You probably know that I am quite interested in the history, current state, evolution and future of the institution of marriage, mainly because it is an important indicator of societal attitudes towards sex and towards gender-relations, which is the key to understanding political ideology. Between May 29, 2005 and February 23, 2006 I frequently mentioned Stephanie Coontz and particularly her latest book – Marriage, A History, e.g., in New History Of Marriage, Stephanie Coontz On Marriage, Op-Ed on the ‘End of Marriage’, Don’t Know Much About History…. and What ‘traditional’ marriage?. Amanda of Pandagon also wrote two good posts about it: Nothing to it and How to save your marriage (or at least give it a fighting chance). While I never really reviewed the book, here is a post with some thoughts and several good links to other people’s reviews as well as her own articles:
Yup, you know I am interested in this topic, as I have written about it a number of times, including Moral Politics In The Context Of History Of Marriage, Definition, Semantics And Future Of Marriage, Gay Marriage And Marriage Tax, Hooked On Hooking Up and
Teen Sex, Hooking Up, Femiphobia. So, of course, I went to hear Stephanie Coontz last Wednesday, and I bought her last three books. I liked, of course, everything she said. For instance (from one of her articles):
Many people hold an image of how American families “used to be” at some particular point in time, and they propose that we return to that ideal. In fact, however, there have been a wide variety of family forms and values in American history, and there is no period in which some ideal family predominated.
Marriage is no longer the main way in which societies regulate sexuality and parenting or organize the division of labor between men and women. And although some people hope to turn back the tide by promoting traditional values, making divorce harder or outlawing gay marriage, they are having to confront a startling irony: The very factors that have made marriage more satisfying in modern times have also made it more optional.
The origins of modern marital instability lie largely in the triumph of what many people believe to be marriage’s traditional role — providing love, intimacy, fidelity and mutual fulfillment. The truth is that for centuries, marriage was stable precisely because it was not expected to provide such benefits. As soon as love became the driving force behind marriage, people began to demand the right to remain single if they had not found love or to divorce if they fell out of love.
Such demands were raised as early as the 1790s, which prompted conservatives to predict that love would be the death of marriage. For the next 150 years, the inherently destabilizing effects of the love revolution were held in check by women’s economic dependence on men, the unreliability of birth control and the harsh legal treatment of children born out of wedlock, as well as the social ostracism of their mothers. As late as the 1960s, two-thirds of college women in the United States said they would marry a man they didn’t love if he met all their other, often economic, criteria. Men also felt compelled to marry if they hoped for promotions at work or for political credibility.
None of this means that marriage is dead. Indeed, most people have a higher regard for the marital relationship today than when marriage was practically mandatory. Marriage as a private relationship between two individuals is taken more seriously and comes with higher emotional expectations than ever before in history.
Marriage is no longer the institution where people are initiated into sex. It no longer determines the work men and women do on the job or at home, regulates who has children and who doesn’t, or coordinates care-giving for the ill or the aged. For better or worse, marriage has been displaced from its pivotal position in personal and social life, and will not regain it short of a Taliban-like counterrevolution.
Forget the fantasy of solving the challenges of modern personal life by re-institutionalizing marriage. In today’s climate of choice, many people’s choices do not involve marriage. We must recognize that there are healthy as well as unhealthy ways to be single or to be divorced, just as there are healthy and unhealthy ways to be married. We cannot afford to construct our social policies, our advice to our own children and even our own emotional expectations around the illusion that all commitments, sexual activities and care-giving will take place in a traditional marriage. That series has been canceled.
A blogger intent on preserving “traditional marriage” and his commenters chime in: Stephanie Coontz: Marriage Means Something Different Now. Here’s another one (on which I commented a lot).
And here’s more by and about Coontz and her books:
In Search Of A Golden Age
The Myth of Marriage
The Malleable Estate: Is marriage more joyful than ever? By Alan Wolfe, Slate, May 17, 2005. – what axe does he have to grind?
And from this review (unfortunately not available online any more), Nonfiction review: ‘Marriage, a History’ by Stephanie Coontz, Reviewed By Brigitte Frase, Special To The Star Tribune, May 22, 2005, comes this excerpt:
As in her earlier book about families, “The Way We Never Were,” Stephanie Coontz has set out to tell us everything we don’t know about marriage. It turns out to be quite a lot. Marriage as we know it — discrete units of husband, wife and children — is only about 200 years old, and that’s mainly in Europe and the United States. The sunny ideal of the breadwinner husband with his homemaker wife and their 2.2 children was a historical blip, lasting only from the end of World War II until the mid-’60s, when the nation went through a nesting period, a relieved response to the end of the Depression and the war.
In her exhaustively researched and well-footnoted “Marriage, a History,” Coontz has pulled together centuries of primary and secondary anthropological, sociological and historical information. But this isn’t just a reference work. Filled with anecdotes about everyone from Cleopatra to Charlemagne to Henry VIII, plus all sorts of charming trivia — did you know that the “kick” in Cole Porter’s lyric came from cocaine, not champagne? — this is a reader-friendly and absorbing book.
Coontz punctures myths left and right, pointing out that for thousands of years, all over the world, the purpose of marriage was less to unite a man and a woman than to forestall conflict, consolidate property and increase the labor pool. In one ancient Chinese culture, marriage played no role: Women had sexual relationships but lived and raised children with their siblings. Clearly, Coontz writes, “marriage is not the only way to impose an incest taboo, organize child rearing, pool resources, care for elders, coordinate household production or pass on property. It is, however, the only way to get in-laws. And since the dawn of civilization, getting in-laws has been one of marriage’s most important functions.”
Human beings, like most other animals, are not naturally monogamous, Coontz argues. There might be a biological imperative to mate, but there certainly isn’t one to shack up. That is why every society enacts so many rules about what marriage should or shouldn’t be. Neither is there one model of a traditional marriage, she points out. Polygamy and, to a lesser extent, polyandry are traditional practices. There also have been societies, in Africa and native America, where sex played less of a role than gender roles. One spouse would behave as a “male,” the other as “female.”
Coontz builds a strong case for her contention that the love-based nuclear marriage we think of as “traditional” emerged in Europe toward the end of the 18th century. The spread of a market economy meant people could live on wages and didn’t need the support of an extended family. Enlightenment thinkers and theologians championed individual rights and, something entirely new in the world, the pursuit of happiness.
By Victorian times, marriage had become almost a mystical bond, idealized as everyone’s highest aspiration. Queen Victoria set the tone: When she “broke with convention and walked down the aisle to musical accompaniment, wearing pure white instead of the traditional silver and white gown and colored cape, she created an overnight ‘tradition.’ ”
But, Coontz points out, there is an inherent instability in a love match. When two people are required to be everything to each other, when love in a marriage is an obligation rather than a bonus, the risks of disappointment and failure are high. Coontz argues that this kind of marriage has become brittle to the breaking point. Witness the ever-growing marriage-advice industry and need for therapeutic intervention on behalf of the old biological imperative.
In fact, Coontz argues, marriage is no longer a central institution in our society. As laws have changed, giving women the same rights as men and abolishing the status of “illegitimate” children, many other ways of organizing relationships have emerged. We have cohabitating couples, single-parent households, “blended” families, communal arrangements. But the fastest growing segment of the population is singles, both the never-married and those who drop out of the market. And even for married couples, coworkers are increasingly becoming surrogate soulmates.
People will continue to marry, but it is too late to “defend” marriage; Coontz says flatly that it will never again be an important cultural institution. It strikes me that the strident debate about gay marriage masks a deep anxiety; it might well be a distraction from acknowledging the diminishing importance of marriage. Isn’t it ironic that those who now sentimentalize marriage are denied entry?
Buy the book!