TBR: Marriage, a History

Today’s book is Marriage, a History: from Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz.  Coontz’s thesis is that all of the recent phenomena that are often portrayed as signs of "the end of marriage" as a social institution — delayed marriage, increased divorce rates, out-of-wedlock childbearing — are the natural consequences of the transformation of marriage into a relationship grounded in love and intimacy.  Once society stops seeing marriage as simply a mechanism for creating alliances between families, determining the inheritance of property, and controlling both physical and human resources, and starts portraying it as a expression of emotional connection, it becomes hard to argue that people should stay married if they’re no longer in love. In Coontz’s word, marriage has become treasured but "optional."

While focusing mostly on Western Europe, Coontz surveys the huge range of social institutions that we lump together with the label of "marriage" and points out how many of the conditions that we think of as inherent aspects of "traditional marriage" (prohibitions on premarital sex, incest taboos, sexual fidelity, restriction of inheritance to legitimate children, difficulty of divorce) are actually contingent choices, accepted at some historical periods but not at others.

The book covers several thousand years of history and thus is necessarily a quick summary of each period.  Overall, I enjoyed the book and found it a quick read. I didn’t object to the fast pace until the very end, when it felt like Coontz assumed that her audience had already read her previous book, The Way We Never Were. Coontz claims that the specific circumstances of the 60s and 70s — second wave feminism, improved access to birth control, stagnant male wages and growing female earning potention — accelerated the changes, but weren’t necessary for them to occur.

Coontz consistently offers political and economic explanations for why different societies had different moral standards.  I was quite intrigued by her argument that the "separate spheres" story about gender roles developed as a response to the strain that democracy placed on the old assumptions that women were inherently inferior and subordinated.  I was also fascinated by her claim that as early as the beginning of the 19th century, different classes were developing different expectations around the timing of work and marriage — and different moral standards that went with them:

"A shotgun wedding was not a huge problem for people in rural occupations if the young couple had access to the resources needed to set up a new household.  As for unskilled and semi-skilled laborers, whose earning power had often peaked by the end of their teens, it could be an advantage to marry and have children early, because after only a short period of dependence, the children could enter the labor force and increase total household income."

"But for middle-class parents, an unexpected marriage was a bigger problem.  To achieve success in the expanding category of middle-class occupations, a man had to have an education or serve a long period of training in his craft or profession…. This made deferred gratification a cherished principle of middle-class family strategy…. Central to this internal moral order was an unprecedented emphasis on female purity and chastity."


I was quite amused last week to look at the Washington Post Book Review and see that they had given this book to none other than Judith Warner to review.  This review mostly serves to confirm Jennifer Weiner’s claim that reviews are more about the reviewer than the book.  Warner concludes: "Relationships between men and women, she [Coontz] implies, are basically healthy — probably better than they’ve ever been in the past. It’s our society that’s sick." 

2 Responses to “TBR: Marriage, a History”

  1. dave s Says:

    now, lets tie this back into your post on child support enforcement: http://elb.typepad.com/
    child_support_e.html#comments – looks to me like child support enforcement – and welfare reform – move an early out-of-wedlock child out of the ‘no-biggie’ category into the ‘big problem’ area, and changed behavior is consistent with Coontz’ idea that behavior and moral standards will change with what is economically workable.

  2. Elizabeth Says:

    Well, for another 150 years, there was still an assumption that an early out-of-wedlock conception would lead to marriage. (In an earlier post, I referred to it as The River model of family formation, from the Springsteen song.) So the path from there to child support enforcement is pretty indirect.

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