Feminism and the nuclear family?

Stephanie Coontz is a very distinguished historian of the family, and she takes to task in today’s NY Times the picture of feminists disparaging and disrupting the bliss of the 1950’s nuclear family.  Her assertions should be understood as about the US.  They address a very large challenge to feminism that comes from a heteronormative position:

Contrary to myth, “The Feminine Mystique” and feminism did not represent the beginning of the decline of the stay-at-home mother, but a turning point that led to much stronger legal rights and “working conditions” for her….

While stay-at-home mothers may not have the aura of saintliness with which they were endowed in the 19th century, it’s indisputable that their status and lives have improved since their supposed heyday in the 1950s. On this Mother’s Day, it’s too bad that nostalgia for a golden age of motherhood that never existed still clouds our thinking about what’s best for mothers, fathers and their children.

Motherhood and depression:  By the 1950’s various factors had led to a loss of esteem for the mother, whom psychology was blaming for everything.  

Study after study found that homemakers had lower self-esteem than women who took paid employment, even when it came to assessing their skills as parents. They experienced higher levels of stress and greater vulnerability to depression than women with paying jobs. And they had few legal rights: wives had little protection against abusive husbands, and only eight states in 1963 gave a homemaker any claim on her husband’s earnings.

 In contrast today’s willing stay-at-home moms are happier:

There also seems to have been a significant shift in the relationship between depression and homemaking. Stay-at-home mothers still recount more feelings of loneliness than working mothers. But in a new Council on Contemporary Families briefing paper, the sociologists Margaret Usdansky and Rachel A. Gordon report that among mothers of young children, those who were not working and preferred not to have a job had a relatively low risk of depression — about as low as mothers who chose to work and were able to attain high-quality jobs.

Mothers who want to work outside the home but instead are full-time homemakers, however, have a higher risk of depression.  This is a significant group: in 2000, 40 percent of full-time homemakers said they would prefer to be working at a paid job. So telling women who want to work that they or their children will be better off if they stay home is a mistake. Maternal depression is well known as being harmful to children’s development.

Husbands in the 1950’s typically did  not do women’s work.  That’s changed:

As late as 1980, approximately 30 percent of wives said their husbands did no housework at all. By 2000, only 16 percent of wives made that statement and almost one-third said their husbands did half of all housework, child care or both.

Most researchers agree that these changes were spurred by the entry of wives and mothers into the work force. But full-time homemakers have especially benefited from them.

From 1975 to 1998 men married to full-time homemakers increased their contributions to housework as much, proportionally, as men whose wives were employed. And from 1965 to 1995, homemakers decreased their own housework hours more than did wives in dual-earner families. As a result, most stay-at-home mothers now have shorter total workweeks than their husbands.

The New York Times is rationing the articles it allows non-subscribers to read (!!), but this one is worth spending that small allowance on.  IMHO.

One thought on “Feminism and the nuclear family?

  1. […] “Feminism and the Nuclear Family?,” from jj at Feminist Philosophers Stephanie Coontz is a very distinguished historian of the family, and she takes to task in today’s NY Times the picture of feminists disparaging and disrupting the bliss of the 1950′s nuclear family. […]

Comments are closed.