Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book Review: Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz

The reason I picked up “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage” by Stephanie Coontz was actually pretty selfish. I was looking for something that might comment on societal attitudes toward people with disabilities getting married.

Since even though I was married in 2011 and not 1811, I still got a few remarks about how I shouldn’t get married because of my physical disability. Apparently a little nerve damage means I can’t be a good wife.

Don’t get me wrong – most of my friends and family were wildly happy for us. But a couple people we knew were so freaked out that they did voice their concerns.

At any rate, I found pretty much no mention of disability in this book. I didn’t think I would find a ton of information, but I thought maybe the topic might be mentioned.

Even so, I wasn’t disappointed in the book. I’m very glad I now have it in my collection.

First off this is a history book. I feel some people may have, like me, had some hot button issue in their mind and were seeking a social commentary which led them to this book. While there is some social commentary, this is very much so a history book, pointing out social trends and illustrating them with specific examples from history.

I found this book quite reader friendly. However, even though I love history books and Coontz has a clear voice, I did have to snap myself awake during some bits. Other bits had me thinking quite a lot and overall I was engrossed in the reading. 

Some things I found interesting in no particular order:

I really liked learning about the idea of “yoke mates” where men and women worked together in and out of the home. Neighbors often had a say in who got married to who because they all shared land and wanted good workers to marry each other so they’d all survive. If a man wasn’t doing his job, the woman could take her spinning wheel and chickens and marry some other man who was working hard. And vice versa, except the man took his plow and cows.

Political marriages reigned for quite a time and those could get pretty kooky with contracts and loopholes. It was common for people to marry much, much older or younger spouses or people they’d never met. Attaining a divorce was usually really difficult but people found ways to do it. To me this foreshadowed modern divorce since up until no-fault divorce, people just said exactly what they needed to say to get the divorce (He hit me three times. Yup. Exactly that).

I learned how much social change took place when the Victorians came along. We are still paying for Victorian sensibilities to an extent it really makes me dizzy to think about it.

And about a hundred other things. Honestly, I really enjoyed reading this book.

Today, people know what marriage means to them and they’re out to disprove other meanings in favor of their own, so they pick up books like this. But the truth is, marriage depends on functions of economic and social life, and these functions changed over time, to a great degree. Marriage will change to best fit these functions and they will impact the way we view and define family, gender, and our roles in society. Though my initial reasons for reading this book were left unanswered, I learned a lot about the people who lived before me and a better understanding of why people define marriage as they do today.

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