Misreading the Facts about Families

Brave New Families
Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late-Twentieth-Century America
Judith Stacey
Basic Books, $26.95, 321 pp.

Judith Stacey wants to convince us that feminism is not a movement of upper-middle-class women alone and that working-class women, indeed, are the “genuine postmodern family pioneers.” The “diversity and the innovative character of many working-class kin relationships”--the prevalence of extended families, blended families, and single-parent households--belie the “Archie Bunker” stereotype, according to Stacey. Wrongly condemned (or celebrated) as “profamily reactionaries,” working-class women have shouldered the “burdens of freedom” and begun to devise “creative strategies” for dealing with the collapse of the nuclear family. Even if they do not always identify themselves as feminists, they have absorbed feminist ideas and are experimenting with “alternative models of femininity.” Their success in “actively remaking family life” should reassure those who have been taken in by the “popular lament over family decline.” The “modem” family may be declining (since it is no longer possible for most husbands to support a wife who stays at home with the children), but the “postmodern,” “recombinant” family that is taking its place is a more democratic institution, far more deserving of our support.

On the face of it, Stacey’s research does not lend much support to these cheery conclusions. Her resistance to the implications of her own evidence--her determination to rescue from the evidence support for the ideological preconceptions with which she began--is the real story here, more exciting than “stories of domestic upheaval.” She studied two women in Silicon Valley, their families, and their friends. One of these women had to cope with divorce, a rocky second marriage, and three difficult children with marital troubles of their own. The other endured a whole series of calamities. Her violent marriage several times approached the point of collapse until it ended, after a reconciliation, in the untimely death of her husband. Her eldest son died in an auto crash; the youngest is a drug addict and dealer who has spent a good deal of time in jail. One of her three daughters attempted suicide after she discovered that her husband, a heavy drug-user, alcoholic, and part-time criminal by whom she had four children in rapid succession, was seeing another woman. She died of cancer in her twenties. Another daughter, a high school dropout, became an unwed mother at an early age, married and divorced another man who beat her (as her father had beaten her mother), and separated from her second husband--an amiable but lazy fellow (a “postfeminist man,” in Stacey’s euphemistic formulation) who was quite happy to stay home while she supported the family--when he tried to undermine her son’s faith in God.

As Stacey writes, “most of the Lewisons lived hard, drove fast, spent impulsively, and partook liberally of high-risk diets, tobacco, alcohol, and often, drugs. Their leisure time preferences--gambling, flirting, racing, shooting--reflected and reinforced the provocative and ambivalent character of their relationship to social stability.” In plain English, these people live on the edge. They exemplify, in exaggerated form, the impulsive and self-destructive tendencies that are always present in working-class life: an inability or refusal to plan ahead or save or hold a steady job; a fatalism that often seems to go hand-in-hand with a desperate need to tempt fate, to face it down; hot-tempered violence; ill-advised sexual attractions that dissolve in recriminations; and all the other habits that have always horrified middle-class observers of working-class culture.

People like the Lewisons find a steadying influence--insofar as they find anything to cling to at all--in the extended family (even though family connections are at the same time an endless source of conflict) and in the church. Both of the principal women in Stacey’s book are fundamentalist Christians, as are many other members of both families. It says a great deal about the role of religion in these people’s lives that the Lewisons left the Universal Temple of the Spirit, an unconventional, nondenominational sect, and returned to their Methodist congregation when the minister of the Universal Temple failed to show enough appreciation of the family’s grief over the death of their son. The Lewisons look to the church for comfort, and they have no patience with churches that fail to provide it.

The exuberance and pathos of working-class culture, on the margins where the wish for respectability is repeatedly thwarted and finally almost extinguished both by circumstances and by reckless, willful invitations to disaster, is a familiar story, as is the mingled warmth and frustration experienced in the extended family. There is nothing strikingly “postmodern” about these families. Stacey herself, struggling for a formula, admits that “the diversity and complexity of postmodern family patterns rivals [sic] that characteristic of premodern kinship forms.” But what is gained, then, by calling these patterns “postmodern,” “postfeminist,” or “postindustrial”? The last of these labels might at least have the merit of calling attention to the deindustrialization of America (as it is more fittingly referred to), which can be expected to add to the economic difficulties that force people to turn to extended families for mutual aid; but the others have no merit of any kind, as far as I can see.

Stacey’s data show that working-class women, as always, have trouble holding their families together in times of economic hardship; that they have to contribute to the family’s support and even, at times, to assume the full burden of that support; that their experiences with men are not likely to foster romantic illusions about the opposite sex; that they often express damning views of patriarchy which would be the envy of upper-middle-class feminists; that they find it difficult to assume the role of wifely submission (even though many of them covet that role); that they often seek emotional and material support from friends and relatives instead of expecting the nuclear family to provide for all their needs; and that they also seek such support, above all, in religion.

Only an ideology resistant to the unwelcome challenge of experience can find “democratic opportunity” in this unrelenting record of downward mobility, economic and emotional devastation, and domestic improvisation. On the most favorable reading of the evidence, it establishes the continuing importance of long-term, unconditional commitments--to God, to husbands or wives--in the efforts of hard-pressed people to assume responsibility for their lives. The same evidence reminds us, however--on a more unfavorable reading--that such commitments are harder than ever to sustain in a world full of economic uncertainty, drugs, and cynicism. The one reading the evidence cannot possibly support is that working-class women are pioneers of the “postmodern” family.

The ideology that sustains this bizarre “finding” rests on three assumptions. The first is that industrialism isolated the family from the world of work and forced women into the confining role of full-time housewives. This familiar view of the family’s history underestimates the degree to which even middle-class women led active lives outside the family, long after the advent of industrialism, as volunteers in charitable, philanthropic, and religious organizations--in the case of working-class women, as wage-earners as well. It also underestimates the family’s historic dependence on supporting networks of relatives, friends, and neighbors. The “isolated nuclear family” is a sociological abstraction that never had much empirical substance until the mass migration to the suburbs, after World War II, broke up the old support systems and made it possible for women to devote themselves, for a time, exclusively to domesticity. Working-class women, as Stacey herself recognizes, attained “this long-denied status” just as it was becoming unfashionable, and economic pressures, in any case, soon forced them back into the labor force. According to recent polls, most of them would prefer to stay at home; and it is questionable, therefore, whether the circumstances that oblige them to work for wages are experienced as liberating in their effects. Wage labor is hardly a recent innovation for working-class women, nor does it provide the only escape from full-time domesticity.

A second assumption, that feminism is the only source of self-respect in women, flows from the first. If the “cult of domesticity” required women to be clinging and submissive, the feminist movement that began in the sixties has finally taught women, presumably, to be strong and self-reliant. Quite apart from the difficulty that feminism itself has a long history, it is clearly absurd to suppose that earlier generations of women, because they did not have access to current insights into the “social construction of gender,” deferred mindlessly to men or wore helplessness as a badge of honor. This libel on our mothers and grandmothers seems to derive largely from the media, which have given currency to an abstract image of the “traditional” family that finds little support in the historical record. Stacey notes that “the world’s first generation of childhood television-viewers grew up, as I did, inundated by such weekly paeans to the male breadwinner nuclear household and modem family ideology as Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and Ozzie and Harriet." No doubt such programs helped to generate a certain “nostalgia” for a type of family life that never existed, as Stacey argues; but they also generated an equally a historical contempt for the benighted women in past times who could not grasp the essence of patriarchical oppression, alas, because they had no exposure to “gender studies.”

Because Stacey assumes that profamily values are antifeminist by definition, she is repeatedly surprised to find evangelical Christians insisting, for example, that men and women are “equal with God” or that the husband’s “headship” of the family does not entitle him to “rule over” his wife, as one of them puts it, but rather to “serve [her] with love and respect.” Whenever Stacey encounters such opinions, she describes them as “surprisingly feminized, even protofeminist, doctrines.” But” doctrines” have nothing to do with it. One does not have to be a feminist in order to admire strong women, to see through male pretensions of superiority, or to assume responsibility for one’s own life.

One of the women interviewed by Stacey, citing pride in her mother as an important influence on her own desire for independence, says: “I don’t really know what a feminist is, but I like to take charge of my life, try to be the best in whatever I’m doing. I don’t know if that’s a feminist or what.” Stacey is sure that it is and is therefore puzzled to find that working-class “feminism” can coexist with a belief in the importance of “absolute commitment in marriage,” in the words of another informant. For Stacey, such commitments can only be described as a “retreat” from the “arena of postmodern gender and family reform.”

Religion, likewise, looks like a “retreat from rationalism and secularism,” from Stacey’s point of view. The third assumption that dominates and distorts her thinking is that religion interferes with a proper understanding of the world and perpetuates old patterns of domination and dependence. She quotes from her field’ notes: “I can understand the appeal of such beliefs, but I really can’t comprehend how people actually believe this stuff. And on some deep level it depresses and disturbs me that they do.” This at least has the virtue of honesty, but it shows a limited understanding even of the “appeal” of religion its “seductive power,” as she puts it elsewhere.

Religion is not just a refuge, a means of security in a troubled world. It is also a challenge to self-pity and despair--temptations common to all of us, but especially to those born into the wrong social class. Victims of social injustice find it easy to blame everything on systematic oppression--capitalism, patriarchy, racism, the “system” in general. There is value in this way of thinking, if it encourages cooperative resistance to exploitation; but it is also debilitating insofar as it serves merely as an excuse for disclaiming any responsibility for oneself.

Submission to God makes people less submissive in everyday life. It makes them less fearful but also less bitter and resentful, less inclined to make excuses for themselves. Modem social movements, on the other hand, tend to prey on resentment. They aim to make victims acutely aware of their victimization. They distrust any understanding that would seem to “blame the victim.” In this way they discourage the assumption of personal responsibility; and then their adherents are “disturbed” and “depressed” when people turn to religion instead!

Related: Historian, Critic, Prophet: Christopher Lasch & the American Predicament,
by Casey Nelson Blake



About the Author

Christopher Lasch (1932-1994), who taught at the University of Iowa and the University of Rochester, was a historian and social critic.