YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

PERSPECTIVE ON VALUES : There's 'Family' at the Microwave : Nostalgia masks a wish for women--but not men--to be bound by old conventions, from bedroom to kitchen.

August 09, 1992|ARLENE SKOLNICK | Arlene Skolnick is the author of "Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty" (Basic Books, 1991) and is a research psychologist at UC Berkeley's Institute of Human Development

Republicans have turned worry over the changing family into high-octane political fuel. Invoking "family values" to justify proposals ranging from banning abortion to restoring prayer in school, conservatives gained power in the early 1980s promising to lead a return to the "traditional" family of the 1950s. Fantastic as it now seems, they actually believed that "family values" had the magic to make women stay home, slash divorce rates and return sex to the confines of marriage.

Instead, the Reagan-Bush politics of nostalgia ushered in more than a decade of national neglect of the real problems facing American families. Anyone who argued that we can't turn the clock back, that we need as a society to come to grips with the new realities of family life, was branded as anti-family. One current Republican senatorial candidate--Rich Williamson of Illinois--has even denounced McDonald's and microwave cooking as anti-family.

Conservative rhetoric wouldn't be so bad if it was just hot air, but it has real consequences. For the past 12 years, while every other advanced industrial society has been making pragmatic adjustments to the needs of today's families, America has been backing into the future, lamenting the "lost" families of the 1950s. Instead of debating the merits of Murphy Brown or the Waltons vs. the Simpsons, we should be discussing how to help families cope with the real problems of family life in the 1990s--the need to have two or more incomes to make ends meet, the unaffordability of housing and health care, the inadequacy of child care, the spread of Depression-era conditions, the disgraceful number of children living in poverty.

The nostalgia part of conservative rhetoric--the part that's not just mean and divisive--speaks to the deep yearnings that most Americans feel when they see images of happy families in TV commercials or reruns of Ozzie and Harriet. But in our hearts, most of us know that there's a gap between those images and reality. Even back then, most American families didn't resemble the Nelsons.

Even Dan and Marilyn Quayle seem to know in their hearts that things have changed. More interesting than their responses when asked what they would do if their daughter became pregnant is what they did not say: Neither said that it was unthinkable that their daughter, reared in a home presumably infused with family values--a "Christian home," as her mother described it--could become pregnant before marriage.

Yet the Quayles, like many other Americans who want to bring us back to a time when chastity was the professed norm, are realists despite themselves. They perceive--correctly, as it turns out--two things, even if they won't admit it. They understand that parents and educators can't always control kids. They also understand that the norms have changed: Although a significant minority of brides and grooms still come to the altar as virgins, the vast majority are not.

There is another significant change that is seldom noted: In Ozzie and Harriet days, departures from the norm were tolerated in men, but "nice girls" who were no longer virgins had to keep up the appearance of being chaste.

Faced with some of the troubling fallout of the sexual revolution--sexually transmitted disease and teen-age pregnancy--it's little wonder than many Americans want to believe that if only we "just say no," we can do away with premarital sex. But historically, men have always resisted chastity norms for themselves. And 1990s women won't go back to the double standard.

Ultimately, the shift in sex norms and women's roles, like the other changes in family life, are rooted in basic social and technological transformations. Development of The Pill in the 1960s enabled women to plan their pregnancies and separated sex from procreation. A post-industrial service and information economy drew women into the workplace, granting them greater economic independence. A technological world demanded more educated men and women, and education encouraged critical thinking about society's ways.

We have not yet come to terms with the meaning of these shifts. We seem stuck in an era of transition, unable to go back to the old patterns, uncomfortable with the new. Still, marriage and family remain central in the lives of virtually all Americans, even if family togetherness at dinner time means taking the kids to McDonald's or cooking in the microwave.

The "family values" battle is no longer about the family, if it ever was. It is about the role of women in society, about diversity in the definition of "family," and about how much choice we permit in the most fateful decision a woman can make.

How ironic that the Quayles reflect different visions of family values. If her daughter became pregnant, Marilyn would force the 13-year-old to bear a child. Dan says he would support his daughter's choice. If reality and compassion can triumph over ideology even in the Quayle family, maybe there's hope after all.

Los Angeles Times Articles