Review: Marriage, A History

Against the Current, No. 127, March/April 2007

Johanna Brenner

Marriage, A History:
from Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage
Stephanie Coontz
New York: Viking Press, 2005, 432 pages
$18.17 hardcover, $16 paper.

PRESENTED AS A popular history of marriage, this book is in fact a political intervention — an extended argument that counters conservative “marriage defenders” who oppose gay marriage, are appalled by cohabitation, wish to make divorce and unwed motherhood more difficult, and so forth. The unraveling of “traditional marriage” (which turns out not to be particularly traditional after all) is not only inevitable, Coontz argues, but actually a healthy change for the best.

Writing in a down-to-earth, even chatty, style, Coontz locates herself firmly within a liberal political discourse and avoids taking positions or raising concerns that might shake the confidence of mainstream readers. Perhaps a sensible strategy given her intended audience, Coontz’s choice leaves little room for a feminist critique of contemporary marriage. While no doubt an improvement over what came before, marriage continues to exercise an oppressive hold on both our personal relationships and our imaginations.

The spine of the book is the story of how economic change — the rise of capitalism and associated political, social and cultural change, particularly the Enlightenment attack on absolutist government and assertion of individual rights — undermined the functions of marriage that had defined its place in society for thousands of years.

Marriage originated in hunter-gathering groups, Coontz argues, to forge networks of cooperation beyond the immediate family group or local band. Exchanging spouses was one of a number of strategies through which reciprocal obligations could be established. Although parents and other kin may have arranged a first marriage, unhappy partners could rather easily end marriage, because the stakes were not particularly high in terms of property, wealth, or military alliances.

The development of sedentary agriculture fundamentally changed this system.  Marriage became a central institution for managing economic and political affairs and a relationship too important to be entered into for love, companionship or sexual attraction. Informal alliances for cooperation were transformed into highly structured, high-stakes networks through which wealth was amassed, armies raised, and political power exercised.

While aristocratic elites utilized marriage to gain wealth and forge political alliances, the “other 95%” took partners for practical economic reasons: few people could carve out an independent life as a single person. In the ancient, medieval and early modern worlds, women and men had different, but complementary skills and along with their servants, children, and sometimes other kin, were crucial laborers in the farms and artisanal workshops that organized economic life.

In the medieval village, Coontz argues, even non-kin had a stake in who married whom, since family plots were linked through networks of mutual aid and communal accountability.

Modernity Unravels Marriage

The forces that would unravel marriage as it had been institutionalized for thousands of years began to emerge in the late 17th century, with the expansion of the market economy and wage labor. Wage labor and new forms of gaining wealth undermined the power of kin and parents over young people.  The freedoms afforded by the market economy had their parallel in new political and philosophical ideas championing individual rights.

By  the late 18th century, personal choice had replaced parental choice and individuals were encouraged to marry for love. Marriage came to be seen as a private relationship between two individuals rather than one link in a larger system of political and economic alliances. The roles of husbands and wives were also transformed; as economic production moved from the household to the factory, husbands and wives moved from being “yoke mates” to “soul mates.”

Coontz names this change the “love revolution” and argues that its fundamental premise — basing marriage on love and companionship rather than economic or political advantage and duty — would ultimately undermine marriage as a stable and central institution for organizing social life.  But first we would see the rise of what most people mean when they talk about “traditional marriage”— the union of a male breadwinner and female housewife.

Coontz traces the evolution of this family form in the “separate spheres” marriages of the 19th century, through the emergence of “companionship marriage” in the early 20th century, to its apotheosis in the “long decade” of the 1950s (in the U.S. from 1947 until the early 1960s) when, for the first time in the history of industrial capitalism, the vast majority could afford to marry, to marry young, to have children and prosper economically all through the wages of a single male earner.

Ironically, just at the moment that it appeared to be most entrenched and stable, marriage was about to be hit by the “perfect storm” that would complete the work of the love revolution.

Although change appeared to “come out of the blue,” many of the contradictions that exploded in the 1960s and 1970s were brewing throughout the 1950s. The phenomenal economic expansion of the post-WW II period created levels of prosperity that allowed more people than ever before to adopt aspirations for personal happiness and sexual fulfillment in marriage.

Prosperity Allows Choice

Expanding work opportunities brought more married women into the workforce after their children were grown and encouraged their daughters to postpone marriage for college or just to enjoy single life. As women stayed single longer, gained experience at work and at school, they grew more frustrated at the limits on their progress, paving the way for the feminist movement that rapidly accelerated women’s entry into work and higher education, on better terms than ever before.

As women gained more economic opportunities, they were less willing to stay in loveless marriages and began to use the restrictive divorce laws then in force. The contraceptive revolution initiated by the birth control pill made it much easier for young people to engage in sex outside of marriage. New household technologies and expanding service industries made living singly much easier, especially for men.

By 1978 only 25% of Americans still believed that people who remained single by choice were “neurotic” or “immoral,” whereas most had thought so in the 1950s. By 1979, 75% of the population thought it was moral to be single and have children.

In the 1960s and 1970s, an avalanche of legal reform expanded the rights of nonmarital children and unwed mothers. Breaking down the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy weakened marriage’s hold on people’s political and economic rights and obligations.

Declining male wages after 1973 pushed more wives into paid work, while the economic realities of a restructuring U.S. economy in the 1980s and 1990s encouraged young men and women to delay marriage. Few families could survive any more on one income, so women as well as men began investing in their earning power before marriage and childbearing.

The proportion of the population living as singles is now unprecedentedly high and so is cohabitation, as young people seek to establish themselves economically before taking on the obligations of marriage and children. Despite the continuing gender gap in earnings, many women are able to survive as single mothers, even if only modestly.

A 1997 study found that more than 40% of births to unmarried American women were intentional pregnancies. Coontz concludes: “By the dawn of the twenty-first century, society’s ability to pressure people into marrying or keep them married against their wishes was drastically curtailed. People no longer needed to marry in order to construct successful lives or long-lasting sexual relationships. With that, thousands of years of tradition came to an end.”

Change and Continuity

In assessing the impact of traditional marriage on men and women, Coontz gives a far more “balanced” account than most feminists would offer. For millennia, women were not allowed to choose their husbands, she says, but neither could men choose their wives. Marriage rules tended to allow men to exercise power over women, but women found ways to make men miserable. Victorian ideals of wifehood and motherhood justified women’s exclusion from public life; however, they also gave women new forms of influence and authority.

 Still, feminist critique runs through the text. She does make clear that women’s increasing economic independence was one of the important elements of the “perfect storm” of social, economic, legal, political, and cultural change that transformed the landscape of married life in the late 20th century.

Through each historical transformation of marital relationships that she documents, Coontz comments on the status of women in terms of their vulnerability to arbitrary and intrusive male power over their persons, children, and lives. There was, she says, “remarkable continuity in the legal subjugation of women from the Middle Ages until the end of the 19th century.”

While drawing on three decades of feminist writing on family history, Coontz does not engage with the concerns that have animated socialist-feminist theorizing about the origins of patriarchal marriage systems and the process of their transformation. For example, in the shift from hunting-gathering to sedentary agriculture, why did property holding become a male preserve?

 If marriage was utilized to create political and economic alliances among kin groups, why were women and not men exchanged to cement these alliances? The rise of industrial capitalism forced both women and men into wage labor, yet, patriarchal family arrangements were the norm in working-class households. What explains this?

Where socialist-feminists have emphasized women’s resistance and self-organization, Coontz tends to downplay women’s political organization in forcing the changes she describes. The “love revolution” transformed marital roles in the 19th century at least in part because the women’s movement challenged and changed laws giving husbands control over their wives incomes and fathers ownership of their children.

In the last part of the book, Coontz moves further from a socialist-feminist approach, abandoning critique for a celebration of capitalist modernization and its impact on the family.  Because marriages are more freely chosen, she argues, they are also happier. Because married couples are no longer embedded in and controlled by extended kin networks, they are free to shape their relationships according to their individual needs and desires.

Real Choices Constrained

 But there is another side of these developments that neither Coontz nor her conservative interlocutors acknowledge. Marriage is still a very powerful institution, its cultural significance pervasive and deeply ingrained.

While Coontz is right to say that people can survive outside of marriage, in fact there is little room for meeting our human needs in other, less individualized, more social ways. Most people do marry, and they marry because it is through the marriage contract that two adults establish a long-term mutual commitment to each other.

Marriage is how we form households to pool income, care for children and each other, make a life. As LGBT people point out, there are hundreds of benefits conferred on married couples and family law enforces the obligations that couples have to each other and their offspring.

Single mothers can survive on their own, but mothers in two-parent families have a much, much easier time (although some studies seem to show that women in two-parent families actually spend more time on housework than single mothers!).

Marriage may no longer be absolutely compulsory, but the “choice” to marry is hardly unconstrained. In a restructuring, highly competitive and insecure economy, tendencies toward individualistic striving, retreats into private life, and a turning away from larger social obligations are only strengthened.

Recognition of the privatized and individualistic aspects of bourgeois marriage and family life animated the early socialist-feminist visions of a society in which commitments and obligations to care for each other reach far beyond the nuclear family.

We can and should celebrate the rise of more democratic, mutual, and respectful relationships among men and women in marriage. But we should also insist that marriage is a very limited institution that truncates our capacities for imagining and establishing more expansive bonds of love and care.

ATC 127, March-April 2007