by the fact that Congress added “sex” to the list of prohibited discriminations only through a bizarre coalition of Dixiecrat segregationists who thought this change would sink the whole bill and feminists in the Republican Party).  Tax reforms in the mid and late 1960’s scuttled the strongly pro-family tax regime cobbled together during the 1940’s.  Finally, the author dismisses an alternate historical possibility.  As Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman outlined in his 1947 magnum opus, Family and Civilization, history is replete with examples of social decline, where the healthy “domestic family” gives way to the “atomistic” family.  In this world, marriage is reduced to a weak contrast, “the individual becomes sacred,” and illegitimacy vanishes as a legal concept.  This family change has commonly been prelude to civilizational collapse.

In the end, Coontz actually stands exposed as a disciple of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the 18th Century French philosopher who also believed that sentiment is the true driving force of history.  She rejects marriage as properly an aspect of religion as natural law.  She also refuses to see marriage as the product of human social biology.  In addition, she dismisses social science as a guide to government action (“using [statistical] averages…to construct social policy for all is not wise”).  All that can be relied on is the fickle arrow of Cupid…and of course the activist state, which will pick up the human pieces created by weak, broken, or never-formed marriages.  In this sense, Marriage, A History is actually a would-be elegy for our civilization.