Introduction to the Series of Conversations with Jaclyn Geller

This is the first of a 3-part conversation with author Jaclyn Geller. In this first part of the interview, she will illustrate how the way we currently think about marriage and coupling is so NOT the way it's always been. She will also tell us what she writes on those medical forms that ask about marital status.

In Part 2, I ask her for some advice for singles who have been subsidizing the weddings and showers of pairs of people who already have two of everything. She also offers some recommended reading for people who are not matrimaniacs, and ponders the question of how we can nudge society into taking important aspects of single life more seriously.

Then in Part 3, she shares the improbable story of her book about the marriage mystique, Here Comes the Bride, including her reactions to readers who dredge up every nasty stereotype of people who are single, and post them to their online reviews of her book.

Finally, I'll add my usual disclaimer. I realize it must be getting old, but the topic keeps coming up in the Comments section. This set of posts will focus on single women. For all of the single men who are readers of this blog, and for all the other people who are just as interested in the lives of single men as those of single women (I'm among them), I'd love to write more about single men (see here and here and here for a few of my past posts). If you know of enlightened authors or therapists or scholars or activists who have something interesting to say about single men, or if you know of relevant books or such that I've missed, please let me know.

PART 1 (of 3)

By the time I was ready to sit down and write Singled Out, the bookshelves in nearly every room of my home were stuffed with the materials I had collected. Many of those books informed and inspired me, but few were as brilliant, funny, fearless, and as historically and culturally rich as Jaclyn Geller's Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique.

Jaclyn is an English Professor. Here Comes the Bride was published in 2001. She is also an active member of the wonderful advocacy group, The Alternatives to Marriage Project. She has contributed some thoughtful and provocative essays to the group's newsletter. I thought that "Living Single" readers would really appreciate her perspective, so I was delighted when she agreed to do this Q & A.

In preparing my questions for Jaclyn, I went back over Here Comes the Bride, and realized anew just how influential her ideas have been to my own thinking. Our books are different: Mine is based in social science research, and Jaclyn's is rooted in history, literature, and an analysis of the contemporary wedding industry. We sometimes make different arguments, but I owe her an important intellectual debt.

You can get a sense of some of her critiques of marriage from this quote from her book. Marriage, she says (on p. 70), "perpetuates negative hierarchical divisions such as the celebration of wives and the accompanying denigration of spinsters, the artificial distinction between good (sexually monogamous) and bad (sexually experimental) girls, the exaltation of conjugal love over platonic friendship, and the privileging of institutionalized togetherness over solitude."

That quote provides a nice lead-in to my first question.

Bella: I think I first learned that "spinster" once had a positive meaning from reading Here Comes the Bride. Want to tell us about that? Is that the word you think we should use to refer to single women?

Jaclyn: Bella, I respect your work tremendously, and I know you use the word "single," as many people do. I myself have trouble with that term, and I don't use it anymore. I don't like the "single"/ "married" binary. It implies that any unmarried person is a fragmentary half-self awaiting completion in a spouse. It suggests that all other partnerships - including the close friendships that sustain so many people - especially women - do not factor into one's self-definition. A woman who shares her life with a few long-term close partners, one of whom might be a lover, but who has no marriage license, is considered "single." If she marries a man she's known for two weeks in a Las Vegas chapel she's suddenly no longer "single; " she's married - de facto, socially complete. It's a strange way of rating people. It's very counterintuitive.

I think there are many terms that would better serve us. In her excellent book, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, Nancy D. Polikoff suggests a few different phrases: "valuing all families;" "intra-dependent." In my book I suggest reviving the term "spinster," which in England, before the onset of the modern marriage mystique, just meant a financially independent woman who supported herself by spinning - by manufacturing textiles. The term is so negative, at this point, that it's probably one few women will want to embrace, so "spinster by choice," might be better. Another term I suggest, in my most recent column for the Alternative to Marriage Project, is "unconventionally partnered." That's what I write on medical forms when I visit the dentist or doctor. Despite the marriage mania that's all around us, I think we're in an interesting period of transition when many people are rejecting or at least questioning matrimony. People will experiment with new words and find the language that feels consonant with the ways they're setting up their lives.

Bella: Americans generally are not very well informed when it comes to social history (and I include myself in that indictment). My guess is that this is one of the impediments to enlightened thinking about the potential fullness of a life that does not include marriage. Our contemporaries do not recognize that our current practice of intensive coupling (the "you are my everything" approach to partnering) is not the way it has always been. I think you have a great command of social history. Want to provide an example of a different way of thinking about the relationships that should count as important?

Jaclyn: Well, I do think Americans tend to be practical and rugged and “now” oriented, and there’s something great about that pragmatism.  It makes us a very tough, spirited people.  But it also makes us an anti-intellectual culture.  The publishing industry reflects this attitude: many bestsellers are books that instruct on how to achieve results through concrete steps: seven steps to financial solvency, ten steps to spiritual enlightenment – that kind of thing.  This very simplistic, ahistorical, results-oriented approach is the opposite of the one I take in my work, as an eighteenth-century scholar and a trade writer.

It's important to realize that matrimony is a fluid, ever-changing institution. It's not "natural" or "timeless," in the sense that it has an origin. If we've been around as modern human beings for, let's say 150,000 years, then marriage is actually a pretty recent phenomenon, dating from about 4,000 B.C.E. It emerges in the ancient near east, as part of a state-sanctioned system of male dominance. The Hammurabic Code of 1750 B.C.E. and the Middle Assyrian Law Codes of the fifteenth through the eleventh centuries B.C.E. institutionalize unions arranged by men, with male controls on female sexuality and reproductivity. Husbands control all financial assets, including dowries brought into the marriage. These assets are transferred to male offspring, and producing sons is one of the main foci of the system. Men have multiple wives and concubines, but female adultery often exacts draconian punishment, as does a woman's attempt to control her own reproductive system. Middle Assyrian Law allows a man to expose his infant child to die while punishing a pregnant woman who attempts to abort with death by impalement. So, this is the glorious origin of the institution.

Now, one thing ancient, medieval, and Renaissance marriage was not is romantic. The belief that eroticism can by institutionalized is a modern one. Historians argue fiercely about when the transition from pragmatic to "affective" -- personal - marriage, took place in Europe. It's been placed anywhere from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century. And I'm not equipped to make that determination. But I do think it's important to access the experiences of our ancestors - to know what marriage was for millennia before perpetuating the institution. It would be interesting for many women, I think, to know that in the seventeenth century, in England, homosocial love between female friends generated some of the most beautiful lyrical poetry ever written. A woman named Katherine Philips founded a society of female friendship for like-minded women writers. They wrote extraordinary, passionate, nonsexual verse to each other. And they would have found it extremely odd - preposterous even - that one might express those sentiments to one's spouse. Matrimony was, for the most part, not the framework for those kind of emotions. Friendship was.

[Here is PART 2 and PART 3 of my conversation with Jackie Geller.]

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