from Obedience to Intimacy
or How Love Conquered Marriage
by Stephanie Coontz
Viking, 2005 413 pp $29.95
Richard Nixon is justly famous for opening up China, covering up Watergate, vetoing a comprehensive child care act, and passing some of the most protective environmental legislation in our nation’s history. But until I read Stephanie Coontz’s engaging and provocative history of marriage, I did not recall that he had predicted—as early as 1970— that we would have to wait until 2000 before gay marriage would be acceptable to the American people.
He wasn’t far off. Even though a majority of Americans still don’t support same-sex marriage, social attitudes have changed dramatically since 1970. Within the last few years, a few courts have declared same-sex marriage constitutional, and several mayors have issued marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. At the same time, George W. Bush has threatened a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, and state initiatives to ban same-sex marriage mobilized many new voters during the presidential campaign of 2004.
Stephanie Coontz, a distinguished historian of the family, who teaches at Evergreen College, did not set out to prove that gay marriage is inevitable. But her fascinating history of heterosexual marriage suggests that same-sex marriage now tops the cultural wars because it symbolizes the end of a mythic “traditional marriage” that has been transformed by irrevocable economic and social changes in our society.
Let me back up. Coontz originally thought her book would debunk the current hysteria over the demise of marriage by demonstrating how much people have fretted about the stability of marriage for thousands of years.
She accomplishes this goal superbly. We are not the first generation to bemoan the demise of marriage. “The European settlers in America,” she writes, “began lamenting the decline of the family and the disobedience of women and children almost as soon as they stepped off the boats.”
The sense of crisis, moreover, persisted throughout much of our history. In 1929, writes Coontz, “Samuel Schmalhausen, an ardent supporter of modernity and one of the few unrepentant advocates of the right to engage in sex outside marriage, wrote, ‘The old values are gone. Irrevocably. The new values are feverishly in the making. We live in a state of molten confusion. Instability rides modernity like a crazy sportsman. Civilization is caught in a cluster of contradictions that threaten to strangle it.’ ”
But Coontz ended up doing more than documenting a series of moral panics about marriage. Her research revealed how the changing nature of heterosexual marriage led to an unprecedented fragility and instability in American marriages, which I now view as the fear fueling the hysteria over same-sex marriage.
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