Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Stephanie Coontz brings history back to sociology

Whitman students, faculty and locals interested in feminist history had the opportunity on Tuesday, April 17 to meet family historian Stephanie Coontz. Coontz delivered an hour-long lecture in Olin Hall on the misconception of gender roles and the family unit of the 1960s.

Credit: Nicholas Farrell

Coontz is a professor of history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. She has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Colbert Report and has testified about her research before the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families in Washington, D.C.  Her latest work is titled “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.”

Peterson Endowed Chair of Social Sciences, Keith Farrington, brought Coontz to campus after introducing her earlier works to students in his “Sociology of the Family” class last fall.

“I thought students responded to her really well,” he said. “She’s able to come to campus at a time when her latest works is coming out.  So we’re getting a really great family scholar at a time when one of her written works is very popular.”

Although Farrington brought Coontz to campus through Whitman’s sociology department, Coontz is specifically a historian, not a sociologist.

Credit: Nicholas Farrell

“I think it’s really important to put gender and how [the] female role has changed over time within a larger historical time-frame and Professor Coontz is ideally situated to do that,” Farrington said. “She always analyzes current trends with regard to what’s happened in the past and looking for parallels in points in time.”

Coontz began her latest book as a historical biography on Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” but quickly became disappointed in how Friedan posed the advancements of feminism in the 1920s.

“I don’t think sociology can exist without history. . . and I don’t think historians can learn good history without understanding sociology,” she said. “When I first began my research, I decided I was more interested in women and men in interaction.”

Coontz’ reading of “The Feminine Mystique” inspired her to observe family roles in the 1950s and early 1960s to examine oppositions to the feminist movement.

“Back then, only eight states had laws that allowed a women to have any claim on a man’s earnings,” she said. “A woman college graduate earned less than a male high school dropout.”

She further noted many Americans today are often deceived into regarding the 1950s as the time of the traditional family.

“Many Americans don’t realize that the 1950s family was, in fact, the most non-traditional family in all of American history . . . It’s not until the 20th century where we get the idea that people put emphasis on the male breadwinner of the family,” she said.

Coontz noted that many old American sitcoms can create a romanticized notion of life in the 1950s and can lead people to forget the social gains groups such as feminists and the civil rights movement have made in the past 50 years.

“It’s easy to look backwards at 1950s sitcoms and use them as documentaries, but if you look below the surface, you find tremendous unhappiness. This was a time that had no concept of married-rape, [a] much higher level of child abuse and spousal abuse, and, of course, racial segregation,” she said.

Sophomore Emma Snyder, who has read Coontz’s work and was excited to meet her, noted that Coontz’s work has broadened her sociological horizons.

“She’s just so able to shake people’s misinterpreted notions of what family life used to be like, in such a refreshing way,” Snyder said. “It’s easy to buy into the ‘Leave it to beaver facade’ and nostalgia trap, so it’s great that Professor Coontz can bring statistical grounding and sociohistoric analysis to debunk these media-perpetuated myths.”

Farrington hoped that bringing Coontz to Whitman would help the campus challenge the nature of history’s traditional male and female gender roles.

“The things that often times we’re told by our parents and the media and the way people used to behave sexually and what we accept as common knowledge aren’t really true,” he said.

Coontz reminds her audience not to romanticize the past.

“To think that we should turn the clock back instead of moving the clock forward is a big mistake,” Coontz said.


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