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American Quarterly 53.4 (2001) 691-702
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The Shifting Monument of American Marriage
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
"Marriage is like the sphinx--a conspicuous and recognizable monument on the landscape, full of secrets," announces Nancy Cott at the beginning of Public Vows. One approach to understanding American marriage is to try to illuminate the secrets that comprise this most intimate of human relationships--the tender caresses and the petty cruelties that are part of the interpersonal complexities that privately transpire between two spouses. 1 Yet, as Cott shows in her study, these "private experiences [are] so precious that they [have] amounted to a public necessity worth fighting for" (188). The chief innovation of these three erudite new studies of American marriage is their resolute emphasis on the double role of marriage as a public monument central to political history. Their collective achievement should more firmly [End Page 691] center the institution of marriage (and the social ramifications of its dissolutions) as a fertile field for analyzing cultural change in the United States. Together these studies expand our historical understanding of the dense legal and political processes through which state and federal governments and court systems privileged a model of monogamous marriage by prohibiting alternative approaches or rendering them illegitimate. Each author variously shows the architecture of marriage to be deeply constitutive of the public gender roles that form the basis of civic involvement. The normative marital paradigm that loomed over the cultural landscapes of the United States (even though its shadow has recently diminished) has been a powerful modulator of the economic fortunes of individuals, a structural means of regulating the bonds of racial consanguinity, a legitimator of acceptable sexual expression, and an evolving ideal that embodied in miniature the coherence of the nation as a moral community. These books powerfully demonstrate anew the rich cultural detail and perspective that studies of the legal tradition can offer American studies scholarship.
When marriage evolved from an religious sacrament into a secular contract after the Reformation, its province came increasingly under the aegis of the state. Yet the common law tradition perpetuated the biblical belief that a husband and wife became "one flesh" through a remarkably persistent doctrine of marital unity in which a woman, though the process of becoming a wife, merged her political and economic identity into that of her husband. This principle of coverture, one that laid a widespread foundation for the common sense of marriage until the middle of the twentieth century, meant that through the act of marriage a woman became a feme covert whose independent right to own property, engage in contracts, sue in a court of law, and even maintain a separate religious belief system was "covered" over by her husband's power. This doctrine of marital unity promoted the family as the husband's private sphere, in which a wife was an extension of his household, a domain that remained free from the direct regulation of the state as long as he remained alive and did not abuse too publicly his duty of protecting and providing for his wife. According to the renowned English common law scholar Sir William Blackstone, a wife was "entitled to no power, but only to reverence and respect" (Hartog 60). It is thus not surprising that feminists of every generation have challenged this legal orthodoxy--one that even made proof of marriage a complete defense to an accusation of rape--as a [End Page 692] form of "marital bondage" and sought to garner the wife a greater measure of power as a separate civic individual.
Norma Basch begins her book by arguing that the legitimization of...