Love and Marriage

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

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.

"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.

Then, in the space of about 15 years, all of those things were overturned. We got the pill in 1960. We got a new, more professional economic system that was much more interested in how fat your wallet was and what your job credentials were than what your personal situation was. We got the development of drip-dry shirts and other conveniences that made men less dependent on having a full-time housewife. And in the 1970s we had women's entry into the workforce, which made women less dependent on marrying.

The result was that people really could marry for love, completely for love, in a way they hadn't been. As late as the 1960s, two-thirds of women in college polls said they would marry a man they didn't love if he met all of their other criteria. And you could begin to expect higher things of marriage. As late as the 1970s, many women who were interviewed, working-class women, told reporters that their definition of a happy marriage was one where the husband didn't hit them. Now, in the last 20 years, of course, our expectations have grown much higher.

The result is that many marriages are happier than many couples I studied in the past would ever have dared to dream. But the very things that make marriage more intimate and more flexible have also made it more optional. And they've made people less willing to put up with a marriage that doesn't meet those aspirations.

CP: Why do you think this sea change is so terrifying to so many people?

Coontz: It contradicts the emotional expectations for marriage that we've developed over the last 150 years, that it's the only way to make commitments. But even more than that, it contradicts the way that we've organized work and social welfare policies and teen sex education. We've assumed that marriage will be the thing that initiates most people into sex. It's the way that you will spend the majority of your adult life. We have also assumed for the last 50 years that every worker would have a wife to take care of life.

It's also the way that we've organized the division of labor between men and women. Right up until the 1970s a gendered division of labor was part of the legal definition of marriage in many states. The husband had a duty to support the family but the wife didn't, and the wife had a duty to provide her husband with sex and housekeeping. Nowadays, not everything is organized through marriage, which does pose certain challenges. But it also provides us with opportunities because it means that if you're not cut out for marriage, or if you had a bad marriage, you have an opportunity to live a different way. And if you're in a marriage and you don't fit those 1950s gender roles, you can renegotiate your marriage in a way that you never were able to before.

CP: Is all of this the reason our society is so unwilling to deal with issues such as childcare and flex time and so many other things that are important to modern families?

Coontz: Absolutely. One of the important ways people are in denial about how much and how irreversibly marriage has changed is that 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. Mothers are in the workforce to stay. But because we refuse to recognize that, we're prevented from looking seriously at the need for subsidized parental leave, so that being able to stay home for a while is not a class privilege. It also allows us to avoid confronting the need for high-quality childcare to give mothers and fathers a reliable place to send their kids while they are at work.  

CP: You have observed that you and right-wing evangelical James Dobson finally agree on something.

Coontz: It's not so much that I agree as it is that I think for once he has understated the case. James Dobson says that allowing gays and lesbians marriage threatens to end marriage and family as we have known it for 5,000 years. I usually disagree with people who make catastrophic claims, but I think in this case Dobson is understating the case. Marriage and the family as we've known it has already been decisively overturned.

Where I continue to disagree with him is that it is heterosexuals who changed marriage and gays and lesbians are simply responding to that change. It was heterosexuals who said marriage does not have to be about procreation. It was heterosexuals who pioneered the reproductive revolution that allowed infertile people to have kids. It was heterosexuals who gave you a choice whether to marry. And it was heterosexuals who said we don't have to organize marriage around rigid gender roles; men and women can construct what roles they want to play, or they can play equal roles.

Once you've gotten rid of the idea that it has to be for procreation, that is has to be between two people who can physically reproduce, and that you must have kids if you can, and that one has to play the male role and one the female role, then many of the arguments for denying marriage to gays and lesbians go out the door.

CP: Which makes me wonder if the hysteria we're seeing now is kind of the death throes of that political movement.

Coontz: Yes, definitely that's true. For many people who subconsciously recognize that these changes are not going to be reversed, gay and lesbian marriage is the line in the sand that they draw: "Well at least we can stop them from marrying." It's a hollow line in the sand. After all, many people say every family should have a male and a female, but the majority of families that don't have a male and a female are heterosexual families.

For some people this has become a way of coping with the fact that they're really not going to be able to change the fact that unwed motherhood, unmarried cohabitation, and divorce are here to stay. They are pretending to themselves that they can halt at least some of the change if they deny the right to marry to gays and lesbians.

CP: Which is such fabulous displacement when you think about all of the other things that are truly threatening families.

Coontz: Absolutely. Denying marriage to gays and lesbians becomes this sort of simplistic way of saying, "Okay, that's our goal. And if we reach that goal, we won't have to deal with the fact that single-parent families need support, that two-parent families--male and female two-parent families--are under horrendous stress and are being driven to divorce by the lack of family-friendly workplace policies." This is a magic solution to all that. And I mean that, it is magical thinking.

Stephanie Coontz will give a free talk at 2:00 p.m. Friday, June 17 at Normandale Community College Auditorium (9700 France Ave. S. in Bloomington). A panel discussion will follow. For further information, e-mail [email protected].

Twin Cities Reader Summer Books Issue:

The Barnstormer A few years ago, Doug Ohman was a theme-park executive with 600 employees. Today, he photographs barns. What happened?

The Dirty Parts Romance Novelist Connie Brockway Wants to Know Why People Can't Look Past the Unbound Bosom and Love-Swollen Member

Fixing a Leak What happens when a reporter doesn't keep his word to an anonymous source?

From the Beauty Parlor to the Barricades! Her Warmhearted Characters Feel Good About the World. Lorna Landvik Doesn't.

Love and Marriage To Most of Us, Nothing Sounds Worse Than a Loveless Marriage. According to Stephanie Coontz, It Wasn't Always That Way.

Life of Johnson It wasn't fun bringing up the rump of the avant-garde. B.S. Johnson felt compelled to do it anyway.

Review: Joe Coomer: Pocketful of Names

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