Something of a debate is afoot: Are nuclear families a good idea? Do they work in 21st Century America?
David Brooks, in a provocatively-titled Atlantic magazine piece, argues that “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake“. He recognizes the utility of the extended family, which predates the nuclear variety, but points out that “while extended families have strengths, they can also be exhausting and stifling.” Conversely, he observes, “family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmented into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.”
Brooks goes on to argue in favor of “forged families” — meaning people who voluntarily adopt the roles of extended family even though they are not biologically related. Brooks’ piece, while a worthy read, raises more questions than answers. For one, is it not more typical for conservatives to raise concerns over the state of American families? What would prompt a liberal journalist, however obliquely, to critique the impact of individualism on society?
And why now?
While mulling this question over, I decided to revisit aspects of history I recall studying in college. I watched the Amazon Prime documentary “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry“, which depicts the way in which women of the 1960s began to redefine roles within the family and the workplace.
While there is great value in the first-person recollections of the women who helped raise the nation’s consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, I am struck by a question only a post-baby boomer would likely ask: In an era dominated by Greatest Generation Americans, how did a movement of this kind achieve critical mass — devoid not only of social media but beholden to a national media bound to an FCC-mandated fairness doctrine? This, of course, begs another question: Are we correct to attribute second-wave feminism to entirely organic (spontaneous) causes? The documentary acknowledges, for example, that J. Edgar Hoover planted informants in women’s consciousness-raising groups. What is less clear is at what stage government involvement occurred. That matters because the “when” and the “why” may very well be informed by a history we have yet to fully explore. (To that end, the documentary scarcely touches upon Gloria Steinem’s pivotal role in the feminist movement and her self-admitted associations with a CIA front group.)
It is said that history is written by the victors. In this case, the victors consist of self-described student radicals, most of whom are well into their Golden Years. But there is another history this documentary doesn’t touch upon — that of the post-World War II period: the Cold War, Korean and Vietnam war era. It’s a glaring omission that that circumscribes this documentary to the anecdotal recollections of long-ago activists.
It cannot be stressed enough that the Cold War was not merely an arms race or a tale of two competing ideologies. The stakes were far higher: freedom vs. tyranny; mutually-assured destruction vs. prosperity; patriotism vs. sedition. However it is remembered, it was a time of, by and for the politics of patriarchy. When President Nixon vetoed a bill in 1971 that would have granted the pro-family policies the women’s liberation movement championed, his explanation reflects Cold War chauvinism as much as it reflects upon stereotypical gender-role expectations of the time. Similarly, the contrasting roles of Soviet and American women appear to have been propagandist ploys as much as anything.
If this kind of bravado occurred in the open, what kind of behind-the-scenes social engineering efforts went into winning the Cold War on the home front?
In the documentary, a leader of the 1960s women’s movement relates — still with an apparent sense of awe — that women’s consciousness groups arose “spontaneously” around the country. For a country that was still decades removed from social media, is this not curious? Is there any research to suggest that the timeline of government efforts to monitor, if not influence, activist groups occurred well after such movements caught on? Has anyone within the journalism sphere, for that matter, pursued Freedom Of Information Act requests to explore whether the government played a direct, if not lesser-appreciated, role?
Having come of age during the 1980s at the height of the crack epidemic, yuppie culture, latchkey kid debates, urban gang proliferation and the tail end of the nuclear arms race, my sense is that early second-wave activists who credit themselves with continuing where Suffrage left off seem to miss the fact that, far from being non-beneficiaries of women’s liberation, men — and more specifically the federal government— were working to advance one overarching goal: Proving that the United States, and by extension Capitalism, was superior to that of the U.S.S.R. (Communism).
While political leaders of the era may have continued to pay lip service to the traditional roles of women, there was only so far the image of American nuclear family bliss could go in the hands of “happy homemakers“. The effort to defeat Communism, after all, was also cultural and economic. The Soviets, for their part, actively worked to project cosmopolitan values, in which female labor was a man’s equal (or so the propaganda maintained). Soviet women’s children were supported by collectivist programs even as American women and children were not. Machismo undoubtedly shaped American foreign policy and that, in turn, dovetailed with key aspects of second-wave feminism. Conversely, less masculine aspects of the movement, such as access to universal childcare, floundered then and continue largely unchanged today.
Why might that be?
Could the thinking have been — if not explicitly, tacitly — that while less robust Soviet citizens might require Marxist concessions to secure their cooperation, Capitalists are a tougher, more independent, patriotic and industrious lot? Might this explain why aspects of the women’s liberation movement, such as labor force participation, succeeded in changing expectations and norms, whereas efforts to confront domestic inequality and to alleviate racial inequality, among other burdens that continue to fall disproportionately upon women, have been less successful?
The support garnered in 2016 and 2020 by a self-professed democratic socialist, presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, reveals not just a desperation to unseat the current president but a declining belief in the merits of Capitalism. College-age women today still envision for themselves what women of an earlier generation sough: liberation. To a Millennial generation disproportionately raised by single and/or overworked dual-income parents, equality does not look like the gender-defined domestic roles one’s grandmother or great grandmother shouldered, a lifetime of student loan debt servitude or the seductive, if not disingenuous, women-can-have-it-all messaging of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s (loving marriage, fulfilling career and quality, if not quantity, time with the kids).
While second-wave feminism paved the way for women to pursue fulfilling careers, the law of unintended consequences was not far behind. Within two decades the conversation was less about choice and more about economic necessity. As household incomes began to rise as a result of women’s entry into the workforce, the buying power of a dollar began to slip. Despite surging numbers of dual-income households, financial security continues to elude many middle class households. What began as women’s choice translated, for too many families, into a man’s license to abandon his children. The result is that women have been left to juggle responsibilities they have been tasked with for hundreds, if not thousands of years — even as women are now socially and culturally obligated to demonstrate their worth to kin and country, alike, in a monetized manner.
Is this the “choice” our liberation-minded trailblazers promised?
Disillusionment with the nuclear family reflects a loss of faith in something else entirely. With the exception of the affluent, who can readily hire the help they need to strike a better work-life balance, middle class and working class women have been sold a bill of goods about “having it all”. In reality, something was bound give: the career; the marriage; non-work friendships; waning influence over the values of one’s own over-scheduled children; and, in the end, support for the nuclear family if not Capitalism itself.
Conservatives have long decried the unraveling of the nuclear family and, in some ways, their worst fears have been realized over the past 60-some years: By the 1980s, self-medicating yuppies and their latchkey adolescents had begun to fuel a demand for recreational drugs; gangs overtook the inner cities to deal to users — while disproportionately maiming and killing each other in the ensuing turf wars; addicts dropped out of the workforce and/or began to commit crimes in support of their addictions, contributing to mass incarceration and a still-proliferating homelessness crisis; violent crime rates hit new highs in the 1980s and 1990s, divorce rates climbed and, in a mea culpa that is just now beginning to make the rounds, Brooks’ assertion that the nuclear family was a mistake.
Is this chain of events purely a fluke?
Second-wave feminism did not occur in a vacuum. The U.S. was left with a sky-high bill for the cost of rebuilding Europe after WWII and for our subsequent commitment to NATO. Against a Cold War backdrop we pursued a costly nuclear arms buildup, sparking fears not only of a “hot war” but of ballooning deficits. In the span of only a few decades, the United States went from an isolationist foreign policy to one of unprecedented global responsibility, which demanded two things as a means to assure our national security interests: rapid economic growth and an increase in the tax base — meaning more working-age adults, male and female alike, in the labor market. Fast forward to the 21st Century, and women and children are still lacking in access to affordable childcare, healthcare and other quality (or equality) of life and family indicators one might expect in a First World country.
Against this backdrop, is it any surprise that the Millennial generation is inclined to believe that the only way to achieve a work-life balance is to challenge the Capitalist system their mothers and grandmothers worked so hard to participate in? Similarly, might falling marriage and birthrates among Millennials, first noted among Generation-X, who were themselves less financially secure than their parents, explain why politicians and pundits increasingly condemn efforts to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration? Do our leaders genuinely believe unsecured borders pose no terrorism risk or that limits to immigration carry xenophobic overtones — or is it the case, rather, that our deficit-riddled federal government would rather open the door to “pyramid scheme migration” than implement family-supportive policies that may serve, much as they have in socialist countries, to curb precipitous demographic declines?
If these observations are in any way prescient, they illustrate one of the most ironic, if not tragic, developments in the entirety of this Great Experiment: whereas the Soviet Union disbanded into a quasi-Capitalist Russian state, Americans are increasingly inclined to romanticize the greener grass on the other side of the socialist fence. To bring this full circle, we must ask a fundamental question: How historically certain are we that the second-wave women’s liberation movement was entirely grassroots in nature? For all that it ultimately came to represent in the 1970s and beyond, is it possible the U.S. government’s early efforts to gain the upper hand in the Cold War were so all-encompassing that it motivated policymakers — who were largely answerable to traditional values-driven voters — to disavow social engineering efforts that were too radical to endorse outright? Could this explain, in turn, why Steinem — who at the face of it might have been expected to be at odds with a male-dominated, hierarchical government — said of her relationship to the CIA, “In my experience The Agency was completely different from its image; it was liberal, nonviolent and honorable.”?
To reflect upon Steinem’s words, perhaps the radicalism-driven image we hold today obscures the Cold War-combating cooperation that existed in those days, in defiance to its apparent contradictions.
While it may be a bridge too far to assert, as some do, that second-wave feminism weakened the family unit and made more Americans dependent upon government for their welfare, there is no getting around the fact that Cold War posturing backed the United States and the former Soviet Union into ideological corners from which we have only recently begun to emerge. The question is, what does that emergence look like? Will it take the form of a more family-friendly version of Capitalism — or a wholesale exodus to a Socialist future in which economic growth, even more so than our European counterparts, is stifled by the impossible burden of over-ambitious entitlements we can ill afford to keep?
We now have seen two, if not three, generations of Americans faced with untenable choices: one in which they attain the education, career and financial stability necessary to support a family but are severely delayed if not denied the opportunity by virtue of a prolonged pursuit; the other in which life stages such as marriage and family are realized within traditional time frames, but all too often without the requisite skills and economic mobility to adequately sustain those choices. A generation of political leaders has done so little to address real-world domestic concerns — to include a wholesale failure to shore up the entitlements retiring baby boomers will soon deplete! — that Americans have been conditioned to expect inaction. Nonetheless, failed leadership has begun to extract a price: Faith in the Great Experiment itself.
A government in which top elected representatives spend their time appearing on Right vs. Left-wing media to shift blame is a government that is actively deflecting from its collective public policy failures.
How do we derive change from division, reform from partisan gridlock and pragmatic progress from ideological purity?
As American citizens, do we still believe, as our idealistic counterparts of the 1960s did, in the power of activism? Are reform efforts best served in an ideology-driven sociopolitical climate — with or without our current president to blame! — in which an ever-expanding federal government continues to serve every cause but our own?
Much like the 1960s, we are at a crossroads. We can plunge down the rabbit-hole to a post-nuclear family oblivion, polarized and unappreciative that our passions have been exploited, our energies redirected and our problems unchanged. We can bog down in the weeds of identity politics — conservative/liberal, male/female, black/white, they/them, majority/minority, secular/religious, Capitalism/Socialism. Alternately, we can identify the challenges we share in common as a means to evolve what is really at stake: a better work-life-opportunity balance.