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If Marriage Keeps Changing, Does That Mean It Has No Real Essence or Value?

Is American marriage on the brink of death?

This is the fourth and last post in the series in which Rebecca Davis answers questions about her new book, More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss. Rebecca has graciously agreed to return sometime in the future to discuss marriage, singlehood, and religion.

Although your book is about marriage in America, I especially appreciated your discussions of the ways in which Americans pursue marriage - and divorce - more persistently than people in other nations. I think that many Americans (myself included, before I started studying the place of singles in society) believe that the contemporary American experience is more representative of other times and other places than it is in fact. To me, one of the enduring curiosities and frustrations about the place of marriage in America is how resilient it is. The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s did not knock marriage off its perch - instead, it had a hand in creating more egalitarian marriages. In the same-sex community (as you note in your book), the people with an interest in continuing to challenge traditional marriage have not had nearly the impact on our cultural conversations as those who want to work for full access to Marriage (and not to marriage-light consolation prizes such as Domestic Partnerships or Civil Unions). Can you give a short answer to the question: What's this about?

Rebecca Davis:
I think I would give second-wave feminists a bit more credit. The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970 included many pointed critiques not only of marriage but of heterosexuality more broadly. Radical feminists, who argued that patriarchy was the root of women's oppression, rejected marriage as an inherently oppressive social institution. Some radical feminists formed all-female communes, and some of them also adopted lesbianism as a political statement. And, I would argue that second-wave feminism succeed to an unprecedented degree in raising awareness about marital inequality within the general public. When some feminists in the nineteenth century critiqued marriage as an unequal institution that oppressed women, they were shunned from the podiums of their own conventions and totally ostracized outside of feminist circles. But you're absolutely correct in noting that the wholesale rejection of marriage did not endure within mainstream feminist activism in the United States. I guess you could say that I'm less "frustrated" about marriage's resilience than you are. In fact, I would argue that marriage's very resilience suggests that it has no inherent value; it is a socially constructed social and legal relationship that acquires meanings from the institutions that govern it, the people who participate in it, and the social and cultural actors that represent it.

But as a historian, I, too, am fascinated by what that resilience has meant and what has sustained it. There is no inevitability to marriage's resilience. Instead, in my research I came across the efforts of reformers, counselors, clergy, and policy makers to reassert, again and again, marriage's importance both to personal happiness and to the social welfare. As a result, marriage is more esteemed than ever in the United States as a mode of adult personhood. In fact, one reason that lower-income women today give for not getting married, regardless of whether or not they already have children, is that they believe that marriage is so special and important that it deserves a better spouse or relationship than they have yet been able to find.

The complex intermingling of public rights and private relationships within marriage in the United States has also made it more difficult for many Americans to reject marriage. In her book Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, Nancy Cott of Harvard University brilliantly demonstrates how marriage became the locus for rights, obligations, and citizenship status throughout the twentieth century. In the United States, we pay taxes according to rates determined by marital status, and many people realize that, if married, they will have the option of getting health care and other benefits from their spouse's employer. (Stay tuned for how the new national health care provisions will change marriage!) The lawyer and activist Nan Hunter has made the point that because marriage is tied to so many social welfare benefits and legal rights in the United States, gay marriage is more important for low-income folks than it is for the middle-class and wealthier activists who tend to be at the front lines of the gay marriage movement.

If anything, I think the pursuit of full legal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, including but not at all limited to the right to marry, has amplified the cultural importance of marriage in American politics and public discourse. It's possible that once the issue is less fraught on the political level, it will lose some of its cultural immediacy. Then again, marriage has survived innumerable challenges throughout American history, so I would be foolish to predict its demise.

Thanks again, Rebecca, for answering all of the questions in this interview so thoughtfully. I've learned so much from you, and readers have told me how much they appreciated this series, too.

The first three parts of this interview were:

1. The American quest for bliss in marriage has a checkered past
2. On asking how to be married, and not whether to be
3. Money problems have nothing to do with marital problems, and other bad advice from the past

More about Rebecca L. Davis:
Rebecca's Ph.D. is in American History, from Yale University. She did her postdoc at Princeton University's Center for the Study of Religion. She lives in Swarthmore, PA, and teaches in the history department at the University of Delaware. Read more about her background here and learn more about her book and some of the wonderful reviews it has garnered here.

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