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A History of Marriage: from same sex unions to private vows and common law, the surprising diversity of a tradition by Elizabeth Abbott discusses the North American historical experience of marriage, although shorter facts and references to other countries are also included, mostly so comparisons between the US and Canada.
A History of Marriage discusses just about all notions of marriage and is a general description of many traditions and aspects of marriage. Among the topics discussed are race and marriage, marriage and money, child care, divorce, gay marriage and divorce, incest, polygamy, monogamy, social class, bridal endowments and laws and policies that control and influence marriage. It also discusses sex in marriage, contraception, abortion, men and marriage, women and marriage, sexual abuse, violence, and childhood.
A common theme throughout the book is the inequality of marriage between men and women. The historical perspective clearly communicates this idea. Throughout history marriage has been a measure of individual success and appeal. Men and women, but especially so women, who did not marry were largely considered abnormal. Many men and women married at a young age, often dependent on parental consent and bridal endowments. Expectations of what it meant to be a man/husband and a woman/wife were heavily enforced and different roles for women and men were expected and rarely questioned. Women were to be the “angel in the house”, soft, caring and motherly. Men, on the other hand, were to engage in work outside the home in order to provide for the family.
The unequal nature of marriage did not only mean that women had fewer rights in general but it also had dangerous consequences for women. Spousal abuse, marital rape and constant pregnancies were not uncommon and often even encouraged as men controlled women’s sexuality and were expected to correct inappropriate behavior through physical corrections. Thereby, violence in the home was allowed, even encouraged, as long as it did not escalate as to cripple or seriously injure the woman.
There are many different notions and aspects concerning marriage discussed in this book, together with historical ideas and ideals that reflected the state of marriage. Therefore, it is not possible to describe them all in this review. Instead, I will mention that there are many positive aspects of this book and Abbott is thorough in covering marriage as a whole. Abbott also incorporates gender, race, sexual orientation and social class into her discussion which provides different perspectives and acknowledges the fact that marriage has been, and still in many ways is, different depending on these above factors. Abbott is not afraid of spelling out inequalities concerning marriage and how these have affected women in general, women of color, men of color, individuals with disabilities, and women’s health, rights and choices. Abbott often mentions the notion of white privilege and white supremacy in reflection to marriage, especially during the time of slavery in America.
On the downside, since Abbott does cover so much ground in regards to the tradition of marriage, the book does not provide a whole lot of detail. It is instead more of a snapshot or an introduction to different aspects of marriage. Understandably, it is impossible to discuss such a historical approach in detail. However, a person that might want more in depth information might have to seek this information else where. Despite this, Abbott manages to keep the readers interest throughout the full 400 pages of information.
This book is most certainly of use to individuals interested in practices, traditions and policies concerning marriage. A History of Marriage would be of special interest to individuals concerned with women’s and men’s roles, societal expectations and assumptions concerning gender and gender roles. This book provides a vast amount of information and is easy to read.
© 2012 Elin Weiss
Elin Weiss has a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and a Master's Degree in Women's Studies from University College Dublin, Ireland.