A favorite concept among theological and political conservatives in the U.S. is the "traditional family." Anything from women's access to affordable health care to gay marriage is considered an attack on the traditional family. Moreover, many of us Christian women who wish to break free from complementarian gender roles are too often accused of being anti-family.
Republican darling Ted Cruz's father, who is a pastor in Texas, recently remarked:
When you hear all these things about homosexual marriage, this has nothing to do with homosexual rights. Did you know that? The whole objective is the destruction of the traditional family, it has nothing to do with homosexuals, they could care less about homosexuals, they want to destroy the family.
Another GOP darling, Marco Rubio, appeals to his base by insisting on a "strong family consisting of a married mother and father who love each other".
However, the notion that a traditional family, comprised of a heterosexual, married (stay-at-home) mother and (sole-breadwinner) father with children, has always been the cornerstone of our nation is debunked by historian Stephanie Coontz. I plan on blogging my way through her book, The Way We Never Were. In her book, Coontz argues that the traditional family as we now know it is an historical anomaly, combining "some characteristics of the white, middle-class family in the mid-nineteenth century and some of a rival family ideal first articulated in the 1920s." (p. 9). She continues:
Whenever people propose that we go back to the traditional family, I always suggest that they pick a ballpark date for the family they have in mind. Once pinned down, they are invariably unwilling to accept the package deal that comes with their chosen model.
(p. 10). An appeal to the colonial era simply won't work. Coontz notes that many traditionalists today would be appalled at the way in which many European-Americans in the eighteenth century didn't shield children from sex/sexuality: "Sexual conversations between men and women, even in front of children, were remarkably frank." (p. 10). In contrast, the Department of Health and Human Services was forced in 1991 to cancel a survey of teens' sexual practices after some charged that this knowledge might "'inadvertently' encourage more sex'" (p. 10).
Moving on to the nineteenth century, Coontz pointed out that the rise of (white) stay-at-home mothers was utterly dependent on long, brutal workdays of other, more disadvantaged women:
For every nineteenth-century middle-class family that protected its wife and child within the family circle, then, there was an Irish or a German girl scrubbing floors in that middle-class home, a Welsh boy mining coal to keep the home-baked goodies warm, a black girl doing the family laundry, a black mother and child picking cotton to be made into clothes for the family, and a Jewish or an Italian daughter in a sweatshop making "ladies"' dresses or artificial flowers for the family to purchase.
(p. 11-12). I would argue that the same holds true today in many ways.
Coontz posits that the search for a traditional family ignores the diversity of family life, both past and present, and results in "false generalizations about the past as well as wildly exaggerated claims about the present and the future." (p. 12).
Coontz then debunks several trends that alarmists tend to raise about the traditional family, e.g. that divorce is on the rise, that fathers are more likely to abandon their children, and that families generally are not as close as before. The suprising statistics "should make us leery of hard-and-fast pronouncements about what's happening to the American family." (p. 16). Coontz also points out how much of the nostalgia for the traditional family is an historical anomaly:
Prior to the 1900s, the family festivities that now fill us with such nostalgia for "the good old days" (and cause such heartbreak when they go poorly) were "relatively undeveloped." Civic festivals and Fourth of July parades were more important occasions for celebration and strong emotion than family holidays, such as Thanksgiving. Christmas "seems to have been more a time for attending parties and dances than for celebrating family solidarity." Only in the twentieth century did the family come to be the center of festive attention and emotional intensity."
Chapter 2 discusses American families in the 1950's. It should be interesting!