In researching social movements of the 1950s and '60s, historian Stephanie Coontz found a report on a study of 37 battered women published by the American Medical Association in 1964.
The women typically had not called the police until years into the physical abuse and then only after a teenage child had stepped in. The report’s authors explained that the child’s intervention disturbed “a marital equilibrium which had been working more or less satisfactorily.”
Can you imagine anyone in authority saying that today?
That mindset is the kind of inconvenient truth for nostalgia buffs that Coontz spoke about to a packed hall at Muhlenberg College Sept. 14. I wrote about some of her insights in .
Coontz began by saying that not all selective memories are harmful. “I can tell you as a mother, if all of us had accurate memories of childbirth, there’d be a nation of one-child families,” she said.
But the trouble with nostalgia is that there is often little room in that happy haze for complexity – remembering the good and bad. “It gets downright dangerous when nostalgia makes people so enamored of the past and so resentful of [what’s lost] that they can’t accept there was anything in the past that they needed to lose,” she said.
Until well into the 19th century, married women in some states couldn’t own property or enter into contracts by themselves. As late as the 1970s, some places had “head and master” laws that gave the husband the final say on where the family lived and other household decisions.
Critics lament the state of marriage today and some blame “no-fault” divorce laws. Such laws do disempower a spouse who wants the marriage to last, Coontz said. But under the old laws it was much harder to get out of abusive marriages. In the five years following the change, states that adopted a no-fault divorce law saw an 8 to 20 percent decline in wives committing suicide and a 30 percent drop in domestic violence, Coontz said.
Today women and men have equal rights within a marriage and the right to end a marriage. Women can make their own money and men have enough domestic skills to get by without a wife.
“Now we have to negotiate a marriage between people who are actually equal, who have much higher expectations of love and fidelity and commitment than ever before in history and who are not held together by coercion or the inability to exist alone,” she said. “That’s a challenge.”
It’s fine to miss things about the past, but the people best able to negotiate the present are the ones who “reject one-dimensional memories” and understand the tradeoffs.
For example, in her research Coontz interviewed “white people who recognized that their happy memories of childhood included a black housekeeper who was always available to them, and so couldn’t be available to their own families.”
As adults they recognized the injustice of that arrangement.
Society faces a lot of problems, but it won’t solve them by believing everything was better way back when. “That sort of thinking leads to anger, scapegoating, paranoia,” Coontz said.