Tying the Knot -- Tighter Than Ever

Despite continual fears that marriage is a crumbling institution, an insightful new historical study says it's in great shape

By Amey Stone

The results of the 2000 U.S. Census, released in mid-May, prompted a new round of national hand-wringing over the state of marriage. Through the 1990s, married couples declined from 55% to 52% of all households, according to the census. For the first time, fewer than a quarter of households are of the Leave It to Beaver brand -- mom, dad, and kids. Single mothers head a growing number of households (7.2%, up from 6.6% in 1990). And the number of unmarried couples climbed from 3.2 million in 1990 to 5.5 million in 2000 (still just 2% of households).

These results might have shocked some people. But they didn't shock Nancy Cott, Yale history professor and author of Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Harvard University Press, 2001). Her new book outlines the legal and social trends that have shaped marriage since colonial times and that underpin the latest census figures. Seen in context, these trends aren't so troubling after all. In what may be a relief to those worried that the American family is in decline, Cott's book shows that, in many ways, conventional marriage is stronger than ever.

Cott's focus is on marriage as a public institution -- not a religious one -- governed by mostly state and some federal laws and often enforced by community standards. Wonder why people still bother to wed when half of all marriages end in divorce and most couples live together before marrying? She shows how marriage confers status and offers numerous legal protections.

For example, she cites a 1996 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office, which found more than 1,000 instances where federal law conferred a special right or benefit to married people. Although "flayed and scorned" during the social turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, "the position of legal marriage above comparable relationships resists toppling," Cott writes.


  She documents how the government has used marriage to control the population and ensure that its citizens are provided for since the nation's founding. "The monumental public character of marriage is generally its least noticed aspect," Cott states in the introduction. Yet, "at the same time that any marriage represents personal love and commitment, it participates in the public order.... Radiating outward, the structure of marriage organizes community life and facilitates the government's grasp on the populace."

Public Vows is structured as a chronology of the legal and social history of marriage. It (thankfully) doesn't tackle the question of whether lifelong monogamy is a "natural" state for humans, although it does point out that the current marriage model or ideal -- lifelong, faithful monogamy -- was far from the dominant family form worldwide at the time the U.S. was founded.

Surprisingly, Cott shows that marriage was actually far more flexible in the 18th and early 19th centuries, allowing for relatively easy informal marriage and divorce. That was partly for pragmatic reasons -- officials who could establish and enforce marriage contracts were few and far between. But moral strictures were more relaxed back then than you might expect. Many communities formed by early settlers in the South and West didn't have a problem with young men and women starting sexual relationships, conceiving a child, and then marrying -- in that order, Cott finds.


  Much of the book is a history of marriage as a civil right. Marriage was forbidden to slaves before the Civil War because it proffered too much status, although slaves established their own informal marriage ceremonies. Long after the Civil War, a majority of states prohibited a white person and an African American from legally marrying. Until a Supreme Court ruling in 1967 expressly forbade it, 16 states denied interracial marriages.

Even more recently, gay and lesbian couples have sought and, with Congress' passage of Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, been denied the right to legal marriage. The public's refusal to condone legal same-sex marriages is proof, as Cott sees it, that the Christian model of monogamy still holds. (As a historian, she doesn't pass judgment and clearly doesn't mean to endorse this turn of events.) "The morality that the law has dropped or soft-pedaled with respect to consensual heterosexual acts still lives in the law's prosecution of homosexual behavior," she writes.

The history of marriage is intimately tied to women's rights. Not until the 1850s were feminists able to convince a few state legislatures to grant married women the right to own property -- including the right to their own wages. And it wasn't until shockingly late -- 1984 -- that marital rape was outlawed. Prior to that, a husband's right to his wife's body was a central feature of marriage, Cott shows.

The book also plumbs the history of no-fault divorce laws, which swept the country in the 1970s and '80s. Some marriage experts argue that the ease with which one partner can end a marriage today is in many ways responsible for soaring divorce rates. However, Cott argues, increases in divorce rates have long been a concern: She references newspaper stories raising alarm at the frequency of divorce as early as the 1850s.


  Rather than weaken marriage, these legal changes have protected and strengthened it. By making the legal bond between a man and woman more equitable and allowing exit from failed unions, marriage continues to offer a status that men and women desire.

Cott's history shows clearly that the most important feature defining marriage in this country is that it be a "chosen bond." One reason she thinks the public was willing to forgive President Clinton his open marital infidelities was that the indiscretion was seen as principally between him and his wife -- not as an affront to the nation or to the community, as public adultery had been viewed until only recently.

"Traditionally a 'yoke,' marriage more recently and paradoxically signifies freedom in a chosen space -- a zone marked off from the rest of the world. While it promises to defend against the sense of estrangement haunting our cosmopolitan world, marriage can now also symbolize freedom," Cott writes. That's one reason, she believes, even as marriage rates slip, lavish spending on elaborate weddings is on the rise and most people still state a desire to be married.

Public Vows, although a fascinating and insightful history, is hardly light summer reading. As a serious academic work, replete with footnotes and an index, it doesn't offer any advice or guidance. But it does answer some very profound questions about why people get married and what it means to be married. And as we enter the peak wedding season, Public Vows, with its marriage-affirming theme, just might make a fine wedding gift.

Stone is a married BW Online associate editor

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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