A History of Marriage

A History of Marriage

A History of Marriage explores how marriage developed, and examines real-life experiences in their wider historical context: How did a wealthy couple’s experience differ from a poor one’s? How did children both fit into and define the shape of marriage? What were alternatives to staying together? How long did the average marriage last until death ended it? Abbott provides an intriguing look at the way we were, and poses important questions about marriage in the 21st-century.

Critical Acclaim for History of Marriage

It was with relish that I dug into A History of Marriage, Elizabeth Abbott’s latest work – and loved it. It is a rich and scholarly (in a good way) tapestry of fact and anecdote, punctuated by fascinating meanderings about everything from wedding dresses and child-rearing to gay marriage, slave unions and sex in marriage. (For example, she tells how the Hamilton Beach company patented the first electric vibrator for retail sale in 1902 – the fifth electrified domestic appliance after the sewing machine, the fan, the teakettle and the toaster. It preceded the vacuum cleaner and the iron by a decade, she writes.)

A former dean of women at Trinity College, University of Toronto, where she is now a research associate, Abbott is a masterful storyteller with an amazing eye for detail and for tales that bring historical characters and scenes to life.

A History of Marriage is the third in a trilogy, preceded by A History of Celibacy and A History of Mistresses. As with her book just before this one, Sugar: A Bittersweet History, the choice of illustrations, all in black-and-white, is inspired.

People take it for granted today that they will marry for love, but, historically, marriage was not rooted in love; rather, it was a practical arrangement in which parental consent was often paramount, Abbott writes, one dominated by financial and social considerations, one in which useful in-laws were acquired and children were produced. And even once love had crept into popular thinking in the 18th century, wives remained financially – and legally – subservient to their husbands.

Montreal Gazette

In her new book, Elizabeth Abbott, a Toronto-based historian and author of popular histories of celibacy and mistresses, presents a fascinating survey of the development of an institution at the intersection of the personal and the political, the sacred and the economic.

In so doing, Abbott follows in the footsteps of a long line of such women writers as Jane Austen, Charlotte Gilman Perkins and Betty Freidan, who demystified marriage as a romantic institution and challenged the notion of motherhood and the home as the separate sphere of the domestic goddess.

Like the work of these early authors, Abbott’s book complicates the picture of historical marriage with accounts of domestic drudgery, dowry-induced anxiety, abuse, infidelity and the chattel status of women.

Abbott brings an additional sensitivity, however, to the distinct expressions of marriage within differing social classes.

In the book, she gives us marriage as lived by the Filles du Roi, orphaned girls cum brides to be sent by the King of France to populate Quebec, European aristocrats cementing political alliances, and impecunious New World factory workers.

Yet Abbott’s unique contribution lies in her discussion of love and marriage. Writing after the myth of the Victorian “Angel in the House” and the postwar model of the obedient wife have been effectively challenged, she confronts an audience that would seek to restore love to its rightful place within marriage.

That place, Abbott reminds us, has always been contested. Historically the legal, social, and economic dimensions of marriage did not simply overshadow love; they were often hostile to it.

“Since time immemorial, even in the most pragmatically created of marriages, passionate love could stir,” Abbott writes. “Yet when it did, that love was disparaged as unseemly, equated with lust, and believed to corrode good marriages.”

But this is not to suggest that love is found only in illegitimate liaisons. Abbott surveys a lesser-known history of socially recognized marriage, both outside the bounds of the church and state.

These accounts of “self-marriage,” “private vows between two consenting partners … considered sufficient to constitute marriage,” are among the most interesting sections of the book.

Abbott later takes up contemporary self-marriage in her discussion of the opposing trajectories of same-sex partnerships from outside the law to within it, and the exodus of heterosexual partnerships from the sphere of legal marriage.

These unions seek, on the one hand, to change the definition of marriage, and on the other to make marriage less defining.

A History of Marriage is a vivid account of how we got here.

Winnipeg Free Press

Elizabeth Abbott’s new book is a kaleidoscope of entertaining facts and vignettes about marriages past and present. Anyone looking for an enjoyable read, sure to provoke and surprise, should add this book to their library.

Abbott, whose previous books include A History of Celibacy and A History of Mistresses, is an excellent storyteller with an eye for touching and amusing tales. I was especially taken with her discussion of the 737 filles du roi sent to New France in the 17th century to become wives to soldiers, settlers and fur traders.

Abbott challenges the mantra that “traditional marriage has always been one-man, one-woman,” noting the prevalence of polygamy and even, occasionally, same-sex marriages in the past. She observes that marriages were not always even between two living persons, that Chinese parents sometimes conducted afterlife marriages for dead sons and daughters to spare them “the eternal torment of their unmarried states.”

Abbott comments on the typical age at marriage for females and the role of dowries in European marriage negotiations, recounts how parents investigated their children’s prospective spouses, mentions the rites of passage that marked entry into adulthood and quotes from European domestic advice manuals, which unanimously enjoined wives to submission, before introducing the topic of hope chests and coming-out parties.

Turning to the varied rituals and requirements that gave validity to marriages in different times and places, Abbott notes that a French law of 1557 required parental consent until the age of 25 for women and 30 for men. If a couple married without such consent, the union could be dissolved and any children declared illegitimate.

She mentions the informal “self-marriage” that was widely practised in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by descendants of European settlers, describes the distinctive marriage patterns of slaves and provides a detailed description of the wedding of Queen Victoria.

Abbott does a good job of conveying the primacy of practical considerations in most marriages of the past. Not until the 18th century did love begin to be seen as a good reason for marriage, and, well into the 19th century, the daily experience of married life for most couples was shaped less by mutual love than by the dependence imposed by the laws of coverture, which completely subsumed a wife’s legal existence and personal property into her husband’s.

Abbott’s examples of what the law and church forced wives to put up with up over the ages should give pause to anyone who believes that marriages in the era before divorce were based on greater commitment and fidelity than they are today. She recounts the story of Elizabeth and Theophilus Packard, who were married 21 years and had six children together. But when Theophilus made the mistake of inviting Elizabeth to address his Bible class, she electrified them by rejecting the doctrine of original sin and defending the equality of women. After Elizabeth refused to follow her husband’s order to shut up, he had her committed to an asylum in 1860.

Abbott describes the tensions surrounding the 19th-century cult of sentimental marriage and female sexual purity. She highlights the ambivalence about sex these ideas produced and the contradictions between the view of 19th-century women as delicate angels and the arduous work wives had to do, even in affluent families. She also mentions the terrors of childbirth, methods of contraception and abortion, differences in childrearing ideals, the history of divorce and the fact that today’s high rates of singlehood are not unprecedented.

A History of Marriage pays attention to variations in family life and marriage practices by region, race and class, and captures the diversity of experiences even among families that superficially seem alike. While Stephen Zanichkowsky described his experience of being one of 14 children as Growing Up Alone in a Crowd, Celine Dion, who also had 13 siblings, emphasized the joy of “being able to count on brothers and sisters and parents.”

Part two of A History of Marriage is devoted to contemporary trends in marriage. Abbott defends no-fault divorce, critiques the consumerism of modern weddings and argues for acceptance of same-sex marriage, correctly noting that no studies have found disadvantages in the functioning or adjustment in children raised by same-sex parents.

She devotes one chapter to the growing gap between rich and poor families in North America and another to how racism has affected marriage law in Canada and the United States. Here I was especially interested by her argument about the adverse impact of Canada’s Indian Act on wives from native communities. Finally, she stresses the importance of fostering equity in marriage, valuing many forms of families and putting the needs of children first.

A History of Marriage amuses and entertains readers while reminding us that we should treasure what we have gained from recent changes in marriage rather than focus solely on what we may have lost.

Reviewed by Stephanie Coontz, Globe and Mail

Doing it right the first time

Deirdre Kelly talks to Elizabeth Abbott about marriage, the Good Wife, and the false allure of big weddings

Two wedding shows in Toronto alone this week on top of two new books on the subject. What’s making us renew our vows, so to speak, with the thing that in an age of rampant divorce retains an allure?

So many reasons, beginning with a romanticization of the institution and a popular cultural fascination (bordering on obsession) with marrying – The Bachelor ! The Bachelorette ! – and even more with weddings. The wedding shows you mention are part of the multibillion-dollar industrial complex that focuses on The Wedding. From this perspective, marriage is a mere afterthought. And, with divorce easier to obtain and without the stigma once attached to it, there is little fear of permanent “entrapment.”

Why should or shouldn’t people marry?

People shouldn’t marry without fully understanding what marriage involves, nor because of social pressure, or because they fantasize that marriage will solve their personal problems, including emotional and financial. They should marry if they are personally satisfied and resourceful individuals, if they are confident that their mate is truly compatible, and if they wish to raise children within a marriage.

How do you explain the falling marriage rate in Quebec, the Sweden of Canada where cohabitation is concerned?

In Quebec, where there is a fierce commitment to gender equality, cohabitation is seen as a more equitable arrangement. Quebeckers also identity marriage with the Catholic Church, which for centuries exerted such a powerful control over their society. Cohabiting is likely a rejection of marriage’s religious associations.

When you look at marriage across time and across cultures, what are its most prevalent and enduring qualities?

The institution of marriage has always been the organizing principle of society, and this continues today, despite cultural and legal accommodation to the reality of large numbers of single people. Another common denominator is that marriage has always been associated with child-rearing. The financial implications of marriage remain important though they are no longer paramount.

How has marriage been influenced by modern city life?

The infrastructure of modern cities makes living singly so much easier, hence an appealing choice for many, especially women. With good or even excellent jobs, they need not marry for financial security. With apartments and city housing, two people are no longer required to keep a household operating. Transportation, finances, cultural activities and most other dimensions of a fulfilling life are available to the single as well as the married.

At the same time, this infrastructure also changes marriage by removing daily household duties, with the notable exception of childrearing, as the focal point of most marriages. Companionship becomes more important.

Who is The Good Wife, and where did she go?

The Good Wife was the product of the Cult of Domesticity, which idealized the authoritative but kindly breadwinning husband whose wife stayed at home, ruling over the domestic sphere, cooking (excellently and abundantly), cleaning (incessantly) and caring for her children and husband wisely and with indefatigable good humour. Where did she go? Back out into the world, to an office, shop or factory, to contribute to her family’s finances, or to practice her profession. Back home, her helpful family pitches in to run the household or, much more likely, she is the primary housekeeper, working the equivalent of another job.

I detect you have a soft spot for the Eleanors. Why do they appeal to you?

From 1898 to 1930, Chicago’s six Eleanor Clubs provided cheap, safe and comfortable housing for thousands of single white women, enabling them to pursue careers in business and such professions as teaching. These young women, competent and hard-working, flung themselves into the working world but also agonized about whether they should marry, weighing the advantages of doing so against the loss of business success and personal independence. Ultimately, most married and brought to their marriages the confidence and skills they had learned as Eleanors. To me, the Eleanors represent living examples of the choices women face.

I especially found fascinating the chapter dealing with marriage among black slaves in North America, which in my mind linked up with those discussing the high number of blacks of marriageable age crowding today’s U.S. prisons and the number of black women in Canada living outside marriage, the country’s largest single-parent group (27 per-cent compared to the national average of 15.6 per-cent). How does marriage affect public policies and vice versa?

Public policy affects marriage in many ways; for example, in the direct relationship between the high incarceration rate of black American males from poorer, less educated communities and their low marriage rates, which are in striking contrast to the high marriage rates of educated and financially successful black males. Another public policy that has had a strong impact on marriages is the growing intolerance of spousal (usually wife) abuse, which is now understood and treated as an assault rather than a domestic matter in which a husband “corrected” his wife. Public policy about divorce and child custody has also had tremendously important consequences for the institution of marriage, for example as divorce has ceased to be judgmental and punitive, and the interests of the child have been given so much more consideration.

Your book includes images of your own parents, just married. What did their marriage teach you?

I love the photograph of my parents’ wedding! And of course their marriage was the first I knew intimately. I dedicated this book to my father because he so often spoke to us about the importance of making a really good choice of a spouse, as he had done; he confided to my sister that my mother was the only woman he’d ever loved. Daddy’s strong views on fatherhood and the primacy of family also taught me how lucky I was to be his daughter. He was my first visitor when I gave birth, and my most steadfast babysitter. My son, who is expecting his first child, seems to be modelling himself on his beloved grandfather.

People often confuse weddings with marriage. What do people need to know, once the confetti has been swept away real life begins?

Just that! Marriage is real life, whereas The Wedding is a celebration. Too often brides and grooms are so caught up in the frenzied preparations for their Big Day that they give short shrift to reflections about and preparations for the relationship and shared life it marks. Then, too often, they are disappointed by post-wedding reality.

Even gay marriage has historic precedent and you cite ancient Egypt, Greece, China and even indigenous North American society as societies where same-sex unions were the norm. How does knowledge of history help marriage today and in the future?

It stops us from romanticizing the past and thereby slandering the present. It allows us to make much more sensible and well-informed choices for our lives and our society. It counters our tendency to metaphorically flagellate ourselves as we compare ourselves to our ancestors, whose lives we so often assume were morally superior to ours, and much different from how they actually were.

Globe and Mail, Friday, Jan. 22, 2010

Marriage is grand but divorce is a hundred grand, the saying goes.

Elizabeth Abbott’s A History of Marriage is a follow-up to her two previous histories of celibacy and mistresses. Abbott takes a scholarly but highly readable approach to marriage and its corollaries – divorce, love, sex, race, money, weddings – peppered with wonderful archival photographs and individual case studies.

Abbott supports same-sex marriage, a hot-button issue of our time. She points out that although same-sex marriage did not survive antiquity, it was condoned in ancient Rome and some native North American cultures.

Abbott notes that right up to the Reformation, “church, state, and reformers waged battle over whether the nature of marriage was sacramental, spiritual, or civic.”

Even in 18th century North America, common-law relations or pregnancy were thought to form the legitimate basis of marriage. For the majority of its long history, marriage had nothing to do with love. Queen Victoria is responsible for spawning the white wedding “tradition” and today’s industry, which Abbott believes subordinates the seriousness of a lifelong commitment to a one-day event.

Abbott, who sees marriage as “a lived experience,” focuses on its economic and social realities. She astutely notes that “marriages in mansions and marriages in shacks feel quite different.”

So what did getting married change for my husband and me? Tangibly, nothing, except that a smattering of relatives now send us Christmas cards with “Mr. and Mrs.” tacked onto his name, although mine has not changed. Where once that would have annoyed me, it now just seems hopelessly quaint and funny – evidence that marriage does evolve, even in the space of a single generation, and will continue to do so despite anyone’s efforts take ownership of it.

Toronto Star

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