Ward And June Not


By Stephanie Coontz

BasicBooks -- 391pp -- $27

When politicians this year bemoaned the demise of the "traditional" family, who, exactly, were they talking about?

Was it the Leave It to Beaver household, in which dad ruled, rewarding a compliant homemaker-mom with Hotpoint appliances? No way, says Stephanie Coontz in The Way We Never Were. In 1960, one in three American children was poor, and 60% of the elderly had incomes of less than $1,000. From 1944 to 1955, illegitimate births jumped 80%.

Forget the happy Victorian families seen on Christmas cards, indulgent Papa and adoring little ones at Mama's knee. That knee was usually bent in health-shattering housework, while the kids labored to put food on the table. There were lots of them, too, even though an estimated one-third of pregnancies were aborted. Birth control was illegal. Sex with little girls was not: The age of consent, Coontz says, was as low as nine.

The Revolutionary era? Wrong again. Slaves and paupers had no rights to their children. Every third colonial bride was pregnant. By now, you're getting the picture: There never was a traditional American family.

Following a lengthy account of how things weren't, Coontz strikes down many beliefs about today's families. Latchkey kids, for instance, are often more responsible and self-disciplined than their peers whose moms stay home.

Unfortunately, Coontz imparts her message with mind-numbing prose. Example: "While the 1920s' increase in youthful premarital coitus was not as dramatic as that in the 1960s, there was a pronounced eroticization of noncoital relations and a greatly liberalized definition of what kinds of physical interactions were permissible between unmarried persons of the opposite sex." No threat to Madonna's Sex here.

New family traditions and social obligations are needed to deal with societal ills, Coontz writes, but she doesn't say what or how. Absent more solid suggestions, Americans may one day look back with nostalgia on the "traditional" American family of the 1990s.