Feature Story

Stephanie Coontz

Professor and Award-Winning Author

Professor Stephanie Coontz teaches at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, and is Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families. She has also written several books, including the award-winning Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (Viking Press, 2005). Coontz has testified about her research before the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families in Washington, DC, and has addressed audiences across America, Japan, Australia, and Europe. She has also appeared on the Colbert Report, Today Show, Oprah Winfrey, Crossfire, 20/20, NPR and more.

Q: You’re a great example to women everywhere that following your passion can bring big things for your career. Can you tell us a little bit about how you found your passion and the path it’s taken you on?

Stephanie Coontz: I’ve always been interested in history, and back in the 1960s I discovered how empowering it is to discover one’s own history. Back then history was mainly about white male entrepreneurs, politicians, and military leaders. It took the social movements of the era to spur researchers to uncover the history of ordinary working people in private as well as public life. I watched my black colleagues in the civil rights movement gain self-confidence and pride as they learned about the rich history of black Americans. As a woman I felt empowered and emboldened when I learned about the courage and perseverance of women in the past. And as a citizen hoping to improve the existing order of society, it was inspiring to learn that social arrangements and social values have not always been the same – that there are not only a lot of alternative ways of organizing communities and families, but that people can work together to change ideas and social institutions that at first seem carved in stone.

For my most recent book, A Strange Stirring, I interviewed almost 200 women and men who read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique back in 1963 and 1964. Listening to the pain and self-doubt they felt in the face of the legal discrimination and social prejudices of the day, and the relief they felt when someone told them they weren’t crazy for feeling as they did, fanned my passion even further. Yes, it’s hard to balance work and family today, but we need to remember how much harder it was when we weren’t allowed to even try – when women were denied access to meaningful work and men were denied access to meaningful involvement in family life. And we should also learn from this history how much – and how quickly – people can change the world, when they organize to change the institutions and ideas that hold them back.

Q: Your career has made you a very public person. What hardships or obstacles have you faced while maneuvering government and the media, and how did you overcome them?

Stephanie Coontz: Well, of course, when you challenge mainstream assumptions about the past, or Conventional Wisdom about family life, as so much of my work entails, you get misinterpreted and sometimes consciously misrepresented. So, I have had to train myself not to overreact, to listen carefully when people seem to hear something I didn’t intend to say, and to constantly fine-tune the way I explain my research, making it harder for people to dismiss or misrepresent my ideas. In this job I have been blessed to have a wonderful group of collaborators in the Council on Contemporary Families, an interdisciplinary group of some of the most respected researchers and practitioners on family issues, gender, sexuality, work-family problems, etc. We all volunteer our time on top of our regular jobs because we share a common passion – to explain to the public how and why American families are changing and to impart what we know about how to help every family build on its distinctive strengths and minimize its particular vulnerabilities. Working with people who are equally passionate about getting the story right, and helping each other to do so, has been an incredible help in overcoming the discouragement one sometime feels about the extent of misinformation circulating in American today.

Q: Academia is often a male-dominated field, and can be intimidating for many women. What advice can you offer women who are interesting in pursuing a career where female colleagues may be few and far between?

Stephanie Coontz: Fortunately, more women are moving into traditionally-male fields, and these women are more conscious of the importance of being mentors to the next generation of women, and building social networks. But don’t hesitate to look for support systems, male and female, outside your field or your business as well as inside it, the way we have done with the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF). One of the big lessons we have learned at CCF is that being generous about giving credit and opportunities to others doesn’t detract from one’s own reputation and career but enhances it.

Q: At Career Woman, Inc. we value the importance of mentorship in career development. Who has been your most important mentor and how did he/she help you achieve success?

Stephanie Coontz: I came into this field sideways, after having been out of academia for a while, and I don’t teach at a major research university, so I never had any senior faculty member to show me the ropes. But I had the support of the administration and my fellow faculty members at The Evergreen State College as I tried to expand my knowledge of the fields about which I now write. Sometimes we would team-teach, and I would learn from my colleagues in other disciplines. And many faculty generously volunteered to read and seminar on sections of my first book. Bill Chafe at Duke, after meeting me only a few times, suggested I send the idea for what became my first mass-market book, The Way We Never Were, to an editor he knew, and that small act of generosity changed my life. (It helped that Dan Quayle gave his Murphy Brown speech just as that book came out in 1992, immediately drawing me into the public debate over how and why American families are changing.)

So I can’t name many mentors who cultivated me over time, but I have had so many colleagues who supported me, and I try to do that for my own students and for other faculty members around the country. I enjoy helping them write op-eds and editing their briefing papers as much as I do publishing my own. And my colleagues at CCF are always willing to discuss ideas, share their expertise, and answer questions for me. Sometimes we think of mentoring as a top-down relationship, but in my experience you can also be mentored by peers, and even by people at lower levels in their career trajectory. It’s never a one-way street.