Marriage, A History
Coontz’s basic thesis is that marriage can only be understood historically. That is, marriage in Western society has always been an institution “in motion” and never more so as in the last two centuries. A continuing theme is that marriage reformers and marriage conservatives have both tended to be right and wrong. The reformers have tended to be right about the problems of marriage, the conservatives that various changes would weaken the institution—at least in terms of coverage and stability. The result is that we have ended up with a situation where marriage as an institution is quite fragile yet there have never been so many good marriages, clearly beneficial to both parties (p.309).
Marriage is changing so fast, popular perceptions can be quite out of date. For example, tertiary educated women are now more likely to be married—and more likely to have happy marriages—than low-income low-skill women (pp 286ff). The pool of potential husbands for the latter being of higher risk and lower benefit (pp 288ff).
The book is in four parts. The first looks at what we mean by marriage particularly traditional marriage. The second examines the history of marriage from the ancient fertile crescent to the elevation of marriage by the Reformation. The third looks at the “love revolution” in marriage across the modern era up to the end of the 1950s. The fourth looks at the collapse of life-long and universal marriage. Then there is a concluding chapter on the current prospects of marriage.
I particularly enjoyed Coontz’s discussion of the terrible difficulties anthropologists have had coming up with a definition of marriage. The vast array of human cultural forms resists easy categorisation. I especially enjoyed the discussion of the Na people of southern China, the only human culture known to have no equivalent of marriage. Brothers and sisters live communally together, brothers help raise their sisters’ children and erotic liaisons are casual, after-dinner, affairs (pp32-33). The problem is, all the things one might identify as being about marriage—impose an incest taboo, organise child-rearing, care for elders, coordinate household production , or pass on property to the next generation—individually can and have been done by other mechanisms in one society or another. The one thing very specific to marriage is—it’s the only way to get in-laws (p.33).
The invention of marriage seems to have occurred because having a flexible, gender-based division of labor within a mated pair was an important tool of human survival (p.38). The shift to sedentary and then agricultural living, wherever it occurred, was accompanied by a tendency to funnel cooperation and sharing exclusively through family ties and kinship obligations and to abandon more informal ways of pooling or sharing resources (p.45). The shift to economic life being based on assets which could be accumulated, inherited and were most productive if specifically owned (land and herds) clearly drove this.
One of the most powerful aspects of the book is the way Coontz puts things in context. Economic and social pressures are explained and their effects on marriage—and on men and women—are clearly set out. For millennia, the manoeuvring of families, governing authorities, and social elites prevailed over the individual desires of young people when it came to selecting or rejecting marriage partners. It was only two hundred years ago that men and women began to wrest control over the right to marry from the hand of parents, church and state. And only in the last hundred years that women have had the independence to make their own marital choices without having to bow to economic and social pressures (pp 48-49).
There is a huge amount of enlightening detail in Coontz’s book. She has been researching and writing on marriage for 30 years and her command of the subject matter shows—for example, her references to what women wrote in their journals at different periods in history. Marriage, A History is, indeed, the most profoundly informative book on women in Western society I have come across.
I particularly enjoyed Coontz’s calm, informative tone. She enlightens without preaching and is all the more persuasive for it. Thoroughly recommended.