Love and Marriage

To most of us, nothing sounds worse than a loveless marriage. According to Stephanie Coontz, it wasn't always that way.

Monday, May 23 found Stephanie Coontz enduring the hallmark of a successful American author's tour circa 2005: an appearance on The O'Reilly Factor. Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, was trying to articulate the thesis of her new book: that after 5,000 years of marriage as an economic and social bargain, we went and tossed love into the picture and, James Dobson and Michele Bachmann notwithstanding, the institution will never be the same.

Bill O'Reilly wasn't so much listening as he was waiting, coiled, for a conversational entrée. An animated, funny woman, Coontz hardly engages in academic-speak, but when she got to the word paradox O'Reilly could stand it no more. "In the early part of the country, there wasn't dating," he erupted. "I mean, if you were out in Idaho, shooting at Native Americans and they were shooting at you, and there was one woman for every 50 guys, I mean, a woman would say, 'You.' It was a totally different thing."

Coontz continued trying to explain that Ozzie and Harriet, or whatever straight white couple was doing icon duty in O'Reilly's psyche, are a historical aberration, and that this is in many ways good news. O'Reilly wasn't having any of it, though.

Stephanie Coontz: "You keep getting this wishful thinking that women will give up their jobs and go back to the home, at least while they are mothers. That is not going to happen."
Roy Rodgers
Stephanie Coontz: "You keep getting this wishful thinking that women will give up their jobs and go back to the home, at least while they are mothers. That is not going to happen."

"What about the poor guy?" he interjected. "We have to--the poor guy has to make a lot of money, all right, got to be a great lover at all times, even after working 18 hours, got to be the greatest father, sensitive to all the tykes, okay? You've got to be well groomed. You have to--come on!" He then twice mentioned his parents' marriage, swung at welfare queens, "commune people," "secularists," and, inexplicably, suggested people might want to head off Armageddon.

"Provocative book, Ms. Coontz," he finally pronounced, segueing into a segment on Paris Hilton.

In this, at least, O'Reilly is right: Marriage: A History, from Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (Viking), released last month, is just as surprising a read as Coontz's five previous, provocative, myth-busting books, including the best-selling and self-explanatory The Way We Never Were. A couple of days before her O'Reilly appearance, Coontz, who is director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families, took time out from her book tour in Georgia to talk to City Pages.

City Pages: How did you decide to write this book?

Stephanie Coontz: I have been studying family history since 1975, and I've spent a lot of my career telling people that really things have not changed so radically. Families have always been changing and they have always been diverse. But as I started to research marriage I started to realize that something truly radical had changed, something truly revolutionary was going on. And so I set out to figure out where that had come from.

What I discovered was, first of all, that the origins of this revolutionary transformation were much further back than I had thought. Until the late 18th century, marriage was in fact not about love and companionship and intimacy and fidelity, as we so often believe. In fact the real traditional marriage was about property, acquiring in-laws, and competing for social status, and in the upper classes, making peace treaties, including military alliances. In the lower classes it was about finding a work partner. Personal attraction took second place in all these social groups and throughout all societies throughout history. In fact, most societies considered love a poor reason to get married and found the idea of a love match very threatening to the political and economic functions of marriage.

But then in the late 18th century, this radical new idea developed connected to the Enlightenment in Western Europe and America that individuals should be free to choose their own mates, as they had not been for most of history, and that they should choose them on the basis of love. No sooner had this radical new idea of marriage been put forward than the traditionalists of the day warned that this was a terribly radical, destabilizing idea, that love would be the death of marriage. They said, once you allow people to marry for love, what will force the people we want to marry to do so? What will prevent people that we don't want to marry from saying, Well, I'm in love so I'm going to marry? And what will keep people who fall out of love or who have a miserable marriage from divorcing? All those demands were raised, I was surprised to find, as early as the 1790s.

But the disaster that was predicted by the conservatives of the day, of the 18th century, took another 150 to 200 years to play out. Because even though all of those ideas were on the agenda 200 years ago, people did not feel free to act on the radical implications of the love match. Women were economically dependent on men. Men could be refused jobs and promotions and later business loans if they weren't married or if they were divorced.

The penalties for having a child out of wedlock were extremely severe. It wasn't just that the child didn't have a right to support from his father. A child born out of wedlock didn't even have a secure right to his mother, and vice versa. And because those penalties were so severe and because birth control was not available, women had to be pretty conventional. They had to marry if they did get pregnant. Only a desperate woman would keep a child out of wedlock.

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