Whole Truth Behind Dream '50s

by Vickie Erv

Oh, we families had a jolly time in the '50s, living and breathing family values, whatever those are. Such happy, moral days: babies booming, divorce and illegitimacy half of what they are today, home ownership skyrocketing, daddy venturing out to win bread, and mommy staying home to express her femininity through intricate housework maneuvers. This was not just Leave It To Beaver. This was the real thing. Of course, in order to play this American Family Dream Game, you really did have to be white and middle class.

On the other side of the tracks, according to family historian Stephanie Coontz, 25 percent of Americans were poor in the mid-'50s, a time before food stamps and housing programs. Forty percent of black women with small children worked outside their homes. African-Americans, whose labor sustained the economic expansion of the time, were restricted from living in white neighborhoods.

To tell the whole truth, postwar middle-class happiness was achieved through an enormous public investment. If there was indeed a brief moment of prosperity for the many working-class people who entered the middle class, it wasn't because individuals suddenly became more ambitious and self-reliant.

Fifties-style upward mobility arrived courtesy of the federal government, which subsidized college education through GI benefits, boosted house buying and home building through federal housing loans and built highways out to the suburbs through publicly financed projects.

And while we're telling the truth, middle-class life could be psychologically harrowing. According to a study of San Francisco Bay area women hospitalized as "schizophrenic" in the 1950s, some wives, unhappy with enforced domesticity, were labeled schizophrenic, institutionalized and sometimes given shock treatments "to accept their domestic roles and their husbands' dictates." For some women who sought abortion, shock treatments were also recommended, because the failure to want a baby was considered to signify dangerous emotional disturbance. And as for the myth of '50s-style deferred sexual gratification, in 1957, more than 97 out of every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 gave birth. (By the by, sexual morality wasn't so pristine at other times in American history either. In the 20 years prior to the revolution, one-third of all children born were conceived out of wedlock.)

If the '50s weren't picture perfect, surely we could hitch our nostalgic yearning for family values to some other eras in American history! Perhaps the gentle Victorian family. Not so gentle for Victorian families who weren't middle class. In The Way We Never Were, Coontz presents fascinating facts and figures that explode the cherished myths about self-sufficient, happy, moral families. This book will convince you that the good old days for families can -- and should -- never be ours once again. You may come to doubt political candidates who promise to return us to a golden age.

Coontz successfully proves that we are not going to solve any current social crises by trying to recreate models of family bliss that were realized only in the haze of nostalgia.

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