Editor’s Note: I also wrote this review back in 2015, but I am taking a second look at the book in light of the Victorian-to-Modern transition that I have been been researching. In hindsight, we can attribute the fall of marriage and the family to the two waves of Modernism that swept through America in the 20th century. The first wave hit in the 1920s and transformed elite attitudes. The second wave was the mass popularization phase with the Boomers in the 1960s which was due to the expansion of higher education and the development of the mass media.
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage
Around the time that Andrew Anglin over at The Daily Stormer started to go full MGTOW, I bought some books on Amazon that I thought would be helpful in learning more about the meaning of traditional marriage and traditional gender roles.
What exactly is “traditional marriage”? How did “traditional marriage” evolve in the West over the course of history? How and why did “traditional marriage” crumble in the West? Is there anything traditional about MGTOW and the Men’s Rights Movement?
After doing some searching online, I found some books that had been written by feminists on the topic of marriage. I was initially skeptical that these books would be of any value, but after reading a few chapters, I quickly changed my mind. History, after all, is still history and there is no disputing that we have been born into an age of unprecedented social revolution in sex, marriage, family life and gender roles.
The institution of marriage has changed more in the West in last fifty years than in the last five thousand years of history. After reading this book, I was struck by how swiftly traditional marriage and gender roles unraveled in the 1960s. While there were plenty of crises in the institution of marriage in the past, the pace of change was much slower. Marriage in the European Middle Ages, for examples, warranted only two chapters in Coontz’s book, a period that lasted a thousand years, while each decade of the twentieth century seemed to have its own chapter.
According to Stephanie Coontz, marriage in the West can be broken down into roughly three periods:
The Patriarchy, Antiquity-1750
The foundation of the Western institution of marriage was laid in ancient Rome, Greece, and Israel. These were all patriarchal societies, but the Roman marriage was the closest ancestor to our own system. The ancient Israelites practiced polygamy and women in ancient Athens were treated like property, but the Roman marriage was based on consent between the two parties. It required the approval of the fathers of the bride and the groom.
In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church gradually wrested control of marriage away from the state and the kin group. Incest was strongly discouraged. Divorce was prohibited. Marriage was brought to the church as a religious service, was announced publicly to the community, and involved a priest. Medieval marriage vows and ceremonies were very similar to our own. Also, a valid marriage in the Middle Ages was based on the consent of the two parties. This was a shift toward a more individualistic system of marriage that did not require parental approval.
Still, marriage in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era was fundamentally an economic institution. A wife in those times was an economic necessity in a viable peasant household. People lived in villages and worked in common fields on feudal manors. Whether it was family, neighbors, or lords, outsiders had far more influence over marriage than they do today. The pressure to conform to social norms was far greater in the small rural villages and emerging cities of the Middle Ages because marriage was more of a community affair due to the way the economy was organized.
The Love-Based “Male Breadwinner” Marriage, 1750-1960
The Enlightenment and Romantic era brought a new system of marriage into existence: the love-based “male breadwinner” marriage.
In this new system, which was strongly driven by the emergence of the market economy, urbanization, and industrialization in the West, marriage came to be based more on the emotional needs of individuals: it was about romantic love, intimacy, personal fulfillment and finding your “soul mate.” The household, which had previously been the site of shared production in the Middle Ages/Early Modern Era, became the “home,” a place the man returned to as a sanctuary after spending his day working for wages in the industrial economy, and a place the woman often now stayed at alone as a homemaker.
Coontz argues that this model was always inherently unstable and was beset by periodic crises in the 1790s, the 1890s and the 1920s. After all, if couples married for romantic love, what should they do if those passions ebbed? Why couldn’t couples pursue romantic love outside of marriage? Are children a necessary byproduct of romantic love? The logic of the love-based marriage ultimately leads to decomposition, but Coontz argues the system was propped up for decades by the Victorian doctrine that women and men had “separate spheres” and which exalted women and put them up on a pedestal.
In the Middle Ages, women were seen as depraved sexual creatures who had caused Adam’s fall, and society took a dim view of sex and women’s sexuality. The Victorian era turned the old view of women upside down. Women were now seen as exalted maidens with little in the way of a sex drive. Men saw themselves as chivalrous knights protecting their honor. Women had to be sheltered at home from the evils of the workplace.
By the 1920s, Victorian morals had ebbed enough where a more positive view of sex had emerged, and sexual fulfillment was added to the list of things that made a good love-based marriage. The love-based marriage started to come unglued in the 1920s, but the Great Depression and World War II were so disruptive that men and women were focused on the more important problem of survival. In the 1950s, normal times returned, and most people were so grateful and ready to act out their pent up dreams of marriage and starting a family that social revolution was not on their minds.
The Egalitarian Partnership, 1960-Present
In hindsight, what caused the big collapse in the 1960s? A number of things …
1.) First, urbanization, the maturation of the free market economy, and the expansion of government continued to undermine the family. In dense urban cities and the brand new suburbs, the social and economic constraints that had preserved traditional marriage over the centuries collapsed. Add to that list government in its newfound role as substitute husband. Women could more easily work for wages and support themselves in the labor hungry postwar economy.
2.) Second, America’s brand new consumer culture made many traditional gender roles superfluous. A man no longer needed a woman to prepare his meals, sew his clothes, preserve his food, and so on. Simply put, America and other Western countries had become so prosperous that marriage was no longer an economic necessity, which is why the number of single households has exploded to an unprecedented level.
3.) Third, liberalism which glorifies liberty and equality as the only things that are good in life and celebrates the perpetual expansion thereof, predictably invaded and undermined the family sphere. Women’s suffrage followed in the wake of abolitionism. Feminism followed in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement.
4.) Fourth, one of the biggest factors was undoubtedly the rise of the mass media, especially television in the 1950s, and how film, radio, and television began to collectively reshape popular culture. Jewish influence isn’t addressed in this book, but Freud and countless other Jews played a major role in reshaping expectations of marriage.
5.) Finally, the logic of the love-based marriage ultimately doomed it to failure, as conservatives had always warned would happen. The slippery slope predictions made by critics of the love-based marriage eventually came true. If you don’t love someone, why not divorce them? How long does it take to find “true love”? If you aren’t satisfied with your marital intimacy, why not get a divorce? Why can’t you love someone outside of marriage? What if your soulmate happens to another man or woman rather than a member of the opposite sex?
The 1960s and 1970s ushered in an age of unprecedented social revolution in sex, family life, and gender roles: among other innovations, interracial marriage was legalized, singleness and cohabitation ceased to be taboo, workplace discrimination was outlawed, illegitimacy was abolished, premarital sex became the norm, no fault divorce became legal and divorce rates skyrocketed, abortion was legalized, head-and-master laws were repealed across the West, and above all, the advent of birth control decoupled sex from reproduction for the first time in history.
Marriage was transformed in the West into an egalitarian partnership held together only by bonds of affection. It became a purely private and personal civil contract between two free and equal individuals. Men were stripped of all authority over their wives. With most husbands and wives now in the workforce, stress within the household exploded, and most marriages started to end in divorce.
Ultimately, Cootz doesn’t have much to say about the future of marriage and seems to assume the existing state of affairs is a permanent change which we must adjust to. I was disappointed that she didn’t address the demographic winter issue: how, after all, is the contemporary system of marriage supposed to survive when women’s liberation is inverting the age pyramid in so many countries? How are so few young people supposed to take care of so many old people in the long run?
I expect there will be even greater changes ahead in the nature of marriage in my lifetime.