Teaching works like 'Trifles,' 'A Doll House,' 'The Yellow Wallpaper,' stories by Kate Chopin and others which center on marriage, I find myself constantly trying to correct students' notions of marriage in history. This cult of female purity encouraged women to internalize limits on their sexual behavior that sixteenth and seventeenth authorities had imposed by force." (159) No wonder I've long been fascinated by The Middle Ages...
And really, I'm not solicited by the cuteness of chapter titles like "Soap Operas of the Ancient World." I suppose the first two sections, which offer a sort of cross-cultural & historical context for white bourgeois Western marriage norms, are well-intentioned.
Jammed packed with interesting tidbits, Coontz has put together a tremendous history of marriage, which in the process examines not only the evolution of marriage and its role in society but also the changing ideas about men and women and their relationship to each other. Then she spends 300 plus pages and 100 pages of references describing why "marriage as we know it" is a relative term since the reasons people marry, the accepted norms and tradition, the choice of partners, its function in society, and the laws and societal constraints governing it have changed and evolved to reflect the needs and desires of various times and various peoples. From entering into loveless unions designed to expand resources to forming business-like partnerships to maximize your family's output to providing a system whose primary purpose is to establilsh legitimacy to children and ensure suitable heirs to fulfilling the sexual and/or emotional needs of two individuals, the only thing sacred about the institution of marriage is that it has and can be whatever we decide it should be. Some interesting passages (and there were many) that got me thinking (view spoiler) Decades later a black woman commented that it was really Hitler, not Lincoln, who had freed the slaves! And never before have unmarried people, living alone or in couples, had the same rights as married adults. By the beginning of the twenty-first century they were less than 51 percent, and married couples with children were just 25 percent of all households. For the first time ever, there were more single-person households than those with a married couple and children.
I understand this was published ten years before same-sex marriage was legal across the United States, but it could have still been given a bit more attention in her book. Very early on Coontz throws in a few anecdotes about marriages in other cultures which made me believe there would be chapters on those things throughout the book. Coontz didn't really take off until she reached maybe the Victorian era, which is of course already pretty well known by most regular readers, as is the 20th century and into the 21st. Where Coontz could have provided better information was in the earlier chapters talking about Roman and Greek ideas of marriage - this was the area my mind perked up thinking it might learn something - but it was short-lived, and the rest of the early chapters were pretty basic as far as "and in this century...". I would like to see this book updated now that same-sex marriage is legal in the United States, and I would like to see Coontz write more about cultures that aren't Western European or American. This is a very one-sided view of marriage and its history, which is a damn shame because I am certain there is better information out there that tells me more than what I already know as a white, heterosexual American.
The author sums up the book by saying, "yay, now we have equality in compulsory monogamy!" And with no honest outlets for extramarital attractions, men and women cheat in almost equal numbers! Certainly the current monogamous system is not without its benefits, but it's also REALLY difficult for a lot of people to put into practice, so can we talk about that, instead of writing it off as a universal good? Monogamy has historically been accompanied by various pressure-release valves (which the book discusses in detail), usually involving wives "sucking it up" while their husbands have affairs or visit prostitutes.
This book may be of interest to those who have not studied the history of marriage in the western world. For example, the book largely leaves undiscussed theological responses to changing understandings of marriage in the 19th- and 20th century and the conflicts within various religious communities over how to respond to changes in "tradition" both within secular society and within their own communities. For example, at the end of the book, the author discusses at much length why low income individuals today are more likely to live in extramarital relationships than middle and upper income individuals; the reasons that she highlights are largely economic.
In general I have a very conservative opinion on marriage, and though this well-researched and convincingly written book enlarged my perspective, it did not change my view that "traditional" marriage is the ideal. I don't know that Coontz so much intended to dismiss that view, as to help readers realize that my traditional ideal is not "how it's always been," and certainly isn't how it always will be. It wasn't until industrialization that living standards were raised to the point where people had the luxury of choosing a partner based on emotional attachment. Through the '50's and '60's the collapse of traditional marriage was delayed, however, by the simple fact that women were still so economically dependent upon men.