[Marxism] Stephanie Coontz on the revolution in marriage
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 31 07:30:19 MST 2006
(The author was a Trotskyist activist in the 1960s and 70s)
Do you take this man? No thanks
For many women the world over, marriage is no longer desirable or
even necessary to fulfil their ambitions
Sunday December 31, 2006
There is a belief in Britain and America that recent changes in
marriage and family life are peculiar to the affluent, secular West
and that we could reverse the decline by re-emphasising the value of
marriage. Yet the problem today is not lack of respect for marriage.
In fact, marriage as a relationship between two individuals comes
with a greater sense of personal obligation than ever, although
marriage as an institution no longer organises social life the way it
used to. And it will never do so again.
The world is experiencing a revolution in marriage and family life as
big, challenging, and, ultimately, unstoppable as the globalisation
of the economy.
Two trends have spearheaded this revolution in marriage and family
life: societies' decreasing ability to dictate personal choices and
women's growing ability to support themselves. Paradoxically, many of
the things that have made marriage more optional and more fragile are
inextricably connected to the things we cherish most about modern
marriage - its emphasis on love, mutual respect and personal choice.
Everywhere, options to traditional marriage are multiplying, as
family forms and interpersonal relationships that were once forced
underground gain legal rights. Even China recently repealed its
long-standing laws against unmarried cohabitation.
While divorce rates have dipped or levelled off in western Europe and
Scandinavia, other regions are catching up. In China, the number of
divorces soared by nearly 70 per cent between 2000 and 2005. Where
divorce and unwed motherhood remain low, the retreat from lifelong
marriage simply takes other forms.
Marriage rates have fallen so much in Japan, South Korea, Italy and
Hong Kong that authorities fear for their countries' reproductive
futures. Singapore's strait-laced government now sponsors singles'
nights in an attempt to raise marriage rates and reverse the falling
trends. Last year, a Japanese magazine pleaded: 'Young people, don't hate sex.'
The fraying link between marriage and child-rearing is also a
worldwide trend. In Austria, as in the US and Britain, four of every
10 births are to unmarried women. Several regions in Latin America
and the Caribbean equal Iceland's unwed birthrate of 60 per cent.
Even Japan experienced a 30 per cent increase in unwed motherhood
between 1993 and 2003.
Restrictive legal codes have not halted the tide of change. Until
2005, Chile was the only country in the Western hemisphere that still
prohibited divorce. But prohibiting divorce has very different
consequences than in the past, because people are no longer compelled
to enter marriage in the first place. Between 1990 and 2003, the
number of marriages in Chile fell from 100,000 to 60,000 a year, and
nearly half the children born in Chile in 2003 and 2004 were born out
Many factors contribute to the eclipse of marriage's traditional
monopoly over the organisation of people's lives. Some are worrisome
indeed. Our churning global economy has destabilised personal life.
Heightened job insecurity, falling wages for less-educated men and
the chronic stresses of economic deprivation all erode the incentive
to marry. Sudden riches or large fluctuations in wealth are also
threatening to relationship stability.
But equally important in transforming marriage and family life are
two welcome innovations - the growing expectation of mutual love in
marriage and the decreasing ability of men to impose their will on women.
For millenniums, marriage was a stable social institution precisely
because it had little to do with love and intimacy. It was, instead,
a practical affair. Upper- and middle-class families arranged
marriages for political and business gain. In the lower classes,
marriage was a way of expanding the family labour force. Only 200
years ago did western Europeans and North Americans begin to believe
that young people should be allowed to choose their partners, and to
do so on the basis of love.
However, once marriage was based on love, people began to wonder if
it wasn't better to be single than to marry or stay with someone you
didn't love. Throughout Europe and North America, divorce rates rose
hand in glove with sales of romance novels.
Today, the love match is spreading around the world. In rural parts
of Africa and Asia, where parents still negotiate the number of cows
or goats required to cement a family alliance, many young people turn
to newspaper personal ads to find 'true love'. Arranged marriages
remain the norm in India, but young people are gaining veto power
over their parents' decisions and financially independent adults
often choose their own mates. Last year, even Saudi Arabia declared
that a man could not force his daughter into marriage.
As the ideal of love triumphs, it gets harder to prevent people from
remaining single or seeking divorce when love fails to blossom.
Unless they have no other choice. Women's lack of options was the
second factor that kept marriage stable. Until the 1960s and 1970s,
'head and master' laws in Europe and America gave husbands the final
say in most household decisions. As late as the 1980s, a husband
could not be charged with rape, because his wife had no right to
refuse him sex.
All this has changed dramatically in the past 30 years, and not just
in the West. From Argentina to Zimbabwe, governments are repealing
traditional laws enforcing husbands' supremacy. Every region of the
world except Afghanistan under the Taliban saw women streaming into
the paid labour force. Everywhere, there is increasing access to knowledge.
In India, where most women were illiterate in 1970, more than
two-thirds of all girls now attend school; the story is the same in
North Africa and western Asia.
Getting married is no longer the only way - and certainly not the
most secure way - for women to invest in their economic future. Nor
is marriage the only place where people may now raise children.
Marriage is not doomed. Indeed, we have learnt much about how to help
committed couples sustain healthy relationships. But in today's
climate of choice, there is no way to re-establish universal lifelong
marriage. Around the world, marriage will forever more have to
co-exist with single parenthood, unwed couples and divorced families.
--Stephanie Coontz is a professor of history at the Evergreen State
College in Olympia, Washington, and wrote Marriage, a History: How
Love Conquered Marriage
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