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A conversation with Stephanie Coontz

Published on: July 01, 2005

Stephanie Coontz has a long history of myth-busting when it comes to marriage, and her latest book, Marriage, a History: from Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage, is no exception.

Coontz, director of research and education for the Council for
Contemporary Families, has been a professor in the department of
history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia
since 1975. In her book, she seeks to dispel the notion that there was
ever a golden age of marriage. During the past 50 years, she says, a
good marriage has become better but bad marriages have become more
tenuous. She calls for society to stop living in the past and instead
to work with what it has -- an evolving state of marriage and family

Q. In addition to presenting at the Work/Family conference, you also attended the sessions.
What resonated with you from that gathering?

It drove home to me that at the beginning of the 21st century, we are
facing a similar set of challenges to those faced by parents at the
beginning of the 20th century. Then the issue was how to make work safe
for male breadwinners. Workers needed health and safety regulations in
the new factories, which were killing or maiming tens of thousands of
workers each year, and they needed Saturdays off to spend with their
families. Politicians and business owners claimed it was just too
expensive, and workers should quit their jobs if they couldn't take the
pressure. But workers and social reformers persevered, and eventually
won the reforms that allowed male-breadwinner families to flourish in
the 1950s. Today, the male breadwinner family is no longer the norm,
and two-earner families need employers to adjust work schedules and
politicians to come up with social policies that make it possible for
them to survive and thrive. This is the new health and safety issue of
the new century.

Q. What reaction did you get from more
traditional, conservative audiences while on your book tour?

...In a sense this book has helped many people -- including myself --
get past traditional liberal/conservative divisions. It's time for us
to stop arguing about what parts of the change we like and what parts
we hate and figure out how to respond to the new situation. I was on
conservative talk show host Michael Medved's show June 1, and he said
that while he had disagreed with me in the past and still disagreed
with some of my conclusion, this was an important book that could help
everyone understand how we got to where we are. He and I had a really
constructive conversation.

Q. How can working parents help affect change
to better support evolving family structures?

The main thing we need to do now is tell our politicians that we're
tired of the posturing and the playing off of one kind of family
against the other. All family types need parental leaves, including
some form of subsidy, so taking time off with your kids is not a class
privilege, and all family types also need high quality child care to be
available. It's not an either-or question.

Rhonda Aronwald, a freelance writer, lives in Seattle with her husband and 7-year-old son.

Policy resources for parents

Working parents creating a unified voice can help influence policies
that value families and are good for both work and home. Here are two
organizations administering programs aimed at building consensus among
working parents, policy-makers and business leaders, and demonstrating
how family-friendly policies can create a competitive advantage for

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