Those “good old days” never existed.

August 22, 2006 | By | 11 Replies More

The conservative right loves to use the term “family values” as a token cover for their backward bigotry. Used in opposition to abortion, gay rights, or even the increase of women in the workplace, “family values” summons a particular image of the conservatives’ imaginary era of perfection and bliss.

Many people refer to this image as a real time, probably somewhere in the 1950’s; “the good old days” when men worked to support their families, women stayed happily in the home with the children, no one divorced, and no children ran off to live renegade alternative lifestyles tainted with wanton sodomy, teen pregnancy, or drug abuse.

We may have even heard older people reminisce about “the good old days” in terms that make the time seem authentically wonderful: “no one locked their doors”; “neighbors looked after each other”; “marriage meant something back then”; “it was a simpler time”, and so on.

Even if we don’t buy into the conservative agenda against basic equal rights, we may concede that the world has become a much more frightening, complicated place, and that a time period such as the allusive 1950’s seems preferable, even tantalizing.

Unfortunately, no amount of regressive activism on the part of Republicans can return us to a grander time, because those “good old days” simply never existed. I like comedian Lewis Black’s take on the shiny 1950’s ideal:

“It was called the ‘50s. The wife cooked and raised the kids and sent the husband off to work, where he sat every day behind that desk, day in and day out, his soul being sucked from his body; while his wife, stuck at home and so sick of her daily chores that she slowly became addicted to primitive antidepressants, sat hoping against hope Jim wasn’t drunk again when he came home. It almost seems too good to be true.[italics added]”

Of course, the rantings of a comedian hardly prove my point. But as sociologist Stephanie Coontz writes in her book, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Black has fairly accurate assertions.

Let’s begin with the notion that marriage had sanctity in the 1950’s. Coontz writes that the percentage of women over 18 who find themselves not currently married hovers around 20%, a percentage which has held since 1900. In truth, single parenthood has increased, but this hasn’t led to generations of renegade youth that engage in unsafe sex, drugs, and crime: teen pregnancies and violent crime have both dropped to the lowest records since the Justice Department began keeping tabs on such figures in the early 1970’s.

With the decrease in “traditional homes”, supposedly a cornerstone to stable judgment and morality, shouldn’t we see youth elbow-deep in the United States’ underworld?

Next, let’s look at the celebrated image of the stay-at-home mom. Contemporary wisdom tells us that parents spend less and less precious time with their children, and that this destroys the fabric of the “family”. Wrong, says Coontz. The claim that the time parents spend with their children has notably declined in recent decades comes from a 1999 report by Time magazine that Coontz and a score of other writers have since debunked. And prior to the 1950’s, society considered it perfectly normal for children to spend most of their formative years unsupervised, so the importance of a closely-knit nuclear family seems a recent invention.

Furthermore, having a mother figure stay-at-home doesn’t necessarily result in better-raised children. Coontz explains:

“Research demonstrates that telling a woman to give up work she wants to engage in “for the sake of the kids” is precisely the wrong advice, as maternal depression interferes with effective parenting far more than maternal employment.”

Essentially, if a woman would like to become a full-time parent, it serves her best to stay at home, but if she would rather maintain her career, she should do so. And what of Lewis Black’s image of the embittered, drug-addicted housewife? As it turns out, he has a surprisingly sharp understanding of the stress faced by a 1950’s domestic engineer. Gender roles of the time demanded a Stepford-Wives-esque domestic goddess who could effortlessly balance childcare and household duties with sexual devotion to her husband, all managed with a perky attitude and broad smile. Coontz writes:

“The hybrid idea that a woman can be fully absorbed with her youngsters while simultaneously maintaining passionate sexual excitement with her husband was a 1950’s invention that drove thousands of women to therapists, tranquilizers, or alcohol when the actually tried to live up to it.”

And the hopeless husband who comes home “drunk again” in Black’s caricature? It has a shade of reality in its roots, too. A few delusional idealists look back to previous decades as a time “when women were respected”; pampered and provided for by the man of the house. That sugar-coated perspective neglects the higher rates of spousal abuse in the period. According to the Washington DC Center for Social Policy, police and social service agencies frequently looked the other way while men abused their wives during the ‘50s and beyond, and spousal rape persisted as a perfectly legal practice until the mid ‘70s. That hardly sounds like a golden age of wedded ecstacy.

This cursory coverage of the difference between our concept of the “good old days” and its much crueler reality fails to fully address the issues at hand. I highly suggest Coontz’s book for a more in-depth look at the other fallacies of the ‘50s: success and individualism, strong moral centers, crime-free neighborhoods, and numerous others. And when next you feel tempted to idolize another time or place, remember that our perceptions of perfection often stray far from fact, and we become distracted with a grass-is-greener mentality.


Tags: , , , , ,

Category: American Culture, Culture, History, Reading - Books and Magazines, Recommended Reading/Films/Sites, Statistics, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (11)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I think of the 50's as a time when society was more orderly, yes, but only on television and only as a result of massive repression and discrimination. I can't imagine going back to the type of society enabled by rampant bigotry against blacks, women, gays and immigrants, bigotry so widely accepted and yet so rarely discussed.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Indeed, the phrase "family values" is one of those deliberately undefined phrases that social conservatives invented to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. It joins ranks with equally undefined phrases — such as "war on terrorism," "victory in Iraq," "making America safer," "protecting marriage," "compassionate conservative," "pro-life," etc. — with which they whitewash over their bigoted and destructive beliefs. Why some people (most of whom seem to be Republicans) have such a love affair with these euphemistic slogans is obvious: who wants to admit they're a bigot? Much easier on the psyche to say they are "pro-family" than to say they are misogynistic or racist. Much better to say they are "declaring war on terrorism" than to say they are lying to America to grab political power and raid the public treasury.

    As Erika says, the "good old days" is another example. This phrase appeals to people who long for the days when Americans were financially prosperous, wildly optimistic about the future…and deeply segregated. When I say "segregated," I don't just mean separation of the races. America in the 1950s had very clear lines between the sexes, between ethnic groups, between financial strata, etc. American society was highly compartmentalized and everyone "knew his place" in the hierarchy. In particular, everyone knew that wealthy white men (and their well-kept wives) were at the top of the hierarchy, which is perhaps why so many wealthy white men (and their well-kept wives) are leading the charge to return to those days. Are you listening, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, George Bush…?

    Unfortunately, human memory being what it is (i.e., strongly biased in favor of remembering the good and forgetting the unpleasant), today's view of the '50s is a gross distortion of what it actually was. For example, while America had far fewer problems with drug abuse than today, it still had significant problems with alcohol abuse, smoking, unprotected sex, unwanted pregnancies, unhappy marriages, etc. Also — and here's where the conservative right conveniently looks the other way — America had a much smaller gap between its rich and its poor. Unlike today, anyone with a high school education could get a good-paying middle-class job, buy a nice house in the suburbs, and raise a family with the wife at home. However, those days are obviously gone and they are never coming back, which makes the dreamy desire for the "good old days" just another romantic fantasy — right up there with the "good old days" when women wore ankle-length outfits to the beach and had no right to vote, or the "good old days" when plantation owners could buy and sell slaves. Every generation has had its "good old days," and, in every case, what was "good" had very little to do with reality and very much to do with who was doing the talking.

  3. Jason Rayl says:

    Television. They put Beaver Cleaver's mom on the air and held it up as a standard to which we were all supposed to live up. Likewise Ozzie and Harriet. When it clearly didn't work, they held up the mirror to show us the "failures" in living color and made us feel like a nation of self-indulgent neurotics. Now we have "reality tv" which suggests that everyone is out for their own sake and will stab our best friend in the back for the prize at the end of the show.

    Feminists railed against Playboy in the 70s and 80s for holding up a female standard no one could live up to. But frankly, if one read the articles (instead of "just" looking at the pictures) Playboy strongly urged people to drop the false standards of the uptight 50s image and learn to relax, pursue your bliss, and stop being so damn negative about ones own desires.

    Point being, we have gotten into the habit of picking an Image, failing to achieve it, and then bitching endlessly about how unfair the Image is.

    Television. "Buy our product and you too can be as cool, calm, sexy, together, and successful as these ficitonal characters."

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    Jason's comment about television's fictional coolness reminds me of a question that's been kicking around my thoughts for a while: did significant numbers of women have eating disorders (e.g., anorexia) before television (or Playboy magazine) created such narrow (no pun intended) standards of female appearance?

  5. hogiemo says:

    Folks, it's not the 1950's the Republican right wants back but, the 1850's.

    Big Oil, corporations and trusts ran the politics of the country and dictated what wages, hours and conditions we worked and hand-picked our leaders.

    We fought wars against petty opponents for false reasons and established overseas colonies to exploit resources there.

    The press was a tool of the rich and fomented the wars by ceaselessly and uncritically repeating and "reporting" the lies of the rich and the government, or just making things up.

    There were no income, estate and capital gains taxes on the rich and their assets which they were free to devolve upon their scions so as to maintain hereditary powers and privileges, and force the rest of us to pay for their protection.

    If you didn't agree with all of the above, you were "anti-American", a "socialist" and "unpatriotic", a "seditionist" and were unprotected from unreasonable searches and seizures of your person, effects or homes. The Courts did not require you to have access to an attorney or even to be tried in an open court, assisted by competent counsel of your choosing, or any attorney at all.

    Slaves and their families were forced into small communities in marginal areas of the economy and completely unprotected from the harsh elements by their masters (especially in the South).

    Oh, yes! The Right wants the '50s back but, it's the 1850s! And it's 1850 all over again, already.

  6. Jason Rayl says:

    The only part of Hogiemo's observation that would be a problem is that in the 1850s there was no air conditioning and no stretch limos. The internal combustion engine is integral to the far right's rehabilitation program.

    Other than that, I concur.

  7. Erika Price says:

    I think the conservatives would like an amalgamation of the two- the rampant, unchecked industry of the 1850's, and the oppressive social hierarchy and creature comforts of the 1950's. They certianly still threw around the "socialist"/ "Anti-American" insults in the 1950's, too, except that the red scare had perhaps made it even worse.

  8. Jason Rayl says:

    In the 1850s the country was in the grip of a depresion and the Irish were coming in by the thousands. No red scare, but the same old job-threat immigration scare.

  9. grumpypilgrim says:

    When I read the first sentence of hogiemo's comment, I thought it was just hyperbole to suggest that today's right-wing activists want the "good old days" of the 1850s, but as I read further I saw that hogiemo's analysis is both insightful and well-reasoned. Bravo!

  10. The Serious Truth says:

    Well i would certainly say the Good old days were the Best of all since there was a lot less Tragic events that we have now that we Didn’t have back then.

  11. Oh Yes It Did says:

    Well as far as meeting women which they were certainly so much nicer to meet compared to the women of today.

Leave a Reply