STEPHANIE COONTZ was off her daily diet of research and writing in late June 2015, while she was vacationing in Hawaii. After a Friday of hiking, body-boarding at the beach and snorkeling out to a rock where turtles gathered, she checked her email. Waiting was a flurry of messages from excited colleagues. They wanted to know whether Coontz, a Washington historian, had caught the news. The U.S. Supreme Court had just announced its landmark ruling on same-sex marriage. The court’s 5-4 opinion cited Coontz twice. Just after Confucius and Cicero.
A longtime faculty member at The Evergreen State College, Coontz had made a big impression on the country’s top legal minds. “Like national, epic-historical big,” Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat said at the time. Her writing about the evolution of marriage from an unequal property contract to a gender-neutral bond of love had influenced the court’s thinking, the law of the land and millions of lives.
It wasn’t the first time the limelight reached Coontz. She had chiseled a niche as the nation’s leading fact-checker on matters of family and marriage.
Her 1992 book, “The Way We Never Were,” took a trenchant look at American nostalgia for the good old 1950s. Coontz brought a basket of hard-boiled reality to the picnic of soft-focus memories. Rates of poverty, child abuse, marital unhappiness and domestic violence were higher in the 1950s than in subsequent, more-libertine decades. The prosperity of white men was tied to government subsidies, high rates of union membership, and unequal treatment of women and minorities. Reviews of her book inspired “Ozzie and Harriet Lied” headlines.
With impeccable timing, Coontz hit shelves as a national family-values debate raged. Vice President Dan Quayle had made news for suggesting that TV character Murphy Brown’s decision to become a single mother made her the kind of tramp who was driving the country into a ditch.
When it came to myth-busters, talk-show bookers knew whom to call.
And there was the Evergreen educator on TV, telling Oprah, “ ‘Leave It to Beaver’ was not a documentary.”
Debunking has kept her busy ever since. She was drawn back into the “nostalgia trap” by President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign. She sees Trump supporters embracing a particularly noxious strain of nostalgia. But you’re not likely to change their minds by hurling insults at them, she says. “Some of them can be won over, at least on a few important issues. Others can be redirected toward less-divisive topics — but not if they are demonized.”
That perspective is consistent with her longstanding approach. Protests she led against the Vietnam War were known for civility. And she kept a practical goal, even in the face of people who got screaming-mad at her politics. “I believed strongly, radical though I may have been,” Coontz says, “that you start to reach people where they are, not where you want them to be.”
COONTZ WAS perhaps the best-known radical woman in the Northwest in 1970. As a University of Washington student protesting the Vietnam War, Coontz started making news in 1968 (almost always written by men). Unlike many of her peers, she wasn’t rebelling against her parents. “My dad was a big supporter of labor unions. Both of them were active in the NAACP. My mother was executive secretary of the ACLU in Salt Lake City,” she says.
Born in Seattle, she was quickly uprooted. Her father, Sidney Coontz, a labor organizer, used the G.I. Bill to go to college and become an economics professor. That took young Stephanie to academic outposts in California, Idaho, England, New York and Utah. Her mother, Patricia McIntosh, was an “ambitious, independent” student at the UW before marrying Coontz’s father. She tried living the midcentury role of wife as stay-at-home nurturer, booster and mother. In time, she came to feel something was missing. She and her husband divorced. She restarted her studies. She became an English professor at Eastern Washington State College and a founder of the school’s Women’s Center.
Coontz graduated from high school a year early and took off for undergraduate life in Berkeley, California. She was soon involved in civil rights campaigns, then the free speech and anti-war movements.
After a brief expulsion at Berkeley, Coontz won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship that allowed her to pursue graduate studies in history where she wanted. She chose to come home. Her mother’s pioneering side of the family had deep roots in the Olympia area, having settled in Washington decades before it became a state. Coontz’s widowed grandmother lived alone in the Seattle area. Coontz decided to study at the UW so she could help her.
COONTZ PLAYED a leadership role in the Seattle anti-war movement, which swelled as the draft call escalated on its way to inducting 2 million American men. In 1968, she was part of a group that was booted from Fort Lewis, where they went to ask soldiers to join a newly formed GI-Civilian Alliance for Peace. Costumed as a cigar-chomping general, Coontz led a return the next year in a joke “invasion” of the Army base.
The Seattle Times reported, “The dark-eyed girl with the clear voice and a quick smile is unquestionably a successful politician.” The graduate student with a 3.75 GPA didn’t speak in the “strung-out, strung-together jargon of the New Left.” (“I never used the word ‘pig,’ ” Coontz says about an epithet some protesters spat at police officers.) Her socialism was tempered. She condemned bomb-throwing and window-smashing. Given a stage and bullhorn, she called for peaceful change. Democracy was a desirable way to govern, she said. But it didn’t do black people much good to be able to eat at an integrated restaurant if they couldn’t pay for the food. Economic changes were also needed.
UW students lashed out in a stormy week of protests in May 1970, after National Guard troops shot and killed four students at Ohio’s Kent State University. Coontz led thousands of students in daily rallies.
The next week, Coontz was walking down stairs in the UW Communications Building when two men jumped her and punched her several times. She was kept overnight in the health center for observation but not seriously injured.
Coontz ran for Congress that year on a Socialist Workers Party ticket, urging a 100% tax on war profits and polluting industries. One headline captured the election results in four words: “Minor parties remain minor.” Coontz received 2.6 percent of the vote.
She moved to New York City to work for the National Peace Action Coalition. She never did finish her Ph.D. But she got a teaching job at Evergreen four years later, a rare hiring chronicled by a headline: “Ex-war resister gets Evergreen faculty post.” Her mother had applied to the unconventional Olympia school. “Although Evergreen didn’t have disciplines,” Coontz says, “they told her they didn’t really need another person in English literature. They were actually looking for a historian. At which point, my mother said, ‘My daughter’s a historian,’ and encouraged me to apply. And to my surprise, I got it.”
A FEMINIST PUBLISHER asked whether Coontz, who had been an editor for the publishing arm of the Socialist Workers Party, wanted to write about women’s history. She started digging. She wasn’t thrilled about what she found. There were lots of books coming out. But they all seemed to be about what had been done to women through the ages, or what a few women had accomplished despite what was done to them.
Coontz looked for an opening that involved men and women interacting on a regular basis. “Suddenly, it was like: ‘the family, duh.’ ”
But family and social history were not very respectable fields of study then. “So thank God for Evergreen,” she says, “and not having to publish or perish.” She spent parts of 12 years researching and writing “The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families 1600-1900.” She now calls the book pompous in its use of big words. But it built a foundational expertise and academic credibility.
With her focus freed from mortality rates of colonial families and other grim facts of the 18th century, she looked around the real world and saw the values debate erupting, with women leading groups trying to restore what they considered “traditional” family norms. “Neither they, nor the liberals opposing them, actually knew very much about what family history was really like,” she says.
She set out to write a book called “Myths and Realities of American Families.” Then an editor saw one of Coontz’s chapters and said, “That’s the title of the book!” With a push from the Murphy Brown squall, the values debate stormed into the 1992 election season. “The Way We Never Were,” with its title poking at fictive Hollywood romance, poured high-octane “fuel in the sound-bite fires,” according to The New York Times.
She was back in the public eye, this time as a full-fledged academic.
A myth-buster was born.
COONTZ, 74, IS NOT working on a new book. She’s reluctant to start one now, because there’s so much watchdogging to do on recycled and redeveloped myths. (“Our founders did want to build a wall,” she says. “Between church and state.”)
She is a professor emerita, effectively retired from Evergreen. Much of her recent work has been in service to the Council on Contemporary Families, where she is director of research and public education. Based at the University of Texas at Austin, the council is a nonpartisan, nonprofit association of family researchers.
Coontz and her husband live on an organic farm — property first acquired by her great-grandfather — in Thurston County.
Discussing her penchant for taking a very long view of history, Coontz recalls a movie she saw about a rebel in the Spanish Civil War. “There are two things he says you need to make revolutionary change: Patience. And a sense of irony.”