About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Love and marriage ...

Sorry, folks -- if you were hoping for a juicy personal expose on the seamy side of life at Hazel's House, this ain't it. Double the "bad idea" quotient on that because Mrhazel is one of the few people who actually reads my blog, and then double that because we just had Mrhazel's mom with us for the weekend. Cafe Hazelthyme remains PG-rated at best. Nothing to see here.

Well, nothing except my review for #34 - Marriage, A History: From Intimacy to Obedience, or How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz. I'll admit up front that I was predisposed to like this one; I'm interested in family and gender issues, I devour histories that are less about battles and conquests than about the everyday lives of regular people, and I really enjoyed The Way We Never Were and The Way We Really Are, Coontz's earlier books about much the same subject (namely, the history of family life). While I ended up not enjoying Marriage quite as much as the other two -- possibly because I've read a number of books and articles on the topic since then, so it's harder to find something new or surprising -- it was nonetheless an interesting read, informative, and written in a clear, engaging style.

The book starts with a premise that will be familiar to readers of Coontz's earlier books: namely, that what we think of as "traditional" in terms of marriage and family life isn't, really. More precisely, she argues that people only began marrying for love about 200 years ago, and that the iconic traditional family depicted in Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver was both a recent invention and a short-lived one:
"The long decade of the 1950s, stretching from 1947 to the early 1960s in the United States and from 1952 to the late 1960s in Western Europe, was a unique moment in the history of marriage. Neve before had so many people shared the experience of courting their own mates, getting married at will, and setting up their own households. Never had married couples been so independent of extended family ties and community groups. And never before had so many people agreed that only one kind of family was 'normal.'

"The cultural consensus that everyone should marry and form a male breadwinner family was like a steamroller that crushed every alternative view. By the end of the 1950s even people who had grown up in completely different family systems had come to believe that universal marriage into a male breadwinner family was the traditional and permanent form of marriage."
In reality, according to Coontz, it was neither. By contrast, "the single most important function of marriage through most of history ... was its role in establishing cooperative relationships between families and communities. ... Marriage also allowed families to pool labor and resources or to establish some kind of partnership between two different kin groups." She devotes roughly the first half of the book to a survey of marriage customs across cultures and time periods in the thousands of years before the love match became widely accepted, from political marriages in ancient Athens and then Rome (including Antony's to Cleopatra, of which she writes "both Cleopatra and Antony were playing for stakes that had little to do with undying love ... on everyone's part this was a calculated, even ruthless, political intrigue") to early Christianity's evolving requirements for marriage and divorce to the essential role of marriage in allowing medieval peasants to create economically viable households.

The tipping point occurred toward the close of the 18th century, when industrialization shifted production from home to factory, and Enlightenment philosophers came to emphasize individual rights and justice over domination and force. Says Coontz, the result was as follows:
"The husband, once the supervisor of the family labor force, came to be seen as the person who, by himself, provided for the family. The wife's role was redefined to focus on her emotional and moral contributions to family life rather than her economic inputs. The husband was the family's economic motor, and the wife its sentimental core."
Realizing that this is becoming long, I'm barely halfway through the book, and I'm still mostly summarizing rather than offering any intelligent reflections ... I'll recommend this book as both entertaining and informative, and direct those seeking a more in-depth analysis to this review from an April 2007 California Literary Review, which I wish I'd written. (I mostly agree with the author, but I'm not that good. Then again, he probably wasn't sitting on the couch with an afghan on his feet and an elderly iBook on his lap when he wrote it, either.)

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