Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz

Source of book: I own this.

This review is of the Revised and Updated version of The Way We Never Were, as updated in 2016. The original book was published in 1992. In the intervening 24 years, I believe this book has become even more true than it was when published.

First, let me start by giving full disclosure: this will in no way be an unbiased review. Not that I ever claim to be unbiased - by definition my blog is my opinion, based on the world as I see it and the research and reading I do. But this one is particularly personal to me, as the topic of the book has been the source of a tremendous amount of hurt and damage within my extended family. Hurt and damage which I believe was completely avoidable. Hurt and damage which was caused by the exact problem which Coontz highlights in this book: the worship of a fictitious past which never really existed, which was a historical anomaly to the extent it existed at all, and which was denied to those lacking racial and economic privilege. These beliefs about gender, gender roles, and family dynamics are raised to a toxic pitch particularly when they become religious beliefs: any departure from the blueprint becomes a matter of sin.  

As readers know, my wife and I split the breadwinning duties, and try to split the household and childcare duties as well. We have an egalitarian marriage, where neither of us holds a trump card, and important decisions have to be made mutually. This has, sadly, caused unnecessary friction, particularly for my wife, who, by working outside of the home, and not fitting female stereotypes, is seen as neglecting her family and home. 

The delusion is this: the idea of a nuclear family wherein only the man worked, the wife spent her time at home on childcare and household duties, and where everyone was happy.

There are many problems with this, of course, as anyone who has studied history can tell you. First, women have, throughout most of history, been every bit as involved in “bringing home the bacon” as men. In fact, during most of history, people would have starved if women hadn’t provided for families. Second, the brief period in which a certain class of woman did fit the stereotype existed only briefly, during a rare time when wages for less educated men were high enough to support a family on that alone. Third, this arrangement was never available to most people around the world, and notably, not for non-whites - or lower income women -  in the United States. Fourth, contrary to the nostalgic belief, it was not all roses - it actually did create miseries of its own. Fifth, contrary to what many of us were taught, it wasn’t that people stopped believing the dream. Rather, economic circumstances have changed.

In point of fact, this particular form of the family existed only very briefly: in the aftermath of World War II (and primarily for whites - other races were excluded.) And, as the author points out, this was the result of some circumstances which we no longer have: strong unions, investment in the public sector, job security, affordable housing, and rising wages for the bottom 70 percent.

I am just hitting a few highlights very briefly. This is a pretty long book, extensively footnoted, and covering a wide variety of related topics. For example, the author tackles the myths about gender stereotypes, the baloney that families ever stood on their own two feet entirely (social, group, and yes, governmental support has always been key), the erosion of a belief in responsibility for our fellow man, the unfair blame feminism has received, the myth that it is all the fault of sexual behavior, the burden to be super parents, and the racist myths that dominate our discussion of poverty.

It is also this myth that fuels much of our culture wars. At the core, the dispute is over a mythical utopia of the past that not only no longer exists, but never really did.


Let me start with a quote from Abraham Maslow - who I am coming to appreciate more and more. (I think he was absolutely correct that “well adjusted” is only meaningful when you know what is being adjusted to. Adjustment to an unjust or abusive situation isn’t health, it’s illness…)

“It is too often not realized that culture itself is an adaptive tool, one of whose main functions is to make the physiological emergencies come less and less often.

I think this is something important to keep in mind when we discuss the supposed degeneration of culture. What we have is in large part an adaptation to circumstances. To say that the poor have worse culture isn’t just condescending (and contrary to the teachings of Christ, actually), it is a dodge to avoid examining the real issues.

Coontz begins in her introduction with a basic premise: we do not remember things accurately, and we as humans tend to forget the bad and remember the good. (In other words, Antony was full of crap - but he already knew that.) She uses the example of family vacations. Right after the vacation, people tend to remember the joys and the frustrations equally well. But as time goes on, only the good is remembered clearly. And thus with the past in general.

Selective memory is not a bad thing when it leads children to forget the arguments in the back seat of the car and to look forward to their next vacation. But it’s a serious problem when it leads grown-ups to try to  re-create a past that either never existed at all or whose seemingly attractive features were inextricably linked to injustices and restrictions on liberty that few Americans would tolerate today.

Everything is, to some degree, interconnected. Thus, as Coontz points out, in the first five years after states adopted no-fault divorce laws (thus freeing women to leave unhappy marriages without having to dredge up evidence of abuse), the suicide rates for married women dropped 8 to 12 percent (depending on the state) while domestic violence rates within marriage plummeted by 30 percent. So it is a trade off. But also, as the author says:

But the historical record is clear. Although there are many things to draw on from our past, no family system has ever immunized people against economic loss, social problems, or personal dysfunction.

On that note, Coontz points out that we tend to emphasize small negative outcomes when they suit our biases, and fail to note the bigger picture. One particular area is what happens in the aftermath of a divorce (or a parental death). For most indicators (and the author quotes a few), the pattern is this: most kids experience zero change. A few experience a negative change, and some (but not quite as many) experience a positive change. So, for example, most kids of divorce have the same grades before and after. Some have declines, while almost but not quite as many see their grades go up. But because the percentages aren’t equal, we spin it as “divorce causes poor grades” when for most kids, that simply isn’t true.

I wrote quite a few notes, and my comments will probably be a bit scattershot, as they are missing a lot of context. So obviously, read the book. But I think they are still worthwhile as highlights.

First is this one: the author makes a survey of the periods in history that most people (when polled) think the family was at its zenith. (This ranges from colonial times through the 1950s.) She points out that in most of these, the families were the upper middle class to upper class families. And these families, more often than not, had at least one servant. (Think even of the Brady Bunch.) The servants, naturally, didn’t have the same family structure, because the mothers were out of the home serving the wealthier families. Even in the North, there was usually an Irish or Welsh or German (the 19th Century version of Mexican immigrants today - complete with all the stereotypes…) woman washing and cleaning and watching the kids. Likewise for the factories, which had many female workers -  the stay-at-home mom thing was for the wealthy only.

Moving on to the 1950s, that much ballyhooed decade when everything was (allegedly) right with America. Coontz pointed out the obvious:

Wages increased more in that decade than in the previous half century. It was a time of economic boom for workers, not just capitalists. And it was lower education workers that were included - they haven’t been during my own lifetime. It was also, not coincidentally, the high water mark for unions.

But Coontz also pointed out that one of the reasons was something that I really should have realized, but didn’t:

The reason the United States had such a manufacturing advantage in the 1950s was because every other major industrial power in the world had had the crap bombed out of its infrastructure and manufacturing sector.

We were essentially the only player, and we could therefore dictate prices. Now, we have competition both from other countries and from the machines. We will never be able to re-create a time when war leveled everyone else and we alone escaped fairly unscathed. Even if we wanted to.

Another myth about the 1950s is that girls kept their legs together (and that’s why things are worse now.) In fact, teen pregnancy soared in the 1950s, and many of these were out-of-wedlock. Many were placed for adoption, many were quietly adopted by family, and others were raised by family without being officially adopted. The only reason the rates weren’t higher was that there were a lot of shotgun marriages between teens. But that worked because a man could support a family right out of high school. Try doing that today.

There is a lot more in this section, both on economics and sex, but I’ll leave it with this fact: teen pregnancy is way down now compared to back then. So stop whining about how bad the kids are.

The next few sections take a look at the gendering of social responsibilities. One thing that has changed (at least in the US) from the past is our idea of social responsibility. We have been at least since the 1800s, strong believers in individualism and laissez faire economics. Well, at least for men. The man was expected to compete in the brutal, darwinistic marketplace, fighting for himself and family at the expense of whoever else got in his way. This was obviously not a recipe for a kind society. Hence, the separation of the “spheres of influence” of men and women. Men could chase the Almighty Dollar, while women were expected to be altruistic. Women would be forced into the role of mitigating the evils of competition and individualism.

[W]hen commentators lament the collapse of traditional family commitments and values, they almost invariably mean the uniquely female duties associated with the doctrine of separate spheres for men and women.
In both statements [commentator quotes], a seemingly gender-neutral indictment of family irresponsibility ends up being directed most forcefully against women. For [David] Blankenhorn, it is not surprising that men’s goals should be individualistic; this is a parenthetical aside. For [Karl] Zinsmeister, the problem with the disease of family dereliction is that it has spread to women. So long as it was confined to men, evidently, there was no urgency in finding a cure.
The crisis of commitment in America is usually seen as a problem associated with women’s changing roles because women’s family functions have historically mediated the worst effects of competition and individualism in the larger society. Most people who talk about balancing private advancement and individual rights with “nurturance, mutual support, and long-term commitment” do not envision any serious rethinking of the individualistic, antisocial tendencies in our society, nor any ways of broadening our sources of nurturance and mutual assistance. Instead, they seek ways - sometimes through repression, sometimes through reform - of rebuilding a family in which women can continue to compensate for, rather than challenge, the individualism in our larger economy and polity.

In order to enforce these rolls, it has been necessary to create a fictitious view of gender - one where certain traits and virtues were masculine, and others were feminine.

In eighteenth-century Europe and early-nineteenth-century America, a striking rearrangement of gender identities and stereotypes occurred. To men were assigned all the character traits associated with competition: ambition, authority, power, vigor, calculation, instrumentalism, logic, and single-mindedness. To women were assigned all the traits associated with cooperation: gentleness, sensitivity, expressivism, altruism, empathy, personalism, and tenderness.

That this is a fiction should be obvious. But it was thoroughly necessary to sustain the separation of spheres and confine the altruistic part of society solely to the female. Whether it successfully does that is debatable, but it certainly is clear in my own experience that forcing men and women into these roles - and the accompanying character traits - does violence to their personalities, gifts, and inclinations. It also amputates from males a key feature of true humanity, as we have our empathy repressed and our duty to love our neighbor delegated to women. The political results of that idea combined with toxic masculinity are rather apparent at this time.

In fact, we are reaping the results right now of drawing an artificial line between public and family morality. We insist on emphasizing the duty we owe to our immediate family while insisting we owe none to those outside. Basic human decency, duty, and altruism are essentially confined to the family (or at most the tribe), and are denied to those outside: the poor, the immigrant, the brown skinned, and so on. Here is a quote, in which I have redacted the dates:

The [insert time period], like the [insert later time period], saw reckless self-seeking and conspicuous consumption among the rich, growing insecurity for workers, and a middle-class retreat from previous engagement in social reform. At the same time, the [insert time period], like [later time period], produced a new idealization of private life, along with impassioned efforts to “improve” other people’s personal and familial morals. Yet the triumph of the nuclear family ideal and the spread of private morality in the [insert time period] did not counteract the political and economic inequities of the day. Instead, it justified abstention from social reform and toleration of economic injustice.

Hmm. Does that sound familiar?

The first time period is the Gilded Age - 1870-1890, roughly. It was, like our own, one of soaring inequality, intentional oppression of workers, and disdain by the middle class for the poor. And xenophobia and racism. The second is the 1980s - the decade of greed. Except that it is has continued. This is our time, right now. The rich have exponentially increased both the absolute amount and their share of the wealth and income in this country - the process has accelerated since the 80s. Workers are again insecure in their income, and under constant pressure to lower wages. Unions are again under attack, even as they have faded noticeably in the last 50 years.

And, as then, the middle class - particularly the white, Evangelical middle class - is focused on “private” morality and lecturing others rather than actually engaging economic injustice and doing the hard work of social reform.

This now, as it was then, is actually a departure from the ideals of the past. The Enlightenment, while it left out women and people of color, did have economic equality as one of its goals. Equality, cooperation, and community, as the author puts it. Most statesmen of the time recognized that a republic requires this mutuality and equality in order to function. As Noah Webster put it, “Equality of property is the very soul of a republic.”

The first Gilded Age reversed this idea, and the share of wealth held by the top 1% grew at the expense of those below. And, just like now, Social Darwinism became popular. The poor were labeled as “unfit” and “freeloaders.” The president of Columbia University back then said “Nature’s cure for most social and political diseases is better than man’s,” which sounds a heck of a lot like a meme passed around by people I know from church to the effect that we shouldn’t feed people for the same reason that we don’t feed the squirrels at national parks. Let nature take its course. Or as Scrooge said, “If they are going to die anyway, they had better do it quickly and decrease the surplus population.”

That this goes hand in hand with moralizing against the poor and their family structures should be no surprise. It’s easier to watch people suffer if you believe it is all their own damn fault.

This book is worth it just for the extended passage quoting Gilded Age figures alongside modern figures saying exactly the same evil stuff.

Oh, and it wasn’t just that. The war against birth control also happened at this time. And the claim that the morality of recent (and therefore undesirable) immigrants was the cause of their poverty. It had nothing to do with low wages or unemployment, it was all about the “lack of family privacy” in the slums and their inferior culture.

As the author put it, “the triumph of family moralism thus coincided with an outburst of racism and nativism.” Well lookee there! That sure sounds familiar. History may or may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.

I won’t discuss it in depth, but the chapter on the role of community and state in interfering in the family is very interesting. Conservatives (particularly in the Dominionist/Homeschooling circles) hate Child Protective Services. It is a favorite bogeyman. There are two major ironies here, though. First is that prior to the standardization of our response to child abuse, there was actually more interference. From neighbors, or even strangers. (Yes, if you were poor, a wealthy stranger could literally kidnap your child and raise it herself in the 1800s.) The level of private interference in the family was far above what we would tolerate today, from the individuals or the state.

The second irony is, if anything, even better. The reason for the establishment of the CPS system was expressly to enforce the middle class family structure on the poor and immigrant communities. The involvement of extended family, for example, was considered suspicious (as it is today in immigrant and African American families). So now, the tools founded on enforcing a certain view of the family is now a source of terror to those who still wish to enforce those views on others.

Another interesting historical note was the discussion of sexual mores over time. As anyone who has enjoyed William Hogarth’s art can attest, there never really was a golden age of sexual purity, despite recurring attempts to establish one by force of law. Interspersed were eras of greater permissiveness as well, and these have occurred throughout history. The idea that the 1960s were the only recent time is false.

Coontz takes some time to discuss the 1920s, which some have rightly called the First Sexual Revolution. At that time, the sexual double standard was relaxed a bit, and some interesting effects resulted. Obviously, the number of wedding-night virgins declined. (One serious fallacy is to attribute female sexual permissiveness to the 1960s - it was actually the 1920s here in America which saw the change.)

But one other very interesting effect occurred. With ordinary women more willing to experiment sexually, the demand for prostitutes went way down. And more than that, for the first time in perhaps a couple of centuries (in Europe and America, at least), more men had their first sexual encounter with a romantic partner than with a prostitute.

It is hard to overstate how big of change this was. It was, quite literally, expected that a young man would get his sexual experience in a brothel. (It doesn’t take much reading of older literature to get the picture on this. Many non-fiction writers openly discussed this fact about their own lives.) Women were expected to be pure, but men should play the field, sow the oats in controlled situations (after all, you never felt pressure to marry a hooker), and gain experience.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that 1750s London had 10,000 prostitutes, or that 1 in 13 women in Paris in the same time period was a sex worker. (And don’t think the clients were all single guys. The unspoken underbelly of the “traditional” family has always been male privilege.)

But with the change in the double standard, prostitution became far less prevalent - and sex work less accepted. Again, tradeoffs. Although, to be honest, I would rather my children have their first sexual experience with a partner than with a paid stranger. Call me a modern libertine, I guess....

The chapter on child rearing was also interesting. I myself have noted that when women have no outlet outside the home, they tend to overcompensate by obsessing over the children. (Actually this applies to guys sometimes too. I am acquainted with a stay-at-home dad who compensates for his own insecurities about his role by obnoxiously telling everyone else they are doing everything wrong.) Much ink has been shed over what the “ideal” way to raise children is, and there seems to be a trend toward overprotectiveness and control. And blame gets spread. Is it the smothering 1950s mother that is the problem? Or the mother who works outside the home and is therefore viewed as neglectful? Or perhaps both these views are symptoms of those who have time and funds enough to obsess about perfect child rearing. And perhaps some of the changes in how we raise children are, as Maslow might have said, adaptations to the different conditions those children will encounter.

Changes in childrearing values and parental behaviors are seldom a result of people suddenly becoming nicer or meaner, smarter or more irresponsible. They reflect realignments in the way families articulate with larger social, economic, and political institutions, as well as changes in environmental demands on adults and children.

And in many ways, trying to enforce the child rearing principles of the past on new circumstances does a disservice to the children - and the parents. Many of my peers who grew up in Christian Patriarchy have had to do years of work to overcome the parenting malpractice they endured. Women who were never educated, men who lack birth certificates and thus the ability to work for an employer. Others who have had to learn social skills in order to interact with those outside a cultic bubble. All this was done in the name of “the old ways were better.”

My children too will need to learn different skills than I did. With the re-emergence of White Supremacy and nativism (see above…), it is more important than ever that my children learn to recognize racism and fight against it. As the requirements change, so do the techniques.

On a related note to that thought, I move now to the chapter on racism. As George Santayana said, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

There are literally more than 200 years of people blaming African Americans for their own circumstances, from slavery to poverty. Coontz digs out quotes spanning back to the American Revolution and the discussion of whether free blacks should be citizens. From there, it goes downhill. The same old, same old tropes we hear today were in use then. Blacks can’t control themselves sexually. They are too impulsive, they are morally degenerate. There isn’t time to quote all of it, or to go through the systematic debunking of these myths. Coontz notes (correctly) that most of those who spend all this time denigrating blacks actually have zero experience with black families - certainly not living with them the way blacks have in white households as domestic help. It is thus astoundingly arrogant to be critical. To say that the circumstances black families have encountered is an understatement. There is no comparing life under slavery (where your family could be separated at any time) or Jim Crow (under the threat of murder, rape, and arbitrary cheating at any time) or even concentrated poverty these days, which comparatively few poorer white families will ever endure. At minimum, perhaps listening outside the white, middle class bubble would help a bit. (Hey, I blogged about that recently.) While I am definitely no expert, I at least had the advantage of growing up in a working class, largely minority neighborhood. The slander that is directed against poor families is unfair on many levels. The poor are not worse people than the middle class, I’m afraid.The rich are not morally superior to the poor. (Hey, I think Christ had a few things to say about that as well...but you sure don’t hear that in most churches.)

Worst of all, in this whole discussion of poverty - particularly black poverty - is the fact that for the poorest of the poor, things have gotten decidedly worse since 1970. Poverty is more concentrated for blacks (less change of living in a mixed income neighborhood, for example), and the loss of manufacturing jobs hit them four decades before the current batch of Trump-voting whites. This is a factor that is missing in our current discussion. Maybe now that the problem has “trickled up” to formerly middle-class whites, there will be a more fruitful look at how to fix the economic problem (and the morally appropriate answer isn’t “evict the Mexicans” either.)

But the American approach to economic problems is rarely that productive.

Historically, Americans have tended to discover a crisis in family structure and standards whenever they are in the midst of major changes in socioeconomic structure and standards. Today’s family crisis follows a major economic and political restructuring going on since the late 1960s: the eclipse of traditional employment centers, destruction of formerly high-paid union jobs, expansion of the female and minority workforce, and the mounting dilemmas of welfare capitalism. America has seen a major shift in the organization of work and its rewards: Family values, forms, and strategies that once coordinated personal life with older relations of production and distribution are now out of sync with economic and political trends. In past crises, as in this one, such imbalances caused pain and disruption in families, and families or individuals reacted to the changes in ways that sometimes made things worse, but neither then nor now could the larger crisis have been averted if only families had “tried harder.”

So instead, we blame the family. And we blame people because they fail. The blame is falling particularly hard right now on younger people, whose incomes have fallen in real terms far more than for the elderly. One particularly striking statistic is that in 1963, 60 percent of men aged 20 to 24 earned enough by themselves to keep a family of three out of poverty. Sixty percent! And at that age, these aren’t college grads either. By 1984, that had fallen to 42 percent. I would wager that it is far lower today, with nearly zero high school grads being able to support a family at 20 to 24. And we blame the young people because they don’t have the opportunities our parents had. I recommend the pages here on the particular devastation to the young during the 1970s and 1980s. That trend has (as the author points out in the supplement) only continued to the present. Wages continue to decline for the “bottom” 60 percent. And increase by orders of magnitude for the top five percent. Even more than that, young people can no longer expect a significant increase in income from age 25 to 35, like previous generations did. So hard work doesn’t mean getting out of poverty to the degree it used to. And we wonder why birth and marriage rates are down across the board...

The supplement is interesting, as the author goes back and checks, 24 years later, on what has continued and what hasn’t. The bad news is that economic inequality, insecurity, and opportunity have all continued to decline. The gap between the haves and have nots looks a lot like it did in the Gilded Age. (That’s not a good thing.) And, as anyone following the recent election should know, the decline has hit younger, less educated men the hardest. Ironically, it is this group that seems to cling hardest to the notion that men should be the breadwinners - a no-win situation for a man who lacks the ability to join the working middle class. This, more than anything, may be the reason for declining marriage. For people who are the most likely to believe that ability to support a family on one income is necessary for marriage to be the ones least likely to attain said income is not a recipe for better marriage rates.

In this regard, too, I believe Coontz hits it out of the park regarding the problem of deferred gratification. There have been an abundance of studies looking at the ability of children to defer gratification. What is intriguing is that all it takes to ruin a child’s ability to defer is to promise the greater reward for patience, then take that reward away. At that point, children (and humans) aren’t stupid. Take what you can get now, because the promise of more later is just an illusion. This may be your only chance. We have to, as the author puts it, convince people that deferring gratifications isn’t just forfeiting gratification.

None of this means we should give up on initiatives to help people construct more stable and nurturing family lives…
But these initiatives will only work if people see real evidence that long-term planning and short-term sacrifices will pay off - that deferring gratification is not the same as forfeiting it, as is so often the case for low-income individuals. Ensuring that perseverance and planning pay off, in turn, requires greater investment in quality schools, urban infrastructure, and living-wage jobs, a shoring up of our social safety net, and a reversal of the trend toward widening economic and educational inequality…
As psychologist Benjamin Karney puts it, teaching relationship skills and values without providing support systems that reduce external sources of chaos and stress is like giving people piano lessons when they do not have access to a piano.

I cannot have said it better myself. My wife and I were raised with pretty good relationship skills, which was a real benefit. But when I look back, even with our advantages, the big stressors - the ones that really risked the relationship - weren’t petty, stupid things. They were the big externals that stressed us. Lack of sleep due to small children. Job stress. Wondering if my law practice would succeed. Worries and insecurities related to what was going on around us. We had a lot of advantages - and they really helped us. (A major advantage was having both of us employed, because we knew that we could weather the ups and downs of my practice on her income. It would have been difficult to get through the early years with toddlers if we had been impoverished.) What would have helped us most was not a lecture on our relationship skills or a book on getting along with your spouse. What we really needed was family (or at least friends) who could help take the burden off from time to time, and help ease the stress. Fortunately, we had that from some family and some of the time. But there were others more interested in lecturing that everything would be better if my wife just quit her job and do what God intended.

The economic trends are not promising, and the current political climate is ever more hostile to any attempt to rectify inequality and job insecurity.

On the other hand, some things do look very positive.

Despite dire predictions, the world has not in fact ended as a result of all this - and the predictable decline in the “traditional” family structure as a result of economic changes. For decades, I have heard that crime rates would soar as a result of single parenting. Um, not so much. The long term trend is definitely down - including the last couple of decades. Outside of a few impoverished inner cities, violent crime continues to decline. (I recommend The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker for more on this. Historical perspective is mind-blowing…)

And attitudes are changing as well. The younger generations are no longer wedded to the idea that men should be sole breadwinners, or that housework and childcare are “women’s work.” The workplace is so much better for women than it used to be (largely as the result of changes in the law): my mother had to fend off butt-slapping doctors in the 1980s. My wife need put up with no such thing.

I want to end on a positive note, with what I see as a thoroughly encouraging development.

During my childhood, the hue and cry of the Religious Right was that Feminism™ was the greatest evil known to man, destroying families, and removing any incentive for men to treat women well.

As it turns out, not so much.

As women have made gains in the workforce, and as feminist ideas of the equality of the sexes have gained mainstream acceptance, domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape have all gone down dramatically. The numbers are still too high, but they continue to fall. Furthermore, with the exception of the apologists for the Pussy Grabber Who Shall Not Be Named, most people - particularly younger people - consider violence against women to be unacceptable. Again, doctors can no longer grab nurses’ butts and get away with it like they did when I was a kid.

And there hasn’t been a plague of unhappy women either. Women who work outside the home actually enjoy better mental and physical health than those who do not.

And, notwithstanding a few misleading headlines, it hasn’t driven the sexes apart either. Once upon a time, a woman with a college degree would have a lower chance of marrying. Now, the reverse is true. She is more likely to marry, and less likely to divorce, than a woman without a degree. Furthermore, women who are high earning have increased their rate of marriage the most of any group in the last 30 years. Apparently, times have changed a bit. The factors that were once predicted to harm marriages actually turn out to aid them - at least once men started to make the adjustment to the new circumstances. You want a good marriage in 2016? Get an education (both sexes), and form an egalitarian marriage. I highly recommend it.

Oh, and what about those stupid headlines? The ones saying couples have better sex when the woman does the housework? Those studies are for marriages formed in the 1970s, when men doing housework was stigmatized. For those of us married in the 1990s or later? Sexual and marital satisfaction is highest when household duties are shared, when breadwinning is shared, and when power in the relationship is equal. Who knew?

Bottom line: this book goes a long way to debunk the notion that what is wrong with the world is that we don’t have gender roles. It also provides a lot of evidence that culture adapts to circumstances, and that bad outcomes do tend to be driven by changes in circumstances, not people just becoming more bad. The historical perspective here is thoroughly enlightening, showing that these are the same arguments we have been having for centuries. And that these arguments get regurgitated every time there is socioeconomic stress. That racism and nativism have always been at the heart of our discussion of the ideal family. And that, more than anything else, we idolize the Way We Never Were at the expense of those who cannot afford to live up to the standard.


There are a few other books I thought I might mention in connection with this topic.

First is obviously Steven Pinker’s amazing book, The Better Angels of our Nature, which documents the decline in violence over the course of recorded history. I can think of no better book to explode the bullcrap that the past was better. It wasn’t.

The Gilded Age comes up a lot in this book, because of the interesting parallels between the past and the present. I reviewed a couple of books that were about the Gilded Age:

The Gilded Age by Mark Twain & Charles Dudley Warner

Hey, where do you think the age got its name? Also, I love to point out that Charles Dudley Warner is the one who coined the phrase, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.” Also a good humorous look at the corruption and general craziness of the Railroad era. Speaking of which:

A fascinating history of the Transcontinental Railroads (yes, more than one.) If you think our current era is without precedent for corruption, well, think again. Great book.

The Pursuit of Glory by Tim Banning

This is the source of my stats on prostitution. It also has some great history of the rise of nationalism in Europe in the modern age - and a reminder of why nationalism is responsible for most of the deaths in war in the modern age.

There is also this marvelous quote from John Howlett. Again, history repeats. The arguments blaming the poor have existed as long as the poor themselves.

There is, indeed, I cannot help thinking, something peculiarly ungenerous in our complaints of the burdensomeness of our poor. Within the last forty years the rent of our houses and land are increased eight or ten millions; the wealth of our farmers and tradesmen is augmented in similar proportion; that of our merchants and leading manufacturers in a degree infinitely greater. And shall we grudge to allow of this abundance two millions a year towards the support of those from the labour of whose hands and the sweat of whose brows we have derived the whole? Shall we grind their faces, and squeeze them to death, and then have the cruel absurdity of ascribing their fate to their increasing vice and profligacy?

England Under The Stuarts by G. M. Trevelyan

A rather exhaustive history, but quite good. In this context, I find the description of Charles I rather like that of the Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named.

But even more so, Trevelyan's description of the kind of revolution which is more constructive than destructive.

That most rare of human events, a revolution loftily enacting lofty ideals, can only occur in a State where wealth is well distributed, classes fairly balanced and kindly related, the common intellectual food wholesome, the imagination alive and the moral standard high. It is seldom that these conditions are fulfilled; it is yet more seldom that the politics of so fortunate an era demand a revolution.

Again, one can find a whole history of brilliant minds who have recognized that large and growing inequality destabilizes a society and a state, and that things rarely end well.


  1. Reading this review, I wondered about what you would say about the new "Benedict Option" book from Rod Dreher. He is, of course, steeped in the paranoid style of American Christianity, peddles this narrative of decline, and has a massive persecution complex.

    1. I haven't read it, but I have seen Rachel Held Evans' brilliant takedown of it. I am certainly stealing her "White Evangelical Persecution Industrial Complex" as a good term to describe the phenomenon.

      I don't know how much of my blog you have read, but I spent some time in the "withdraw from culture" wing of Christianity - a cult, really. My wife was in an even more fringe group during her teens. So I suspect Dreher's book would be a bit PTSD inducing. Just as one comment on that, my view from the inside is that there is a strong visceral dislike for certain groups that drives the separatist movement emotionally. Obviously, the paranoia about LGBTQ people. But also a sense that we must keep away from the icky poor and brown skinned people and their horrible culture.