Saturday, April 24, 2021

Response: Coontz, a Marriage

“By all means marry. If you get a good wife, you'll be happy. 

If you get a bad one, you'll become a philosopher.”


In her expansive undertaking to investigate the institution and transformation of marriage in the modern era, Stephanie Coontz takes us on quite a journey through the past, looking at various social changes and pressures in which marriage has existed and through which marriage has changed. She undertook the work to debunk the notion that there was a stable notion of marriage that has persisted throughout history, to address the notion “that there had been a Golden Age of Marriage in the past.” She was surprised to find that modern marriage is, in fact, unique, that “the relations between men and women have changed more in the last thirty yeard than they did in the previous 3000,” “the culmination of a new marriage system that had been evolving for 150 years.”

She’s right to identify the role of marriage as an economic and political institution, one with power to grant an individual a defined role in society. As the economic and political systems changed in the West, marriage had to adapt as well. For mypart, I think she misses a huge piece by not understanding marriage’s role in the feudal system: in the feudal system, political and economic power came through land ownership, and the post-Reformation Enlightenment revolution combined with the burgeoning urbanization to create a working class separate and distinct from the feudal structure of landlord and peasant-tenant. The creation of a cash-based transactional economy was itself revolutionary, and all systems of Western society were forced to shift. Marriage served to provide a structure by which legitimate heirs were identified for the inheritance of the power of land ownership, a power conveyed through primogeniture; much of the stricutures around sexual purity came from the need to verify paternity for the conveyance of landed titles. The period of time in which Coontz investigates is the whole of the modern era itself, with the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the Constitutional Congress of 1789 blasting through the fabric of centuries of feudalistic structures to jettison the landless (white, male) individual on equal footing with the gentry. The whole notion of voting was radical, personal, and deeply individualistic; it’s no wonder that marriage should be put into a crucible for transformation as well.

Coontz identifies four factors that shaped the transformation, yet she never quite comes out and says that equality itself was the death knell for marriage as it had been known throughout human history to date. She cites assumptions of innate differences between the sexes; lack of reliable birth control and consequences for illegitimacy; women’s economic dependence on men and men’s domestic dependence on women; and the social and legal pressures to maintain conformity as the prime factors in transforming marriage into its modern form, one she finds to be a victory of romantic love. The first three factors are all direct consequences of economic and political power coming from the feudal land-based structure; as for the fourth, I think she misses the mark: our society today still retains the “ability of relatives, neighbors, employers, and government officials to regulate people’s personal behavior and penalize non-conformity.”  With the emergence of individual liberty of the Enlightenment era, the idea of an institutionalized union between adults became personally and philosophically repugnant, a point that Coontz seems to overlook in her conclusion that love won out over rules. Yes, personal preferences mattered, but that’s because the notion of the person separate from the state came into being; the state was held as responsible to the citizens, sometimes at the edge of the guillotine blade. One thinks that there might be a more nuanced understanding of the shift in personal associations than merely the “radical new idea that love should be the most fundamental reason for marriage.” Love was certainly heralded, make no mistake; but this centralization of affection and personal choice was made possible through the rampant shift in urbanization and the creation of a middle class economy based on transactional currency arrangements and, most importantly, divested from the role of inheritance of title. 

“Only in the mid-twentieth century,” Conntz writes, “could a majority of families in Western Europe survive on the earnings of a single breadwinner.” This statement boggled me. At no point until the twentieth century was there any such notion as a breadwinner. From the age of Venerable Bede in merry old England to the close of the frontier in the United States, the notion of a breadwinner was unknown. The West of which Coontz writes was founded on cashless feudalism, a system by which nobles managed land with tenants; land was the source of income, not labor, and the power and economic privilege of the landlord held sway both socially and legally in the twenty-first century.

I think I’m bothered most, though, by Coontz’s identification with “marriage” as “the highest expression of commitment in our culture.” She is blatantly dismissive of relationships beyond the legal bond of marriage, finding “arrangements other than marriage are still treated as makeshift or temporary, however long they might last.” She finds marriage “gives people a positive vocabulary and public image that set a high standard for the couple’s behavior and for the respect that outsiders ought to give their relationship.” This is a powerful statement, one that clearly elevates Coontz to a gatekeeper for legitimacy of what constitutes a legitimate relationship and what members of a formal usion are owed by society. Her analysis of the benefits of marriage assumes that benefits are not available to a couple without the legal bond, a devaluing of commitment I find troubling not only at the implications for individuals, but a misstep that has ramifications for the discipline and its analysis. 

Since the 1970s, Sweden has done away with the legal institution of marriage; doing so had immediate and lasting effects on the possibilities for gender equality. Those places that cling to the legal trappings of relationship unions are showing their reluctance to let go of control measures, legitimizing persistent inequality of enfranchisement among adult citizenry. Decoupling inheritance and economic and political advantage from the personal unions is a requisite step for egalitarian enfranchisement.

Addendum on Diversity and Inclusion

As a final note, I’d like to point out Coontz’s deeply colonial point of view. This is not to take pot shots at her work, which is valuable as is, but to contextualize it in a framework that acknowledges and illuminates the difference in experiences and social structures beyond the colonized Western experience Coontz uses for her analysis. In India, for example, arranged marriages are still the norm, and what’s different in the West is that we value cash. The economic revolution of the West, fueled in no small part by the plague that destroyed the labor force in the fourteenth century and then cholera, which swept through the West in the mid-nineteenth century. These social conditions created the notion of social mobility that allowed for a sense of libertine individualism not seen in the East; the rise of the urban working class from the rural peasantry made individual preferences possible as a topic of discussion in new and democratizing ways. When Coontz writes “Oly in Western Europe and North American did the notion of free choice and marriage for love triumph as an ideal,” she seems to make matters worse, not better, leaving out all the disenfranchised and displaced persons that were caught in the web of Wetern colonial expansion.