Families as They Really Are

Reposted from Psychology Today

Americans live longer than ever before, with life expectancy increasing from 60 to 80 years of age over the 20th Century. Baby boomers are living what sociologist Phyllis Moen calls a Third Act, discovering new ways to experience healthy active years after retirement. With a rapid increase in life expectancy and rising expectations for the quality of life, baby boomers are forging new ways of aging. So what does this mean for sexuality? Are we beginning to see gender equality between the sheets among the aging boomers?

Remember, it was only 40 years ago that women were considered sexually obsolete after menopause (and, many times, even earlier). Men defined their virility by their ability to get and sustain an erection. Today these may seem like ridiculous calculators of age and sexual fitness as both culture and technology has changed the ways we think about sex and gender.

Boomers pioneered the Sexual Revolution of the ‘60s and yet, they did so after having been raised with the sexual script that men pursue and women submit. This permitted men to interpret an awkward “no, thank you” rejection as a possible “yes” in the making. Still, it was a radical shift in our cultural norms for men to be able to take a woman to bed before promising marriage and for women to seek sexual pleasure outside of relationships. After all, the one night stand of the boomer generation precluded the “hook-up culture” of today’s Millennials.

While much misogyny remained, and gender inequality is still a futuristic goal, the boomers did liberate sex from marriage and made the right to sexual pleasure a human right. Now, it appears that boomers must—once again—break the gender rules set by generations before them when it comes to sex after 50.

For men, erectile dysfunction or ED (an inability to get or maintain an erection) can feel emasculating although such physiological changes are actually explained by the biology of aging. Even with the advent of Viagra and Cialis, which are impressively effective at treating erectile issues, research suggests that some men still feel uncomfortable bringing up sexual difficulties with their doctors. And doctors, too, are reluctant to ask patients over 50 about their sexual health due to old stigmas surrounding sex later in life. Gender stereotypes that men are powerful, and always ready for sex, still haunt the boomer men who were raised in an era when talking about sexual problems held negative stigmas. We do see boomer men working around some of these stigmas though, for instance, many men are ordering ED meds via online prescribers like the popular Roman website.

For women, menopause is often cited as the primary culprit affecting their sexual lives. However, research finds that social and psychological factors such as emotional well-being and a strong emotional connection with one’s partner as well as positive body image may be more predictive of sexual activity later in life than the hormonal changes associated with menopause. That’s not to say age has no physiological impacts on sex for women; discomfort during sex due to less blood circulation in the genital area (reducing vaginal lubrication) is a biological factor that reduces sexual comfort during sexual intercourse in later life. Of course, technology, here too, can come to the rescue with products to increase lubrication and blood flow. In fact, many women find menopause liberating sexually because they no longer have to worry about pregnancy every time they have intercourse. Even more promising, most women who desire to remain sexually active as they age will do so, albeit with a bit more prepping.

The boomers want fulfilling relationships as they age and our culture is beginning to reflect this. Women in their 60’s and 70’s are now being cast in leading roles involving romantic and sexual relationships. Both Jane Fonda’s and Lily Tomlin’s characters in Netflix’s, Grace and Frankie have love affairs, and of course, so do their ex-husbands… with one another. What’s more, people over 50 are the fastest growing demographic of online daters. Indeed, women over 50 who date report frequent and satisfying sex and boomer men can usually find an intimate partner if they are in the market for one.

Boomers are by far the most sexually liberal generation of older adults that we’ve ever seen.  And by pushing against the pre-existing molds of what sex after 50 looks like, boomers are showing us that they want gender equality and sexual satisfaction between the sheets in their encore adulthood, the third act of their lives.

References

Risman, Barbara J, Carissa Froyum and William Scarborough (co-editors). 2018.  Handbook on the Sociology of Gender.  Springer Publishers.

Nicholas Velotta is a Freelance writer and graduate of the University of Washington, and can be contacted at ndvelotta@icloud.com. Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.

A new article published in Journal of Marriage and Family examines the relationship of cohabitation and divorce, and claims that recent research that finds that premarital cohabitation does not impact divorce rates is incorrect. They find that in the first year of marriage, premarital cohabitation is associated with lower divorce rates compared to those who directly marry (because those who would have divorced quickly are filtered out by premarital cohabitation), but that afterwards premarital cohabitation is associated with higher divorce rates. These effects “cancel each other out,” making it appear as if cohabitation is not associated with divorce, when, according to them, it still is; just not in very early marriage.

However this research makes an important omission. They account for the age at which women married their first husband, but don’t account for the age at which they moved in together.  As my past research has shown, accounting for age at marriage but not the age at which couples moved in together artificially inflates the association between premarital cohabitation and divorce for recent cohorts, compared to statistical models that account for the age at which couples moved in together, or even statistical models that do not account for age at all.

This inflation happens because the older that couples are when they move in together with the person they will eventually marry (whether at marriage or beforehand) the less likely they are to divorce.  When accounting for age at marriage only, researchers are comparing couples who married directly at, for example, age 24, to those who moved in together at perhaps age 21 and then married at age 24.

My research argues that a more accurate comparison would compare those who moved in together at, for example, 21 (and then eventually married) to those who both moved in together and married at age 21.  When doing so, the relationship between premarital cohabitation and divorce disappears for some cohorts; and in very recent cohorts, as I show in my recent CCF report, reverses, with premarital cohabitors having a lower risk of divorce compared to couples that marry directly. In other words, the reason premarital cohabitors seem to have a higher risk of divorce is not because cohabitation causes divorce; it’s because premarital cohabitors who eventually marry select partners and move in together at earlier ages compared to other couples who marry at the same age, when they are less prepared for the roles and responsibilities that are associated with eventual successful marriages.

To demonstrate the importance of how researchers account for age on research findings, I recalculated the odds ratios for the relationship of premarital cohabitation and divorce that I present in my recent CCF report on changing cohabitation over time (which accounts for age at coresidence), in statistical models that either account for age at marriage instead, or don’t account for age at all. As you can see in Figure 1 below, models that account for age at marriage show a stronger association between cohabitation and divorce. In the most recent cohort, this effect appears neutral, but when accounting for age at coresidence instead (or even if not accounting for age at all) premarital cohabitation is associated with a lower risk of divorce.

Figure 1: Odds Ratios for the Association Between Premarital Cohabitation and Divorce in First Marriages in Four Cohorts: The Importance of Age Controls

Note: Numbers calculated from the 1988 National Survey of Families and Households (1956-1985, N=3,594) and National Survey of Family Growth (1986-2015, N=9,420) using Cox regressions and based on women <36 at first marriage. Controls for raised not religious, religious attendance, race, education at marriage, mother’s education, prior cohabitations, lived with both biological parents at age 14, birth prior to coresidence, began coresidence while pregnant. Age at Coresidence models additionally control for age at coresidence and age at coresidence squared.  Age at Marriage models additionally control for age at marriage and age at marriage squared. †p<.10, **p<.01

In my new article recently published in the journal Marriage & Family Review I show that the length of time that couples live together before marriage has grown in recent decades (See Figure 2), increasing the importance of correctly accounting for the age at which couples move in together, as it grows further and further from the age at which these couples marry.

Figure 2: Average Duration of Premarital Cohabitation with First Husband among Premarital Cohabitors who Married before Age 36 (Months)

While the overall pattern in this new research of lower divorce rates in the first year of marriage after cohabitation seems plausible, accounting for age at marriage rather than age at coresidence artificially inflates the divorce rates of premarital cohabitors across all marriage durations, calling into question whether premarital cohabitation is in fact associated with higher divorce risks at later marriage durations, as found by the authors. A comparison that accounted for age at coresidence instead of age at marriage would likely have led to significantly different findings.

Arielle Kuperberg is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology and Cross-Appointed Faculty in the Women and Gender Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg and reach her at atkuperb@uncg.edu.

 

Imagine that your 75-year-old mother has fallen and broken her ankle. She lives alone in a third-floor apartment in a city not far from where you live, but this accident means that she cannot manage on her own for several weeks, if not longer. What would you do? Would you take her into your home? Would you move into her apartment to help her until she healed? Would you pay someone to come in daily to help her cook, bathe, clean house, run errands? What if your mother had broken her hip instead of an ankle? Would that change what you would do? What if she showed signs of the early stages of dementia? What would you do then?

Suppose that your mother had divorced your father when you were 10 and moved far away from you and your father. Suppose also that you and she had not been close for years. Would that affect how you answered the questions above about helping her? What if I had substituted the word stepmother for mother, would that have made a difference to you? What if this stepmother had raised you since you were 11? Would that make a difference? What if it was your aging father who broke a hip? Your stepfather?

These are the kinds of questions we have been asking Americans for over two decades in more than 20 studies about beliefs regarding intergenerational responsibilities to older (and younger) family members. The beliefs we examined may be unique to the United States, although we suspect they are not.

It might surprise you to know that in an abstract way most Americans believe that adult children have responsibilities to their aging parents and other older kin. In fact, most Americans agree with the broad statement that ‘adult children should take care of their parents when they get old’. In fact, this belief is so widespread that most states have filial responsibility laws that define younger family members’ obligations to provide care for aging parents and grandparents.

Critics of these laws, however, argue that these and other U.S. social policies about intergenerational assistance are based on outdated assumptions that family ties are always emotionally close and loving, that families are able and willing to assist older kin, and that family membership is stable. These assumptions do not reflect the experiences of many, if not most, families in the 21st Century. Families vary in the degree to which members are emotionally involved in each other’s lives and, with most adult men and women in the paid work force, there are few families with available kin to provide aid. Moreover, longer life spans and lowered reproduction has meant that there are fewer young people and more old people in extended families. Family membership is not constant; families in the United States have experienced decades of structural changes due to divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation and these changes make connections among kin more tenuous than in the past.

U.S. policy makers are therefore faced with laws and social policies that are designed for a mid-Twentieth Century extended family at a time when multi-generational family structures are becoming more complex. We began investigating whether beliefs and attitudes about intergenerational responsibilities also were becoming more complex. We began a research program to investigate how divorce and remarriage affected beliefs about intergenerational assistance to genetic and step-kin, and we examined beliefs about aid given to both older and younger family members.

Consensual beliefs about intergenerational family relationships and support are important to examine because such beliefs function as parameters within which individuals define and negotiate their responsibilities to kin, they serve as criteria to measure how well individuals are functioning as family members, and they provide a framework that people use to justify and explain their conduct to others. What people actually do in relationships is based partly on personal beliefs about appropriate actions between kin and partly on widely held expectations about what should be done regarding family responsibilities. Normative beliefs about intergenerational responsibilities also are important to understand because such beliefs influence the development and application of public policy.

Our studies were random samples drawn regionally or nationally. We used phone surveys, mailed surveys, and face to face interviews. We can’t tell you about all the findings from these studies, so instead we summarize them.

In general, genetic bonds among generations denote greater intergenerational obligations than do affinal bonds. This means, all other factors being equal, people believe that genetic kin should receive more assistance than affinal kin (step-kin or in-laws).

Genetic kinship is not enough to attribute obligations to assist. For most people genetic kinship was relevant but did not automatically mean adult children and grandchildren should help.

Relationship quality is important in attributing obligations to assist, regardless of the type of relationship (genetic or affinal). Parents and adult children were thought to be much more obligated to help each other when relationships were emotionally close. When relationships were distant or hostile, any help was discretionary and more limited than when bonds were close. Step-kin who develop emotionally close relationships were perceived to be obligated to assist each other at levels similar to genetic kin who had close bonds.

Beliefs about helping older kin are stronger when the older kin have helped family members in the past. For most people, adult children are obligated to help parents only if the parents had fulfilled parental responsibilities to children when they were young. Family obligation norms no longer applied when genetic kin had not observed the norm of reciprocity between generations. Genetic kinship had significance, but without past histories of mutual helping it was as if the responsibilities attendant to kinship were unimportant. Without a history of financial, tangible, and emotional support from parents, adult children were seen as having lesser debt to repay than they would have had if parents had provided more for them. Divorced and remarried older parents who were perceived to have broken the reciprocity “contract” lost their “rights” to receive help from adult children.

Stepparents and stepchildren who had helped each other in the past were perceived as obligated to assist each other at levels similar, but not quite equal, to older parents and adult children who had reciprocal exchanges. Stepparents who help raise stepchildren thus can “earn” assistance later in life.

Intergenerational assistance is limited for relationships formed later in life. Step-relationships formed in later-life have less time to build close bonds and exchange resources, which reduced the likelihood of them being perceived as kin and having responsibilities to help each other.

For middle-generation adults, helping children takes precedence over helping elders. There is a hierarchy of intergenerational assistance, with children at the top as targets of aid.

Intergenerational assistance is conditional for most Americans. For most of the thousands of respondents in our studies, perceptions about intergenerational obligations were not automatic, but were related to several factors – relationship closeness/quality, reciprocity, resource availability, and other demands on family members’ resources were important when making judgments about helping.

Clearly, there is a lot we don’t know yet about how structural family changes affect intergenerational obligations to assist kin. This issue is relevant in societies with loose social safety nets, such as the United States. In six of our intergenerational obligation studies, we found that attitudes about helping kin were significantly related to participants’ helping behaviors in their own family networks. Our studies suggest that the final years of older adults who were less than stellar parents, stepparents, or in-laws may be in jeopardy when they need help to care for themselves. As a nation, we seem ill-prepared to deal with the rising number of Baby Boomers who are becoming our “senior citizens.”

Lawrence Ganong is a Chancellor’s Professor of Human Development and Family Science and Emeritus Professor of Nursing at the University of Missouri. Marilyn Coleman is a Curator’s Professor Emerita of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri. They have studied post-divorce family relationships and stepfamily relationships for over four decades. They may be reached at ganongl@missouri.edu and colemanma@missouri.edu

Reposted from The New York Times.

If you strolled by the playgrounds of Flushing, Queens, this summer, you would have seen throngs of Chinese immigrant women tending to their American-born grandchildren.

The moms and dads were at work, all through these long summer days. For those who cannot afford expensive day care and camps, in a country that does almost nothing to help working families care for their kids, grandparents are a lifeline. And increasingly, these grandparents are immigrants.

One of us, Xuemei, recently spent time with a Flushing family who moved here from rural China years ago. Each day the mother, father and grandfather board buses arranged by their employers to take them to work at Chinese restaurants. They leave their home around 10 each morning and return around 10 each night. In their absence, the grandmother performs all of the housework and cares for the couple’s two American-born children.

The Trump administration is now threatening those care-taking arrangements.

President Trump has been pushing for a law that would end family-based immigration — what he calls “horrible chain migration.” He even used the migrant children separated from their parents on the border as bargaining chips to try to get Democrats to agree to such a proposal, before a judge ordered them returned to their families.

In June the House defeated a plan by Representative Bob Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, that would have restricted legal immigration through the family reunification program so that only the spouses and minor children of American citizens could immigrate — barring grandparents. A week later, the so-called compromise G.O.P. bill on immigration was also defeated. It would have effectively cut the sponsorships of spouses, minor children and parents of American citizens by about 215,000 over the next two decades, according to analysts at the Cato Institute. But Republicans haven’t given up.

The Trump administration’s determination to separate families has formed the backbone of its immigration policy since Day 1. These proposals reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of 21st-century American families and contradict the principle of family unity that has guided American immigration policy for the last 50 years. (In fact, a few weeks ago President Trump’s in-laws became American citizens thanks to the family reunification program.)

According to data from the Department of Homeland Security, the number of legal permanent residents admitted as parents of United States citizens rose to about 174,000 in 2016 from about 56,000 in 1994, an increase to 15 percent from 7 percent of all admissions.

America needs these late-life immigrants. Older parents serve as valuable resources, often helping with the down payment on homes and with child care and household chores as younger immigrants juggle tight work schedules. Their assistance is free and reliable, allowing adult children to work, improve their English and further their educations, thus integrating faster into American society.

Another woman Xuemei spoke to, a retired doctor in her 80s from Fujian Province, hardly fits the Trump administration’s pernicious stereotypes of immigrants as threatening or burdensome. When her daughter-in-law gave birth here 20 years ago, she left her job in China so that she could come to help the young couple with child care. Her son, who had stayed in the United States after receiving a scholarship to medical school, sponsored her visa.

“I have only one son; how can I not help him?” she said.

Immigrant elders also help transplanted families maintain a sense of continuity. They may serve as cultural intermediaries by teaching grandchildren about their home country’s language, religion, food and cultural traditions. Their accounts of family histories can serve as a source of ethnic pride and personal empowerment for younger generations searching for their identities as racial and ethnic minorities.

Instead of narrowing our conception of what a family is, we should broaden it. When one of us — Stacy — was 16 and the oldest of four children, her mother died. Her father wanted to bring his niece from Chile to help the family out. But nieces didn’t count as eligible family members under the reunification program. So the family struggled along.

The support of family caregivers may be invisible to outsiders, but it is essential for the well-being of transnational families, especially in a country that lacks a system of affordable child care. The Republican plans to restrict family-based migration won’t help Americans — they will hurt Americans, by depriving many of our youngest citizens of the social, psychological and economic benefits of strong extended family ties.

Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology at the University at Albany, where Xuemei Cao is a doctoral student.

Reposted from Psychology Today

This is adapted from my keynote essay for the CCF Gender Matters Online Symposium.

How and Why Gender Matters In Even More Ways Then You Knew

You cannot pick up a newspaper today without seeing an article about who can use which bathrooms, and the choice of “category X” for Driver’s licenses. Why are young people today so dissatisfied with their gender categories? Are they rejecting the label of male or female? Or are they rejecting the stereotypes that demand boys to be tough and never cry, and girls wear sparkles as they take care of everyone’s feelings? Or are they rejecting the wage gap and sexual harassment? To understand what’s happening, we need to talk about what we mean by the word “gender.” You may think you know, but I am betting you do not know the half of it.

In my new book, Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure (Oxford, 2018), I explore the meaning of gender to young people today. In interviews with 116 mostly Chicagoland Millennials, I identify some trends among the generation soon to age into leadership in American society. First, women are never going back to the home. While women’s workplace participation is as high as it has ever been, at the moment, the trend is stalled. But mothers are still far more likely to work for pay then in the past. There is not now, nor has there ever been an opt-out revolution, although sometimes women are pushed out of the labor force but inflexible workplace demands and culture. Almost no one I interviewed, not even the most religious “true believers” think that mothers belong at home with their children. While women may be forced out of the workplace by inflexible policies, American Millennials do not presume motherhood involves leaving the workforce. Second, feminism is no longer just a women’s movement. Among young men, there is a great deal of support for gender equality. In my interviews, there were men who sounded every bit as feminist as any woman, and far more than many women even in this sample of young adults. Both women and men feminist “innovators” expect to change the world by how they live their lives rejecting gender expectations and stereotypes.

I also interviewed some Millennials who rejected not only sexism and gendered expectations, they also reject the gender binary itself. Perhaps there is something new under the sun! These genderqueer respondents do not want to switch their sex category—instead, they reject the belief that they must be gendered at all, even in how they adorn and inhabit their body. Some genderqueer Millennials are quite content to identify as a sex category (e.g. as female) but reject the gender category “woman.” Others don’t use a sex category either. With this new kind of gender fluidity afloat, it makes sense that there are others in this generation who are simply confused. So much has changed, and yet so much has stayed the same. As I have written about elsewhere, what has changed, and remarkably quickly, is the legal status for those who reject categories, with state after state, and now country after country, allowed a neither (or X box) for those whose identity is neither male nor female.

Still, there are some patterns among the chaos of a diverse generation. Nearly all young adults today are libertarian about gender, or at least they claim to be. They refuse to judge people who are different from themselves in terms of gender identity or expectations. Indeed, my colleagues and I have presented survey research that shows most of today’s young adults believe women and men should be equal both inside the home and outside of it. My interviews suggest that while beliefs have changed, there is still much confusion about gender when it comes to live our lives, and what to expect from others. There are shades of grey, beyond 50, when women and men are confused by a changing gender structure. In today’s world everything is in flux. Research on Millennial’s has been contradictory, with some finding that high school seniors today are more conservative about mothers remaining in the workplace while other research – like mine — suggests a generation that takes for granted gender equality as a goal. Will these new trends among Millennials turn the tide and bring us closer to the shore of equality? Is there really change afoot? Or is it the case that the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same. As any social scientist, my answer is, let’s do more research  to make gender more visible and find out.

What we know for sure is that our gender structure is changing, unevenly, and without any clear guidelines. We also know that while most Americans think gender is an identity, something deeply felt internally, gender is far more then that. Gender doesn’t begin nor end with individual feelings of authenticity. In our new Handbook of the Sociology of Gender, my co-editors Carissa Froyum and William Scarborough, and the authors of individual chapters, show just how much gender matters for every aspect of our social lives.

Gender matters to individuals, of course. But gender is very much alive in the expectations we have for one another, what it means to be a good mother versus a good father, a girlfriend versus a boyfriend.  Gender matters because of all those stereotypes, conscious and not, we all hold. But gender matters beyond even beyond those stereotypes because we have quite literally built those stereotypes into our schools, workplaces, and the economy. And to justify all the inequities involved, we have developed beliefs that explain, and justify sexist institutions. Gender matters not just as identity, or stereotypes, but is also at the core of how our social world is organized. Just like every society has an economic and political structure, so too, every society has a gender structure.

First, for those of you far past college age, let me share some language now widely used on campus. Sex is the (presumably) biological category you were labeled at birth, male or female. The biological categories are not always clear-cut, as some children are born intersex, with internal female organs, but an extended clitoris that appears to be a micro-phallus. Even intersex people (who actually have both male and female body parts) are usually, if mistakenly, labeled male or female at birth. This is a good example of how even our definition of biological facts are shaped by an ideological assumption that there are two and only two possible sex categories. Gender as a social structure includes one’s individual sex category, but is far more than simply that. Gender is also a social construct that is used to display and claim one’s sex category. Few of us actually can judge someone’s sex by inspecting naked bodies, but all of us assess each other’s gender identity during interaction. At the same time, we are all evaluated by how well we ‘do gender.’ Some of us may be in social contexts where we are evaluated more positively if we reject doing gender traditionally, but the expectations remain in both conservative or progressive settings. Whatever our ideologies, we must all adapt to organizations and institutions that are based on the presumption that  “ideal” workers should be entirely and uniquely committed to the business at hand, policies that reward the typically male life course, and historically masculine privilege of having a domestic wife. In the next few weeks, I will be writing about concrete examples from everyday life with the authors from the Handbook.  Stay tuned…

Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.

For several years, researchers affiliated with the Council on Contemporary families have been charting the gains and the setbacks experienced by proponents of equal rights for all, irrespective of race, ethnicitygender, and sexual orientation or identity.

From a historical perspective, dramatic progress has been made toward acceptance of interpersonal diversity. Most people now agree in principle that individuals should not be denied rights or recognition on the basis of their gender, race, or sexual identity. But in practice there are also significant fluctuations in attitudes and behaviors. Many people hold contradictory or ambivalent positions about what is appropriate in putting egalitarian principles into practice, which makes them prone to shift their views in response to new political and economic circumstances or how issues are presented to them by contending parties. Furthermore, some arguments for egalitarian reforms that are very powerful when clear-cut legal barriers to equality exist can produce divergent reactions when such barriers are overturned.

Recent polls on same-sex marriage and LGBT rights illustrate this point. The shift from condemnation to acceptance of same-sex marriage has been extraordinarily rapid. In 2004, only 30 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage. By 2015, when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, support had risen to 55 percent. And in July the Public Religion Research Institute found that an all-time high of 64 percent of Americans supported marriage equality.

But that last poll also revealed a recent decrease in public support for combatting discrimination against same-sex couples in the marketplace. A year ago, 53 percent of Americans said that caterers, bakers, and other wedding-based businesses should be required to serve same-sex couples, whatever their personal religious views. Today just 48 percent endorse that view, even as acceptance of a right to marriage equality has risen.  One possibility is that the very arguments used to win support for same-sex marriage now cut two ways. The idea that individuals have a right to control their own bodies and choose their own mates helped garner majority support for contraception and abortion rights and for same-sex marriage. But it can also produce sympathy for people who believe they should not have to enable behaviors of which they disapprove.  To win people over on this issue, we need to make a nuanced argument that does not immediately reject as reactionary their respect for others’ individual consciences. For example, if I were a baker, I would refuse to make a cake to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. How do we explain the difference to the general public?

Or consider the ambiguities and contradictions we find in surveys about the public’s support for gender equality. In 2012, David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman reviewed all the General Social Survey (GSS) questions about gender attitudes between 1977 and 2010. They found that after strong increases in egalitarian sentiments through the 1980s, support had plateaued and stalled in the 1990s and early 2000s. One explanation, they suggested, might be the emergence of a mindset that supports women’s right to equality in the public sphere but views any continuation of traditional gender arrangements after the establishment of anti-discrimination laws as reflecting women’s distinctive preferences and capacities for homemaking and child raising.

By the time the results of the 2014 GSS were published, the same researchers were able to report a significant rebound in support for gender equality since 2006. But when Cotter and Joanna Pepin looked at the 2014 results of a different survey, which had been tracking the attitudes of high-school seniors over almost exactly the same years as the GSS, they saw a different trend. Between 1976 and 1994, high-school seniors greatly increased their support for gender equality in both the public and the private realm. From 1994 to 2014, they maintained their egalitarian views about women in public life, including an expanded acceptance and approval of working mothers. But during that same period, their endorsement of dual-earner arrangements and equal decision-making in the home dropped significantly, suggesting a revival of traditionalism.

The 2016 GSS — the latest available — seemed to confirm that support for the gender revolution was firmly “back on track” – at least for people aged 18 and up. Indeed, Cotter found that the answers to every question, whether about private family relationships or about the public realm of work and politics, revealed greater endorsement of gender equality than at any time in the survey’s 39 year history.

Sociologists Barbara Risman, Ray Sin, and William Scarborough, in a separate analysis of the GSS, argue that the long-term story is actually quite straightforward. Old school traditionalists have basically abandoned their opposition to equal rights for women in the public sphere but continue to advocate gender-specialized roles at home: “Americans who have a carte-blanche objection to gender equality in both the workplace and the home have become almost extinct.”

Still, we have yet to see what trends will emerge when the 2016 survey of high school seniors is analyzed – or how the views of the high school seniors interviewed in recent years will evolve as they grapple with their own work and family realities.

Meanwhile, there are other confusing discrepancies. In the 2016 GSS, Cotter reports, the gender gap in attitudes about equality had narrowed to its smallest point ever, with most of the change “attributable to men’s catching up with women’s egalitarian attitudes.” Yet according to an August 3, 2018 report by the respected polling group FiveThirtyEight, the gender gap among voters is now larger than it has been in decades – perhaps ever. The gap between women’s preferences for Democrats and men’s preferences for Republicans ranges from 26 to 36 points in several states.

In a future piece I’ll look at research that might explain some of these shifting and occasionally contradictory findings. But my point here is that there is a substantial middle group between people who unequivocally support equal rights under all circumstances and people who unequivocally oppose them. The traditional opposition to gender equality as a matter of patriarchal principle seems to have been largely overturned. However, many people experience specific challenges in their work or family lives that can undermine their egalitarian impulses. Others hold conflicted feelings and competing ideals. It’s important to remember that a large section of the population is “up for grabs,” so to speak. Few are such committed feminists or anti-feminists that they can’t be swayed by personal experience or powerful arguments. We can’t count on those who say they support gender equality to always practice equality, and we should not assume that everyone who is skeptical about egalitarianism is a dyed-in-the-wool sexist. It’s up to us to provide experiences and arguments that help people work through their ambivalence and see the benefits of social equality for men as well as for women — and for society at large.

Stephanie Coontz is the CCF Director of Research and Education and a Professor of History at The Evergreen State College.

Reposted from Psychology Today

Tammy Duckworth is the first senator to give birth while in office. And she did so with great fanfare and a demand that her breastfeeding infant be able to accompany her to the Senate floor. The mayor of DC adopted a baby, and almost immediately began juggling motherhood and politics, with barely any time away from the public eye. Millennial mothers are running for office and  advertising their breastfeeding babies in campaign photos. Women are demanding that their status as mothers, with babies, be accommodated. It’s about time.

And yet, why now?  Professional women have been in careers for over 50 years. What is new now?  A sociological concept of “the economy of gratitude” helps explain these newly vocal demands by today’s mothers. The demands of employed mothers have definitely changed since the 20th Century. Women like me, middle class white baby boomers who fought to join the ranks of the professionally employed, were happy that we had broken into the boys club. We were grateful to be there. As Gloria Steinem so aptly explained, we wanted to be the men we were supposed to marry. We wanted was to influence the world, to make our own way, to be independent. In my generation, we wanted to be someone in our own right, not somebody’s wife, but to be that somebody. To do that, we put up with sexual harassment, lower wages, and the mommy wars. We were breaking new ground for married middle class women, who had been raised to be wives. My parents wanted me to train to be a nurse or a teacher just, as they would say, “in case your husband ever leaves you.” With that kind of parental ambition, I was grateful to have fought to carve out a life that included my work and my family. I felt lucky to have escaped the domestic life my mother and her friends lived.

Today’s young mothers, Millennial women, are not grateful for being allowed to be in their jobs, to be somebody. They take that for granted, thanks to their grandmothers and mothers who fought those battles. In my new book, Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure (Oxford, 2018), I interviewed 116 Millennials and nearly all of them, including very conservative “true believers” in gender differences, expected women to spend their adult lives in the labor force, whether or not they were mothers. There is simply no endorsement for the idea that in heterosexual marriage husbands are breadwinners and women wives. And the quantitative data agree. There is almost no one left that doesn’t believe women should have equal rights in the public world of politics and work.

So today’s young mother doesn’t feel any gratitude, as we did, for being allowed into the workplace. And the daughters of working class women and women of color have always had role models who were both mothers and workers. So nearly all American women today take it for granted that paid work is the responsibility of women and men, mothers and fathers. Women just presume they have a right to be at work. Thank goodness for that! Today’s new mother has usually been in the workplace for several years, and is used to competing with men as equals, knowing, of course, that she’s more than equal since women are held to higher standards and presumed incompetent until we prove otherwise. Motherhood now comes with a shock to many successful women. For the first time, perhaps in their post-feminist era lives, the rules are so clearly, so obviously, stacked against them.

We have no male/female job listings but we still have schools that dismiss small children at 3:00 pm, and workplaces that presume workers are available full-time during the day and 24/7 online, with just a few weeks off per year. Such school hours clearly presume children have one parent (read mother) at home. And workplaces that reward workers who have no competing care-taking  demands are affirmative action programs for (usually) white men with wives. The next step in feminism is to create a world where men, as well as women, have moral and practical responsibilities for caring for other people. Perhaps then our society will begin to root out the patriarchy upon which it has been built, and workplaces will begin to realize that all workers also have someone to take care of, if only themselves.

But for now, let’s hear this generation of Millennial women roar. Let’s applaud as they demand our workplaces accommodate women’s role in reproduction, so that infants can breastfeed while their mothers rule the world. But this too is only one more step forward. Let’s hope in the near future their husbands — maybe that’s daydreaming, perhaps instead it will be their sons — will lead the charge for paid parental leave for all Americans, to allow fathers and mothers more time at home with infants, so no one has to bring their baby to the office. Such radical change may just take generations but no one ever promised that the feminist revolution would be easy.

Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.

Picture by CC0 Creative Commons

Originally published in the Harvard Business Review

Few people today call a doctor when they feel a bout of nostalgia coming on. But for 200 years, nostalgia was considered a dangerous disease that could trigger delusions, despair, and even death. A 17th-century Swiss physician coined the word to describe the debilitating algos (pain) felt by people who had left their nostos (native home). In the U.S. during the Civil War, Union Army doctors reported 5,000 serious cases of nostalgia, leading to 74 deaths. In Europe, physicians anxiously debated how to treat home-sickness and contain its spread.

Alarm waned toward the end of the 19th century, as experts came to believe that “modern industry” and “rapid communications” were making people more open to change and hence more resistant to the disease. And by the 20th century, researchers had begun to recognize a milder form of nostalgia that is actually quite healthy: a longing to reproduce a feeling once experienced with friends or family, rather than to literally return to another place or time. This kind of nostalgia makes people feel warmer themselves and act more warmly toward others, including strangers.

In recent decades, however, we have seen a revival of the more pernicious form of nostalgia, what we might call past-sickness. This is the longing to reproduce an idealized piece of history. When people are collectively nostalgic about their past experiences as members of a group or as inhabitants of an era, rather than individually nostalgic for their personal experiences, they start to identify more intensely with their own group and to judge members of other groups more negatively. They become less optimistic about their ability to forge new connections — and more hostile to people perceived as outsiders. When such nostalgia gets politicized, it can lead to delusions about a mythical, magical Golden Age of the homeland, supposedly ruined by interlopers.

Collective nostalgia invariably involves a denial of the racial, ethnic, and family diversity of the past, as well as its social injustices, creating romanticized myths that are easily refuted by anyone willing to confront historical realities. But the cure to the pathologies of past-sickness does not lie in the equally romanticized vision of modernization and innovation we have been offered for the last 40 years — something that might be called future nostalgia, or modernization-sickness.

For much of the 20th century, it was possible to argue that the inequities of life stemmed from the incomplete expansion of technology, industry, and the market, and would be resolved by further modernization. But for several decades it’s been clear that the gains of modernization for some have produced substantial losses for others. While the innovations of the past 40 years have opened more opportunities for professionals and affluent entrepreneurs than they have closed off, that’s not the case for many working-class, small-town, and rural men and women. The failure of policy makers and opinion leaders to acknowledge their losses has left the pain of the “losers” to curdle into a toxic mix of nationalism, racism, and conspiracy theories across Europe and the U.S.

Despite institutionalized discrimination, working-class Americans of all races made significant economic progress in the 35 years following World War II. While it’s true that white male workers were given preference over minorities and women in hiring and pay, most of the gains made by white working-class men in that era came not from their advantages over minorities but from their greater bargaining power vis-à-vis employers. The greater prevalence and power of unions was a huge factor, and although minority and female workers were only gradually admitted to those, strong unions tend to pull up wages in other sectors of the economy and act as a counterweight to business influence over government policy.

In that environment, labor took home a much larger share of economic growth than it does today. From 1947 to the start of the 1970s, every successive cohort of young men earned, on average, three times as much in constant dollars as their fathers had at the same age. And in every single economic expansion in those same years, 70% to 80% of the income growth went to the bottom 90% of the population. Economic disparities between big urban centers, small towns, and rural areas steadily narrowed.

Since the late 1970s, a very different set of trends has prevailed. Between 1980 and 2007, even before the Great Recession hit, the median real earnings of men age 25 to 34 with a high school diploma declined by 28%. Since 1980 every cohort of young men has earned less, on average, than their fathers did at the same age. Meanwhile, in periods of economic expansion the top 10% of earners have taken 95% or more of income growth. Similar increases in inequality have occurred in Europe and elsewhere. A new Oxfam study reports that the richest 1% of the world cornered 82% of the wealth created in 2017.

The reaction of the “creative classes” to these trends has been cavalier to say the least. Despite the clear signs of working-class distress in the 1980s and early 1990s, most pundits insisted that the real story of the era was “the explosion” of new and ever-cheaper consumer conveniences produced by technological advances and globalization. Economist Robert Samuelson dismissed worries about job losses and wage cuts as “alarmist hype” that had American families “feeling bad about doing well.” Conservative columnist George Will speculated that modern affluence had produced so much “leisure, abundance, and security” that our brains, which evolved to deal with constant hazards, had gotten “bored.” Even the socially conscious Microsoft founder Bill Gates was complacent: “Entire professions and industries will fade. But new ones will flourish….The net result is that more gets done, raising the standard of living in the long run.”

During the Great Recession, pundits briefly discovered that “average” increases in income often mask serious inequalities, but that went out the window as soon as the economy started growing again. Last fall the chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley brushed aside worries about job losses due to automation, arguing that “when new technology destroys, it leaves behind a layer of ash in which new jobs grow.” This January, after yet another year of global job gains without wage gains, a writer in Bloomberg News breezily announced that “brisk growth that’s not shared by all is better than no growth at all.” Besides, “there’s basically no country in the world where the consumer is not doing well,” added Bart van Ark, chief economist at The Conference Board.

As for the people who actually provide those affordable consumer goods and services? In the U.S., the “recovery” exacerbated the 40-year rise in economic inequality and insecurity. A survey of the job and business gains in the U.S. between 2011 and 2015 found that most were confined to the wealthiest 20% of zip codes in the country. The bottom 60% of zip codes together got just one in four of the new jobs created in those years. And the 20% of zip codes that were most distressed before the recession continued to lose jobs and businesses throughout the “recovery.” In 2007 the bottom 90% of the population held 28.6% of America’s total wealth. As of 2016, that had fallen to 22.8%.

 Despite futurist predictions that the information revolution would lead to the “death of distance,” a few coastal enclaves and political or technical centers have continued to garner a disproportionate share of resources, reversing the 40 years of economic convergence among regions that occurred after 1940. The average per capita income advantage of Washington, DC and New York City over the rest of the country doubled between 1980 and 2013. Average airfares per mile to “loser” regions are now often nearly twice as high as to the “winners,” while many towns have lost rail service altogether.

Like nostalgia epidemics of the past, our recent outbreak was triggered by an understandable sense of loss and disorientation. But there’s an interesting difference between past and present in the groups most vulnerable to the disease. From the 17th to the 19th century, pathological nostalgia was seen most often among people who moved away from the communities in which they had been raised — often bettering themselves materially but feeling lost and isolated in their new surroundings. Today the upwardly and geographically mobile have easy access to new technologies, professional networks, and flexible work and consumption techniques that allow them to navigate unfamiliar territory and make themselves at home wherever they go.

Those same innovations, however, have marginalized individuals whose identity, security, and livelihood depend on their familiarity with a particular place and set of skills, and their placement within long-standing personal networks that involve relations of mutual dependence and reciprocity. These include industrial workers who get jobs at a local factory because a relative puts in a good word with the foreman; farmers, feed suppliers, and farm equipment mechanics who rely on clients or employees who are also neighbors; and local businesses that depend on personal connections with their customers.

Today the most debilitating nostalgia is found among those who cannot or do not want to move — and should not have to — but see the traditional sources of security that their native land, or nostos, once provided being dismantled or relocated, while their habits, skills, and social relationships are devalued. Instead of leaving their homes behind, they feel left behind in their homes.

As always, working-class African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans suffer disproportionately from job losses, wage cuts, and increased volatility. Zip codes where most residents are racial or ethnic minorities are twice as likely as predominantly white zip codes to be in economic distress. Still, whites account for a significant portion — 44% — of the more than 52 million Americans in the most distressed communities. This shared exclusion from the rewards of modernization ought to be a source of solidarity, not division, but division is what happens when one group romanticizes where we’ve come from and another romanticizes where we’re going, instead of carefully examining the gains, losses, and hard trade-offs of the here-and-now.

To cure this outbreak of past-sickness, the winners in this system must stop pretending that the answer is more of the same, with a little more diversity at the top. To make modernization work for all, we must take a more critical look at how we measure economic and technological progress. Self-driving cars and delivery drones may save some people time and money, but they take away other people’s livelihoods. To stem the contagion of pathological nostalgia, we need to inoculate ourselves with a dose of the healthy nostalgia that spurs us to integrate the best values and ideas of the past into the improvements and advances we promote.

One of those values is the traditional democratic belief that the people who grow our food, make our coffee, fix our cars, educate our children, nurse our sick, and pick up our garbage are at least as essential to a healthy society as the people who invent new algorithms for stock trading, social media, and marketing. They deserve to live in thriving communities, send their kids to good schools, earn a living wage, and get home in time to enjoy dinner with whomever they count as family.

Stephanie Coontz is the CCF Director of Research and Education and a Professor of History at The Evergreen State College.

Following the Second World War, fertility in the United States began to rise sharply from a low point established in the Great Depression. During the 1950s and early 1960s, marriage and childbearing began to occur at what now seem to be unimaginably early ages. Aided by a robust economy and an unbridled sense of optimism, half of all women were married by the time they turned twenty, mostly to husbands who were barely older. Most couples had children soon after marriage if they were not already pregnant by their wedding date. The marriage rush, as it was referred to at the time, created a brief era when most young adults marched confidently into adulthood by their late teens or early twenties.

The regime of early adulthood came to an abrupt halt in the final third of the last century. The rapid loss of manufacturing jobs, the decline in labor unions, the rising demand for higher education, the oil crisis of the early 1970s, the rapid spread of new and more effective contraceptive methods, and the emerging movement for gender equality all likely contributed to ending the early schedule of family formation. Young adults began to move more slowly and more deliberately into the economy, restrained by the need to spend more time in school and by the unavailability of well-paying jobs providing enough to support a family.

The most disadvantaged Americans were initially slow to respond to the emergence of a “skills and knowledge” economy. Marriage remained a strong ideal and the practice of early and often unplanned parenthood continued to propel women into wedlock even when they and their partners were ill-prepared to support a family. But by the mid-1960s, African American women who became pregnant in their teens began to eschew marriage, creating a new social problem: teenage parenthood! In the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Black family was becoming ensnared in “a tangled web of pathology” by the pattern of early and unmarried parenthood.

For a brief period, the retreat from marriage was believed to be a special problem for African Americans. Some argued wrongly, that early and unwed pregnancy was a distinctive holdover from slavery or Ante-Bellum discrimination and marginalization.  However, such explanations did not stand the test of time. By the 1980s, marriage was rapidly declining among young whites who, like their African American and Hispanic counterparts, began view early marriage as a bad bargain even in the face of an unplanned pregnancy.  Abortion or even single parenthood appeared like a more promising strategy than marrying an unsuitable partner.

Led by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research and policy arm of Planned Parenthood, a nationwide effort was launched to expand reproductive health services to low-income, unmarried women, teenagers in particular. In the middle of the last century, contraception had not been legally available to these populations. But as sexual and marriage practices changed and marriage, many policy makers argued that providing unmarried women with birth control services was needed to address the growing number of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. In 1965, reproductive health services first became available to unmarried women. By 1970, a unanimous Senate and nearly unanimous House sent legislation known now as Title X to President Nixon to establish a network of health and reproductive services to low-income women.  Over the years, Title X has been expanded; by 2014, over 4,000 clinics across the nation provided reproductive health care to young women who could not afford a private physician.

After the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that legalized abortion, Title X explicitly prohibited clinics from offering abortions in publicly funded sites. Accordingly, Planned Parenthood a leading provider of abortions, was compelled to divorce its abortion services from reproductive health clinics that were funded by Title X. This compromise has been under attack by abortion opponents for decades who contend that Title X is covertly supporting abortion because Title X provided many to Planned Parenthood clinics even though they did not offer abortion services. Planned Parenthood contended that its reproductive health care services, in fact, prevent the need for abortion and deserve credit for helping to reduce the rate of abortion in the United States.

This contention may well be tested in the next few years because The Trump Administration, with the backing of most Republicans, has recently proposed to defund Planned Parenthood clinics. Already, states are poised to eliminate the largest national provider of reproductive health services in the nation. Like so many of the Trump policies, this proposed change has largely flown under the radar.

Childbearing to teenagers and women in the early twenties dropped steadily and precipitously over the past 25 years, and so have rates of abortion among younger women. The rate of teenage childbearing is less than half of what it was in 1991. Of course, this result is not only due to the growing availability of effective methods of contraception. Sexuality activity has leveled off if not slightly declined during the teen years. Norms have changed: an early and unplanned birth during the teen years has become anomalous with the later schedule for entering adulthood. Still, the widespread availability of birth control, especially as it comes in more user friendly and effective methods, has made it possible for sexually active teens and young adults to avoid becoming pregnant. If enacted, the defunding of Planned Parenthood would have a disastrous effect, probably reversing the trend of the past quarter of a century.

The state of Texas previewed the hardline policy of killing Planned Parenthood services only to find that pregnancies and health problems immediately soared. Texas was quickly compelled to revise these draconian measures. Yet, it appears that the federal government wants to carry out what happened in Texas on a national level.

In last year’s budget resolution, Congress rejected the entreaties of the Administration to remove Planned Parenthood funded services, but the fight undoubtedly will continue into next year’s budget deliberations. Whether this effort succeeds or not will depend— as so many things do— on the elections this year and in 2020.  Reproductive rights for women is just one more reason to join the effort to defeat President Trump and his congressional allies.

Frank Furstenberg is The Zellerbach Family Chair, emeritus, at the University of Pennsylvania where he remains an Associate in the Population Center.   He most recently authored Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness with a Ph.D.

Inevitably when I tell people that I study love letters and technology, someone participating in the conversation laments the way that texting and instant messaging have lessened the depth and thoughtfulness of love letters in today’s romantic relationships. A text is not a substitute for a handwritten note that takes time to write and symbolizes dedication to a relationship, they argue. But then another voice chimes into this conversation, offering something like this: “I love that my girlfriend and I can text each other little love notes. It’s quick, it’s in real time, and it makes me feel close to her even if she’s far away.”

A few years ago I was cleaning out a basement cabinet and found a box of old paper notes and love letters from high school, college, and graduate school. I brought the box upstairs and began rifling through the paper. My husband walked into the living room, saying to me as I sat amidst a pile of spiral notebook paper bits, “We started college before there was email and we ended college when the World Wide Web came into existence. I wonder if we’re the last generation of letter writers.” Around the same time I talked with a couple women about their love letters – one woman in her twenties who had saved texts from romantic partners in a memo folder on her smartphone, and one woman in her forties who had saved paper letters from her (now) husband that they had exchanged while studying abroad in college. Because of these conversations, I began to wonder whether gender and generation mattered in how people thought about the role of technology in romantic communication.

It is precisely these varied reactions – lamenting the loss of thoughtfulness, praising the access to real-time communication, and wondering about the role of rapidly changing technology on relationships for people from different groups – that my new book, Love Letters: Saving Romance in the Digital Age (Routledge 2018), dissects.

Through my own survey data, stories, and a rich weaving together of others’ research from a variety of academic disciplines, I tell the story not of the content of love letters exchanged on paper and via digital devices, but rather what people do with the love letters once they have them, and whether their format as digital or paper matters in terms of their meaningfulness to their owners. In other words, I study the curatorial practices of saving, storing, revisiting, organizing, and throwing away love letters. I do this because the objects in our lives – our material culture – not only impact our behaviors (think about how your smartphone shapes your behavior when it rings or dings during a class or concert); they also symbolize what we cherish or despise. More importantly, our actions surrounding these pieces of material culture require different kinds of bodily and emotional work depending on the relationship and on the digital or paper format – labor that I discuss in this podcast from The Verge. To save a thousand texts in a special folder requires not only the physical work of creating that folder by swiping and typing or by folding and stuffing, but also the emotional labor of discerning whether these saving practices are worth it given the type of relationship they symbolize.

My research reveals a few important findings. First, people overwhelmingly prefer saving paper love letters over digital ones, a pattern that spans all age groups (even among younger individuals for whom digital communication is more prevalent). But despite the preference for paper, people are more likely to use digital means to communicate to lovers. Thus, there is a mismatch between what people do and what they prefer their partners do. For people of different ages, this may stem from different causal mechanisms: for older individuals, they may prefer something from their past that they witness lessening; for younger individuals, they may prefer something they imagine as better despite not having experienced it much in their own lives. In both cases, there is a calling forth of a past image of love letters that is used to judge today’s practices.

Second, men and women differ in their love letter curatorial practices, especially with paper letters. Women are more likely to save love letters than men, but men look at the love letters they save more frequently than women. Women tend to store their love letters in, under, and behind things (e.g., in a drawer, under a bed), while men tend to store them on things (e.g., on a desk or bulletin board). Men and women are similar, as are people of varying ages, in the reasons why they may revisit love letters: people are as likely to look at a saved love letter intentionally (to reminisce fondly or remind themselves of what to avoid in the case of a negative relationship) as they are to stumble upon them accidentally (which is what I did when I found my box of old paper letters in my basement). And people across age and gender categories who get rid of love letters may do so for several reasons: to rid themselves of bad memories, to declutter, or to prevent others from seeing what they perceive to be highly private (often sexual) messages.

Most importantly, the underlying message of these and other findings in the book must be understood in light of social inequalities that move beyond individual preferences. In particular, the calling forth of a nostalgic image of handwritten paper love letters sent and received through the mail not only must be historically situated, as lots of epistolary research shows (mail delivery as we know it in contemporary society is not really that old; people have always adjusted to newer and quicker modes of communication exchange), but also must be understood in terms of privilege. To write, send, receive, and read a love letter that looks like those images found in popular culture and the marketplace began among those with tremendous privilege: those who were white, affluent, educated, literate, and geographically located in the Global North. This image of love letters was reserved for those who were among the most elite in Western society. If there’s one thing family scholars know, to mythologize past nostalgic images of family relationships as if they were universal not only fails to be historically accurate, it also becomes the basis for inaccurate and unfair judgment of today’s varied relationships. To label someone as unromantic because they send a text message rather than sitting down at a desk for an hour to handwrite a love letter upholds an image that historically was reserved for those who had plenty of time, money, and education.

When people lament the loss of paper handwritten love letter writing, they are really lamenting the loss of a nostalgic image of romantic love that has never been universal, and that has become part of a collective view of romance that is ahistorical, inaccurate, and was available only to privileged groups. What people do with their love letters – digital or paper – depends not only on individual preferences regarding orderliness, clutter, or sentimentality, but also on people’s access and attachment to powerful cultural values that make up contemporary views of romance such as individualization, taking time in a hectic world, longevity, privacy, and keeping cherished things in a safe place. These values are not accessible equally across groups. Ultimately, I contend, despite acknowledging that digital communication has changed how we view connectedness and the type of work we have to do to manage a huge amount of information, the cultural values that tell us how romantic love should be defined are more powerful than the format our love letters take.

Michelle Janning is Professor of Sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She studies the intersection between intimate relationships, domestic objects, and spaces and places, usually while cleaning out basement cabinets or looking under couch cushions. She enjoys nice pens and stationery, as well as inside jokes in texts from her husband. She is the author of The Stuff of Family Life: How our Homes Reflect our Lives (Rowman & Littlefield 2017).