Robert O. Self aptly dedicated his newest book, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s, to “my family.” True to its title, the book explores the political and cultural changes in America from the 1960s on, as well as the impact these transformations had on American conceptions of the family and gender roles.
Self introduces the era by discussing societal expectations of the American man in the 1960s: namely, that he was a heterosexual, patriotic breadwinner whose paycheck was large enough to support his family without any additional income. These expectations were “contingent on female domesticity,” or what Betty Friedan would come to call the feminine mystique of women dropping any career-related aspirations in order to become housewives and mothers. Although Americans aspired to and expected men and women to follow these prescribed roles, Self explains that these expectations did not represent reality, as not all men were heterosexual, many men opposed the war in Vietnam and many married women and mothers worked outside of the home in order to make ends meet.
This is just one of many misconceptions that Self manages to clear up in All in the Family. With his expert research and skilled analysis, he manages to contextualize the history of the family and thereby analyze how it impacted politics, legislation, social expectations and American culture at large.
The author goes into a detailed exploration of identity politics and how fraught they were (and still are). He brings forth the story of Juanita Ramos, a lesbian Puerto Rican-born New Yorker. Within male-dominated nationalist Puerto Rican circles, she was marginalized because of her sex and sexual orientation. The women’s liberation movement, while supportive of lesbians, was mostly made up of straight, white, middle-class women unable to truly include someone so different. Ramos’ story is indicative of the difficulty many women faced in the 1960s and 70s, when the world was not yet advanced enough to understand the complexity behind identity and the many factors that comprise a person’s self and place in the world.
It’s an unfortunate turn of events that many modern-day gay rights activists are largely ignorant of the rich history of the movement. It is of interest to note that Self’s research on this topic, as well as every other chapter in the book, is impeccable. He traces the roots of what was called the homophile movement until modern day, from early attempts at inclusion in mainstream society to the right-wing response against expanded gay rights. Knowing the history of the fight for equal rights is essential to understanding the current state of the battle.
Another intriguing point that Self makes in All in the Family is that, originally, the battle for the legalization of abortion was a male-dominated one. In the early 1960s, dialogue about abortion wasn’t even about women’s health and well being: It centered around population control and marital privacy. The absurdity of this fact is clear. As ridiculous as it may be, reproductive rights are still legislated by those who are not directly impacted by them. The 2012 election and ongoing War on Women are clear evidence of this unfortunate trend, with women such Lisa Brown shunned from the Michigan House floor for using the technical term for female genitalia, and terms such as “legitimate rape” added to the national lexicon.
Throughout his discussions of every movement, Self takes pains to include voices and opinions representing every viewpoint. He quotes women like Barbara Gittings, a radical lesbian feminist, as well as Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist who fought against women’s gains. Including such a diverse array of voices enhances the reader’s understanding of the era.
While All in the Family is undeniably an excellent and informative nonfiction, it is not without its flaws. Self tends to forget that the reader is not necessarily a historian, and often neglects to provide adequate background information.
Although we live in a very different world than the one that existed in the 1960s and 1970s, in many ways it is still the same. Where feminists fought for the right to have an abortion in the late 1960s and early 1970s, modern-day feminists have to ensure that the reproductive rights our mothers secured remain intact. Reading All in the Family will give everyone, from the novice feminist to the longtime activist, the ability to understand the battles that have been waged and the things that still need to be fought for.