Friday, December 01, 2006

Pg. 69: "Marriage, A History"

Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families, which she chaired from 2001-04.

Her most recent book is Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (2005), which I asked her to put to the "page 69 test." She did, and this is what she reported:
Page 69 of my book, Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, is the end of a chapter. Summing up the stories I have been telling about courtship and marriage in the distant past, I say: “For thousands of years…the economic functions of marriage were far more important to the middle and lower classes than were its personal satisfactions, while among the upper classes, the political functions of marriage took first place.”

Contrary to popular belief, “traditional” marriage was not based on love. Marriage was the way people sealed political and military alliances, raised capital, sought social status, or expanded their family labor force. Very seldom in the past did young people have any choice over their mates, and when they did, they were more practical than romantic. Most of the great “love affairs” of history, such as Anthony and Cleopatra, were in fact ruthless, coldly calculating plays for wealth and power.

Only 200 years ago did we see the emergence of the radical idea of the love match – that young people should be allowed to choose their own mates, and encouraged to do so on the basis of love. Social conservatives of the day – defenders of the traditional marriage of calculation and convenience – were horrified. They predicted that chaos would reign if people made decisions on the basis of their hearts. How, they demanded, would society get the “right” people married to each other or prevent the “wrong” people from demanding a right to marry? They warned that if love became the basis for marriage, individuals would claim a right to not to marry at all, or to divorce when love died.

The radical implications of the love match were held in check for the next 100 years by the unreliability of birth control and the harsh penalties for illegitimacy, the rigid roles imposed on men and women by Victorian morality, and the legal and economic subordination of women. But in the last 30 years almost all the economic, political, and cultural factors that used to force people to enter and stay in marriage have been overturned.

The result is a paradox: When a marriage works well, it is fairer, more intimate, and more passionate than people of the past would ever have dared to dream, but when it doesn’t work well, it seems less bearable.

The final chapters explain how the transformation of marriage forces us to rethink all the “rules” that we once took for granted about who marries, who doesn’t marry, what makes for a successful marriage, and what things lead to divorce. For better and for worse, marriage will never be the same.
Many thanks to Stephanie for the input.

Click here to read an excerpt, browse the Table of Contents, and read reviews of Marriage, A History.

For recent op-eds--including "Too Close For Comfort" (New York Times, November 7, 2006)--and other articles by and about Stephanie Coontz, click here.

Stephanie has a book review titled "Having It All" in the current Washington Post Book World. It's about "two new books [which] sum up the opportunities that women now have to mix and match their personal and professional lives: Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women, by Christine B. Whelan, and Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice, by Rosanna Hertz." (Hertz's book is the subject of a forthcoming "page 69" item here on the blog.)

Coontz's other books include The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (1992, 2000), The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families (1997), and The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families. She also edited American Families: A Multicultural Reader (1999).

Previous "page 69 tests":
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue