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A conversation with Stephanie Coontz

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 structures.

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 businesses:

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