Book Review

Review: Ramsey on Self’s *All in the Family*

All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s.  Robert Self.  (New York:    Hill and Wang, 2012. pp. Vii, 518, photographs, bibliography, notes, index.  Cloth $30.00).
Reviewed by Chris Ramsey
Robert Self’s new monograph is an ambitious attempt to interweave the histories of postwar liberalism, conservatism, gender, and sexuality from the Lyndon Johnson administration to the present day.  Self argues that white, patriarchal assumptions about the postwar family headed and provided for by husbands dictated the nature of the programs of the Great Society, an ethos he terms “breadwinner liberalism.”  The numerous social movements of the late 1960s, including the New Left, the antiwar movement, black power, gay rights, and feminism all “challenged the liberal version of the idealized nuclear family by demanding rights not imagined by existing legal and political institutions” (5).  While all these movements scored notable victories by the mid 1970s, particularly in the realm of privacy, their efforts to provide alternatives to the dominant social norm of the lone male provider galvanized an anti-feminist, conservative resistance that saw the sanctity of the family – and the nation’s morality – as under siege.  Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, the New Right created a more exclusive definition of the male breadwinner ideal, one buttressed by traditional conservative principles of free market ideology, fundamentalist Christianity, martial readiness, and heterosexuality.  Self presents a stimulating, but also convincing, thesis through meticulous research, nuanced analysis, and clean prose. By incorporating gender and sexuality with the traditional political and economic narratives of the modern United States history, All in the Familyis a welcome addition a growing body of scholarship that challenges the notion of the postwar conservative revival as a mere backlash to the social welfare state and civil rights. 

The first three chapters of All in the Family evaluate how the Left attacked the “core norms of masculinity” (8) that served as the basis for the model liberal father during the late 1960s.  The Johnson administration targeted young men for its antipoverty programs in order to groom them for a future of  household leadership based around an idealized form of white fatherhood.  Women academics and unionists criticized the state for not formally acknowledging the growing contributions of a wife’s labor and wages to a family’s sustenance.  Black power activists, most notably Huey Newton and Malcolm X, advocated for a more self-reliant black manhood and fatherhood instead of programs that chastised African-Americans for not modeling themselves after white families.  Conservatives used the struggle to define the American family between leftists and mainstream liberals to attack the welfare state, pointing to the Moynihan Report as proof that Johnson’s policies encouraged a pathology of black male abandonment.  For proponents of breadwinner liberalism, military service as an important crucible for turning boys into responsible men, and Self notes that the Johnson administration revised draft standards to force a disproportionate amount of urban black men to fight in Vietnam (52).  Consequently,  antiwar activists sought to redefine American masculinity by elevating draft dodging to a civic duty that led to its own sexual award (“Girls say yes to boys who say no”).  Self also describes how gay men challenged the breadwinner ideal by protesting the notion that heterosexuality was a prerequisite to citizenship and respectability, through the courts, their own print culture, and the public sphere (the Stonewall Rebellion). 
Self rightfully points out that breadwinner liberalism rested on prescribed women’s roles,  social standards that idolized domesticity at the expense of educational attainment or careers.  Although race, class, ideology, and sexual preference kept the feminist movement splintered, Self states that the movement successfully “advanced women’s position in the marketplace” (106).  Unfortunately, the relative disunity, combined with conservative entrenchment, meant efforts to address the gross structural inequalities that plagued the poor and minority women failed.  In part two, Self uses the example of the women’s movement to emphasize one of the book’s critical themes: the debate over the meaning of the family and citizenship in the past four decades affirmed an individual’s privacy and choice at the expense of socioeconomic parity. American courts upheld “negative rights,” particularly an individual’s freedom from governmental restraint, yet these same legal institutions rarely addressed “positive rights,” which Self defines as using the government to guarantee that discriminated or disadvantaged groups can effectively exercise their personal liberties.  Self concretely elaborates on this line of thinking in the fifth chapter about reproduction politics.  While feminists successfully fight for the right for women to have legal abortion and greater control over their bodies, anti-feminist women and conservative politicians repeatedly check attempts to provide federal funding for abortion procedures.  Left to the dictates of the free market, only women who could pay for an abortion could actually use the legal protections afforded by Roe v. Wade. 
Self then describes the inability of the Democratic Party to synthesize the efforts by leftist social movements to formulate a more inclusive version of the liberal family.   As a result, while formerly marginalized groups on the Left – African Americans, women, homosexuals, and students – made their voice heard at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, the only thing held in common was ambivalence about McGovern’s nomination.  Worse, the heightened visibility of these new constituencies alienated the Democratic Party’s traditional base: white, male, blue collar, Catholic union workers, whose noticeable lack of enthusiasm contributed to McGovern’s landslide defeat to Richard Nixon.  Well before the “Reagan Revolution,” Self argues that conservatives exploited the Democratic Party’s new vulnerability on the family to devastating effect in the late 1960s and 1970s.   Evolving cultural mores that permitted men and women to openly express sexual pleasure outside of heterosexual marriage alarmed religious fundamentalists and right-wing voluntary associations such as the John Birch Society.  As early as 1968, the John Birch society launched a decency movement that sought to ban sex education in public schools on the basis that it interfered with “the family’s moral responsibilities and rights…a government invasion of the private family sphere” (200).  The Nixon Administration’s law and order mantra extended to the family, viewing the New Left, black power, gay men, lesbians, and feminists as emblematic of a deteroriating democracy that only could be corrected through a stricter upbringing that stressed faith and traditional values.
Self emphasizes that the transformation of “breadwinner liberalism” to “breadwinner conservatism” was not  only engineered from the top – the New Right would have been impossible without robust grassroots support.  The Equal Rights Amendment and the legality of abortion mobilized anti-feminist housewives across the nation to create organizations that pledged to defend traditional motherhood in order to save the family.  Several years before the prominence of the Moral Majority, groups such as Women Who Want to Be Women invoked Biblical justifications for upholding traditional gender roles and patriarchy.  Anti-feminist leaders, most notably Phyllis Schlafy, linked the “rights of parents” to the conservative principle of small government by accusing feminists of wasting tax payer money to ruin families (313).  Self argues the appeal of breadwinner conservatism transcended regions: even the Deep South re-calibrated their opposition to civil rights by appealing to patriotism, God, and the family instead of violent racial antipathy.  Self states that the growing ability of the Right to define the normative American family sealed the fate of liberalism in the Democratic Party by 1976: President Carter moved the party rightward by ignoring feminist demands, reducing government expenditures, and embracing neoliberal economic polices.  By the end of the decade, the emergence of national evangelical political activists such as Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts, concerned that an expansive federal government limited their quest for patriarchal Godliness, spread the message of breadwinner conservatism through their congregations in mega churches, on radio airwaves, and on Christian television programs. 
The election of Ronald Reagan, if not a true revolution, placed feminists and other liberals on the defensive.  This limited the possibilities for political action on the left: American feminists spent much of the past three decades working to preserve the personal freedoms they won during 1960s and 1970s but largely abandoned efforts to expand the social safety net to allow for disadvantaged women to share in those freedoms.  Although the Right has not gotten everything they wanted – such as the Human Life Amendment – they successfully made many Americans scrutinize and question the necessity and extent of government services in every-day life through appeals to family values.  The virtuous white, Christian, family of the 1990s, led by a responsible, hard-working and dutiful father-provider, did not require nor desire government assistance, only privacy from an amoral secularist state whose meddling might squander their tax dollars on feminism, abortion, and obscene sexualities.  Self  points out the irony in the current ideal of breadwinner conservatism: the transition to a deregulated service-sector economy and growing socioeconomic inequality made such households nearly impossible for most Americans, but the aspiration to become such a family motivates many right-wing sympathizers living in the exurbs, the South, or the countryside.
Self addresses a wide breadth of topics in this book, chronicling how African Americans, feminists of all races and classes, gays, lesbians, antiwar activists, and grassroots conservative movements all competed to redefine the model American citizen and family.  Each of these topics are already responsible for extensive scholarship in their own right, and Self’s ability to create a coherent central narrative incorporating all these movements over a forty year period is a testament to his skill.  Self’s consistency in providing complex, nuanced evaluations of these variegated movements’ struggle with breadwinner ideology constitutes the book’s greatest strength, especially given the scope of his study.  For example, in the first chapter, Self points out that one of the proponents of breadwinner liberalism, Daniel Moynihan, and one of its notable critics, Malcolm X,  both called for black men to exercise greater influence and control over their households.  Likewise, Self’s analysis of how both feminists and their opponents rely upon a vocabulary of “choice” and “privacy” to achieve their legal and social goals makes for compelling, thought-provoking reading.  Self is also commended for keeping his narrative focused on overarching thesis.  While the nature of his study lends itself to a dense book full of numerous organizations, political leaders, legal cases, and events, Self evaluates all of his myriad subjects’ relationship to breadwinner liberalism (or in later chapters, breadwinner conservatism) at the end of each chapter. 
The book’s shortcomings are minor.  At rate times, Self’s terminology creates ambiguity.  For instance, Self argues that “ordinary women” contributed to the change in American sexual attitudes, a category he invokes multiple times throughout the chapter on the evolution of sexual culture, but he never clearly defines who an “ordinary woman” was in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Furthermore, academic audiences might quibble with the book’s broad focus: scholars who specialize in the history of feminism, civil rights, sexuality, liberalism, or conservatism might become frustrated  in the wayAll in the Family overlooks the research in the past twenty years that delineates all of these movements’ deeper roots.[1]  In fact, any reader hoping for Self’s take on relevant historiographical debates will be disappointed: there is no place in the book reserved for such a discussion.  Finally, despite the title, most of the book is dedicated to chronicling the evolution of the breadwinner ideal during the 1960s and 1970s;  readers more interested in post-Reagan developments may be disappointed. 
The publication of this book is timely and invites discussion on whether or not the recent presidential election represents a reversal of the trend Self identifies.  Barack Obama’s re-election means a black family continues to serve as the First Family for the United States, and the critical and commercial success of shows such as Modern Familyrepresents a wider acceptance of “alternative” (inter-ethnic and gay) households.  Likewise, a new wave of successful of gay marriage referendums in Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota also undermines the breadwinner ideal that fueled the New Right and the center-right consensus.  All in the Familyprovides valuable historical context to help any reader, academic or not, to process and understand the ongoing evolution of the American family and its crucial place in the nation’s political consciousness.

[1]   A brief sampling of these wider historiographies on liberalism, feminism, and sexuality:  Thomas Sugrue, “Crabgrass-Roots Politics: Race, Rights, and the Reaction against Liberalism in the Urban North, 1940-1964,” Journal of American History Vol. 82 No. 2 (Sept. 1995): 551-578;  Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of a Gay Male World, 1890–1940(New York: Basic Books, 1994); Rupp, Leila and Taylor, Verta. Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women’s Rights Movement, 1945-1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
Chris Ramsey is a Ph.D. candidate in United States History at Loyola University of Chicago.  His research interests focus on race, gender, and ethnicity in postwar urban America, and his dissertation (in progress) studies the evolution of white attitudes to racial attitudes on the Southwest Side of Chicago from the end of World War II through the election of Mayor Harold Washington in 1983.  He can be reached at [email protected].