Coontz points to myth of 1950s

by Sarah Rubenstein | 5/22/98 5:00am

Americans who look back to the 1950s as a time to emulate for its 'family values' are basing their nostalgia on myth, social historian Stephanie Coontz said in a speech to about 80 people in 105 Dartmouth last night.

Coontz said "there is a recurring sense of loss" among parents today, who must function in a more rapid work culture while knowing that their children face pressures such as drugs and sex.

But she argued that "Ozzie and Harriet fantasies" of the 1950s are simply incorrect.

During the Fifties, 60 percent of children were raised in two-parent homes and were not forced to hold steady jobs in order to help support their families, Coontz said.

But the solidarity of many such families "was often based on physical force" and "horrible instances of child abuse," she said.

Coontz said the Fifties was a time plagued with domestic violence, increased murder rates, hasty marriages and tensions accompanying the Cold War.

Sitcoms of the time were aimed at World War II veterans who came home to face women in different roles and children who resented their absence. The shows gave men a solution to their problems.

She said some families were able to imitate families like the Beavers for a small period of time -- but that success resulted from political and economic trends, rather than "family values."

The American government of the Fifties provided programs to hire more workers and subsidize education, creating a much greater income equality than exists today, Coontz said.

She said real wages increased more in one year during the 1950s than they did in the entire first half of the 1990s.

Coontz argued that if Americans want to improve life today, they must reverse the "transformation of our economic and political system into a dependence-be-damned, winner-take-all economy."

They must also accept that "women are in the work force to stay," and we should "build on the gains" brought about by divorce and the changing nature of the American family.

Coontz said "kids are happier when their mothers are happier," and we must focus on adjusting gender roles and work policies, while also increasing our support for child care and after-school programs.

She also said Americans' work and school programs date back to customs that are obsolete.

There is no reason for school to end around 3 p.m., because "you don't need your kids at home to help with the milk any more," she said.

Coontz said many politicians blame today's problems on an increased divorce rate, but they are confusing "correlations with causes."