Judith Stacey, Barbra Streisand Professor of Contemporary Gender Studies at the University of Southern California and author of Brave New Families: Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late Twentieth Century America (Basic, 1990) and In the Name of the Family (Beacon, 1996).
Stacey notes a new front in the culture wars: namely, "the use of social science research to 'prove' that the 1950s family was superior." In her view, "the best antidote to this sort of thing is not necessarily more social science but an immersion in the lived values of actual families." Her favorite example is California novelist Carolyn See's memoir Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America (California, 1996). "It gives you a thick description of the worst sort of family problems: alcoholism, physical abuse, abandonment, suicide. But at the same time there are incredible moments of heroism and even a happy ending, driven by improbable levels of love and attachment--real-life family values. Another book I just love is a little anthology of personal essays called Sister and Brother, by Joan Nestle (HarperCollins, 1995). In documenting the flourishing creativity of self-conscious gay and lesbian 'family groups,' Nestle reveals lots of triumph over all these circumstances that are supposed to ruin your life."
Shirley Burggraf, professor of economics at Florida A&M University and author of The Feminine Economy and Economic Man (Addison-Wesley, 1997).
"The book I have found most interesting lately is Taxing Women, by Edward J. McCaffery (Chicago, 1997). Although its focus is on various forms of gender bias in the tax system, it might have been titled 'Taxing Families, Especially Working Families.' McCaffery outlines many ways in which our tax system has been allowed to shift against families to a shocking degree. Tax breaks for families, such as the earned income tax credit and the $400-per-child tax credit included in the recent federal budget agreement, are small change compared with the financial squeeze that our federal, state, and local tax systems have collectively put on families. While political rhetoric supports family values, and commentators are mystified about what has happened to the family in recent decades, McCaffery demonstrates very clearly that, where tax policy is concerned, we have become an anti-family society."
Dana Heller, professor of English at Old Dominion University and author of Family Plots: The De-Oedipalization of Popular Culture (Pennsylvania, 1995).
"Lynn Spigel's Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago, 1992) is a careful documentation of the integration of television into the structures and conventions of American family life. As insightful as it is readable, Spigel's work demonstrates that contemporary conflicts over gender, social relations, and the status of the family were both produced and policed by the mass marketing that early television technology made possible." Heller also recommends Jacques Donzelot's The Policing of Families (Johns Hopkins, 1997), "a rigorous analysis of the Western bourgeois family that locates its origin not with the family patriarch but with the patriarchal state. Although originally published in 1979, it remains an indispensable contribution to critical theory of the family--and an excellent complement to Spigel's emphasis on the family as a site of struggle over the shifting boundaries of private and public space."
Kath Weston, visiting scholar in women's studies at Harvard University and author of Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship (Columbia, 1991) and Render Me, Gender Me: Lesbians Talk Sex, Class, Color, Nation, Studmuffins... (Columbia, 1996).
"Sift through recent writing on 'the family' and you'll come away with books about change. In Reproducing the Future: Essays on Anthropology, Kinship, and the New Reproductive Technologies (Routledge, 1992), Marilyn Strathern masterfully links changes in kinship practices to larger questions: the fate of individualism, the meaning of culture in a global economy, the fashioning of new relationships from the ingenuities of the old. Some of the most provocative work comes from unexpected sources. Fenton Johnson's compelling memoir, Geography of the Heart (Scribner, 1996), recounts how he, the son of distillery workers from Kentucky hill country, and his lover, the California-bred son of Holocaust survivors, recreated themselves as family in the shadow of AIDS. Larry Siems's Between the Lines (Ecco, 1992) is a lightly edited collection of letters between undocumented foreign workers and their families. Readers of this volume will find it difficult to sit quietly through the next public policy debate on immigration."
Linda J. Waite, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and co-author of New Families, No Families?: The Transformation of the American Home (California, 1991).
"The best new books on the family," Waite says, "begin with 'established' facts and then show them to be false--or at least complicated. Susan Mayer began What Money Can't Buy: Family Income and Children's Life Chances (Harvard, 1997) with the belief that poor children achieve less than other children primarily because their families lack money. To her surprise, her research convinced her that money alone does not buy material or psychological well-being for children. The personal characteristics of parents and the choices they make are more important."
Steven Mintz, professor of history at the University of Houston, co-author of Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (Free Press, 1980) and author of Moralists & Modernizers: America's PreCivil War Reformers (Johns Hopkins, 1995).
"When Americans agonize over the family, their preeminent concern is children's well-being: How do children fare today compared to in the past? Not badly, says Donald J. Hernandez, who, in America's Children (Russell Sage Foundation, 1993), deploys rigorous analysis of census data to debunk myths that the 1950s were a golden age for most families and that family disruption, single parenthood, and teenage pregnancy increased dramatically after 1960. And at a time when many pundits overstate and oversimplify the problems children face when parents separate, Christy M. Buchanan, Eleanor E. Maccoby, and Sanford M. Dornbusch's Adolescents After Divorce (Harvard, 1997) offers a remarkably balanced assessment of divorce's psychological consequences and suggests concrete ways to enhance children's adjustment. Both books demonstrate how the young have thrived and suffered within a variety of family arrangements and that the simplest way to promote healthy growth is to provide children with financially secure home environments."
Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College and author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (Basic, 1992) and The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families (Basic, 1997).
"As I discuss family issues with audiences across the country, I find myself more and more grateful for Judith Stacey's Brave New Families (Basic, 1990) and Lillian Rubin's Families on the Fault Line (HarperCollins, 1994). Contrary to conservative wishful thinking, Stacey's and Rubin's fieldwork demonstrates that changing gender roles and untraditional 'family values' are here to stay: They are not merely the 'lifestyle' choices of irresponsible elites or of youth who've watched the wrong TV shows and listened to the wrong music. Furthermore, Stacey and Rubin show that the ambivalence these new family realities evoke among more conservative working people does not always stem from knee-jerk racism or sexism. Rather, such discomfort often reflects honest struggles to find leverage in a rapidly changing global economy and culture in which most working men's real wages and job security have fallen, most working women never even have a chance to bump into a glass ceiling, and parents agonize about both the declining job prospects and the expanding consumer choices that confront their kids."
Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard University and author most recently of Doing Documentary Work (Oxford, 1997) and The Youngest Parents (Norton, 1997).
Coles is another social scientist who isn't sure social science is the best way to capture the texture of family life. "In contrast," he says, "storytelling allows for a spaciousness about our day-to-day existence." He recommends Joan Brady's novel Theory of War (Fawcett, 1994). "The writer draws on the story of a real family--her own--to look at how 'slavery' (that of a white boy, no less, 'sold' after the Civil War) affects a family's life. Brady relies on the documentary tradition (she interviewed her uncle), yet she works it into a compelling narrative that sheds light on the way memories of childhood experiences give shape to our family life over the years. Her mix of literal truth and imaginative renderings of what happens in her characters' minds is both edifying and suggestive--in contrast to the theoretical mode (with its categorical insistence) that dominates so many of our current discussions of family life."
Are there any great books you think we missed? Let us know.