"Marriage, a History": For better and for worse

Seattle Times, 5/27/2005. By Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett - Special to The Seattle Times.

A title along the lines of "Marriage, a History: Always Tricky, Never Boring" would have been more fitting for this comprehensive book but, alas, apparently there's no bucking the trend for subtitles that make one want to lie down and rest immediately after the title page.

If the subtitle or the hefty size of "Marriage, a History," the latest work by historian Stephanie Coontz of The Evergreen State College, scares some people off, it's their loss. Coontz knows her stuff, and she communicates it in a steadily engrossing style.

Coontz has made her name in the history of family, gender issues and marriage, and has written well-received books on those subjects. Best known are "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" and "The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families," both published in the 1990s.

Coontz is at the top of her writing game here. She's no chatty pop-prof; this is a thorough examination of the history of marriage. But she moves at a brisk pace and keeps the reader, regardless of her familiarity with the subject, marching forward on a well-lit path from the first pages:

"... We have to recognize that for most of history, marriage was not primarily about the individual needs and desires of a man and woman and the children they produced. Marriage had as much to do with getting good in-laws and increasing one's family labor force as it did with finding a lifetime companion and raising a beloved child."

Coontz moves through the transformation of marriage from the days of "foraging bands" of agricultural societies through the ancient kingdoms, in which marital ties formed powerful kin-based machines. She uses Cleopatra's tangled adventures to drive home the point that marriage was a means to securing property, power and political change.

The most readable historians are those who revel in the fluid nature of their subject and distill an enormous amount of information into descriptions both portable and intriguing. Pondering the impact of the Catholic Church on Western European marriage, Coontz does just that:

"One distinctive feature of the Western European marriage was that as early as the twelfth century, polygamy was prohibited. Many men kept mistresses, and wives were expected to ignore such behavior. But mistresses had no legal rights or social standing. By the fifteenth century the children of mistresses had lost the inheritance rights they had had in the early medieval period. A man's heir had to be born in marriage. For a long time the Church even prohibited adoption."

Moving to the modern era, she chronicles its very rapid changes, including the emerging notion of marriage-for-love. The contemporary institution she describes now begins to be a union we recognize, for better and worse, its nature shaped by longer lifespans, legal birth control, better education, wider career choices and changes in spousal roles.

"No sooner had family experts concluded that the perfect balance had been reached between the personal freedoms promised by the love match and the constraints required for social stability, than people began to behave in ways that fulfilled conservatives' direst predictions," Coontz writes of the 1960s. "Divorce rates soared. Premarital sex became the norm. And the division of labor between husband as breadwinner and wife as homemaker, which sociologists in the 1950s had believed was vital for industrial society, fell apart."

Yet she goes on to dismiss easy fatalism: "... Marriage is not doomed. In most countries, heterosexual marriage still has a privileged legal status. ... And for most Americans, marriage is the highest expression of commitment they can imagine."

Readers will approach this book for any number of reasons - interest in our evolving roles as wives and husbands, personal doubts or questions about the institution of marriage and its future. This is a work, too, that many will take up with the idea of mining it for help in their own writings on the subject, or in their work as counselors, teachers or activists in marital-rights causes.

Whatever the initial agenda, Coontz offers a measured and well-supported view of that most protean state we call marriage. "Over the past century, marriage has steadily become more fair, more fulfilling, and more effective in fostering the well-being of both adults and children than ever before in history," she writes near the end of her book. "It has also become more optional and more fragile. The historical record suggests that these two seemingly contradictory changes are inextricably intertwined."

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.

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