Marilyn Yalom’s A History of The Wife is the second book that I bought to gain a better understanding of the history of marriage and gender roles.
There’s nothing much in this book that wasn’t previously covered in Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage which I reviewed here last month. Both Coontz and Yalom tell what is essentially the same story of the breakdown of traditional marriage.
Lots of OD readers are skeptical of anything Jewish feminists have to say about marriage and gender roles. I plan to continue my research by reading through some more sources, but I don’t see the timeline of the decline of marriage changing all that much.
In 1950, the overwhelming majority of American men and women were getting married and having children. They were getting married at an earlier age than the historical average. About 1 out of 4 marriages ended in divorce. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/4 to 1/3 of married women were in the workforce.
Among other things, interracial marriage and fornication, free love, bastards, children born out of wedlock, career women, adultery, single parent households, homosexuality, premarital sex, childlessness, singleness and cohabitation were taboo. Abortion was illegal. The birth control pill was still a decade away, but other forms of contraception (condoms and diaphragms) were in widespread use. In spite of the postwar baby boom, the American birthrate had been declining for more than a century.
There was no such thing as “sexism” … it was still commonly assumed that men and women were fundamentally different, and each had sharply differentiated gender roles. What is now decried as “sexism” used to be everyday life. The American ideal was the nuclear family based on a male breadwinner, who was the recognized head of the household in law and custom, and a submissive housewife. The overwhelming majority of women expected to live out their lives as housewives. It wasn’t until the 1970s that women were able to open their own checking accounts, get a no fault divorce, or that social scientists began to collect data on “domestic violence.”
In the preceding fifty years, women had won the right to vote. Victorian sexual repression had come to an end and marital sexuality had come to be seen more positively in American culture. There had been a shift away from the traditional view that linked sex and marriage to procreation and toward the modern perspective which sees sexual pleasure as an end in itself. American men and women expected to find love, companionship, intimacy, sexual pleasure, financial security and children in marriage.
In spite of this, the pace of change in marriage and gender roles had been rather gradual across time until the 1960s, when the Sexual Revolution crystallized long term trends and unleashed a sharp break with tradition. For about 160 years, Americanism had been eroding the foundations of marriage – it was becoming more individualistic, more about romantic love and sexual pleasure, more egalitarian, more about “rights,” the “pursuit of happiness” and freedom from social norms – but in the 1960s the entire edifice collapsed.
The typical girl of the 1950s might have kissed a few boys or engaged in premarital sex with a fiance, but she was light years away from the sexual anarchy that is commonplace today. We’re swimming in a veritable sea of social revolution. If this book makes anything clear, it is that our own times are an extraordinary departure from historical norms. We have embarked on an unprecedented social experiment.
The great weakness of this book is its lack of attention to the causes of this abrupt breakdown. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the demise of traditional marriage coincided with the Civil Rights Movement or that either coincided with the spread of television in the United States. That subject is so important that I don’t think Marilyn Yalom’s brief treatment of it does it justice. In just the last few years, we’ve seen how television shows like Will & Grace and Modern Family have mainstreamed homosexuality and acceptance of gay marriage.
In hindsight, “gay marriage” was the caboose on the freight train of social revolution. It was merely the inevitable byproduct of assumptions about marriage which became commonplace among heterosexuals several generations earlier which ultimately trace back to the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Marriage became a joke a long time ago, and we shouldn’t be surprised by the absurdities that modern marriage has introduced and forced society to wrestle with.
Update: I’ve expanded the list of things that were taboo in the 1950s. So many things that used to be taboo are mainstream today that it is difficult to recount them all.