Norman Podhoretz, the influential neoconservative editor of Commentary magazine, has touched off a flurry of letters to the editor with a recent opinion page piece in which he blames the rise in adolescent ills on parents who put "their own interests above those of their children instead of the other way around."

Marshalling the requisite sociological study, Podhoretz endorses the notion that the bonds between parents and children have deteriorated and thus we have the increases in teen-age suicide, pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, abortion and venereal disease. He laments the "general refusal of parents to stay together for the sake of the children, and the huge increase in the percentage of mothers working outside the home."

Writers of letters to the editor point out that most two-earner couples work to provide the "luxuries" of food and shelter and, further, that there was plenty of crime, drunk driving, suicide and chemical addictions in the '50s and '60s when mothers stayed at home.

Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of "A Lesser Life: the Myth of Women's Liberation in America," takes the argument an important step further. She makes the case that the '50s were a tremendous social and historical aberration from which we are still recovering. It was a decade, she writes, that would also look "bizarre from the perspective of the prewar period."

American women, she argues, had been far ahead of their European counterparts in political and economic emancipation all the way up to the Second World War. Their scarcity and economic value in settling the West helped put them on equal footing with men. By the mid-'30s women made up 40 percent of the enrollment in U.S. institutions of higher learning. Movie stars such as Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn were playing "gutsy, intelligent women, women who had nothing in common with the dumb sex kittens of the 1950s."

During World War II, another 5 million women joined the work force, the number of working wives doubled and the government plunked down $20 million for day care centers. Immediately after the war, Hewlett writes, "a strange thing happened. America, that bastion of strong, independent women, became caught up in an orgy of domesticity, and millions of women embraced an existence that was totally centered on home and family. For the first time in history educated women were expected and encouraged to devote their prime years and expend their best energies on housework and motherhood."

Women married and started families earlier than ever, the birth rate soared, college enrollment dropped; women earned 10 percent of the doctoral degrees, down from 17 percent in the '20s and '30s. The proportion of law degrees earned by women dropped from 6 percent in the '30s to 3 percent in 1959.

Hewlett argues that social forces and public policies operated simultanously to foster ultradomesticity and the rise of "the cult of motherhood." The GI Bill gave 14 million returning service personnel free college educations and subsistence allowances, disincentives for spending money on training wives. The Highway Act of 1944 and cheap mortgage financing of the GI Bill created the suburbs -- whose populations increased by 35 percent between 1950 and 1954 -- moving women far away from jobs.

Dumb, submissive blonds replaced Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. Freudians who had fled Europe preached that women's ultimate fulfillment was through motherhood. Child rearing experts, who had inveighed against excessive mother love in the '30s, preached the opposite. In the '50s, writes Hewlett, motherhood for the first time became a full-time job, rather than a parallel occupation, and substitute care was deeply suspect. Preschools, which in the '30s were thought to foster independence, were accused in the '50s of being tainted with fascist or Red strokes. Focus on the mother's convenience, which had dominated earlier thinking on child rearing, was replaced by an exaggerated emphasis on raising a neurosis-free child. "Any shortcoming in adult life was now seen as rooted in the failure of mothering during childhood," writes Hewlett.

No wonder motherhood became a full-time job.

Fashions change, but what is important to understand in the current debate is that the '50s were not the logical culmination of a progression in attitudes. Rather, they were an aberration that cast both women and men in singularly restrictive roles: men were breadwinners, women were full-time mothers. That was not always the case, and it is not the case now.

A lot of kids turned out okay. As Hewlett points out, Ronald Reagan had a working mother.