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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 106-113

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The Personal Is (Still) Political:
Marriage, Citizenship, And Women's And Gender History

Ruth Feldstein

Nancy F. Cott. Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. v + 297 pp. Notes and index. $27.95.

In the past year, the political ramifications of so-called personal life, especially marriage, have emerged in unexpected ways. There has been Republican outrage at the so-called "marriage tax" and panic at the prospect of gay marriages in Hawaii and Vermont. Delegates at the annual Baptist convention declared that it should be harder for couples to end their marriages, and a recent Supreme Court decision affirmed that motherhood but not fatherhood confers citizenship on illegitimate children. These are just some incidents suggesting the degree to which marriage as an institution alternatively delineates and blurs the boundaries between public and private life.

Women's history has long been interested in investigating the murky line between public and private life, but few scholars have explored this vexed relationship with the clarity or impact as has Nancy Cott. In Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, Cott offers a compelling history of marriage as at once that most private and most public of institutions.

Cott brings to her history of marriage a formidable history of her own as one of the most influential women's historians in the field. In 1977, she published The Bonds of Womanhood: 'Woman's Sphere' in New England, 1780-1835. The white women in the domestic sphere who were the subjects of this groundbreaking study were in a bondage, of sorts, excluded as they were from the public sphere of a developing market economy and politics. At the same time, Cott argued that the private bonds between women were empowering and laid the foundation for women's rights advocacy. The clever play on words in the book's title suggested that any simple dichotomy between public and private was problematic. With that insight, Cott helped set the terms of the discussion for the explosion of scholarship on nineteenth-century women that followed--scholarship showing an interest in the private lives of women formerly marginal to historical narratives, coupled with the assumption that this recovery involved more than a straightforward acceptance of "separate spheres" as a model. 1 [End Page 106]

In The Grounding of Modern Feminism, published in 1987, Cott scrutinized the public and private dimensions of early-twentieth-century feminism (or what would later become known as first-wave feminism). To some extent, the activist women that Cott so thoroughly located in time and place in The Grounding of Modern Feminism--sexual moderns, suffragists, bohemians, professionals--were insistently, emphatically "public." They made their claims for individual female equality in organizations oriented in the traditional public sphere of politics and economics. But Cott suggested that their vision of equality encompassed female difference, solidarity among women in and beyond homes and families, and heterosexual relations--the traditional private sphere. This analysis of the transition from the nineteenth-century "woman movement" to feminism in the 1910s and 1920s historicized tensions between equality and difference, public and private, divisions among feminists, and strategies of organizing. As with The Bonds of Womanhood, Cott pinpointed the issues with which historians continue to grapple. 2

Now, in Public Vows, Nancy Cott shifts her focus from women to the institution of marriage. There are ways in which Public Vows marks a significant departure from Cott's earlier work. The focus here is on the gendered meanings of marriage, nationhood, and citizenship more than on women per se; this is a legal and cultural history of marriage and nationhood more than a social history of how women or men lived married lives. In other respects, Cott is again investigating the ways in which public and private constitute each other; she is historicizing the insight of 1960s feminists that the personal is political. "To be marriage," notes Cott at the outset, to be that institution associated with intimacy, privacy, and...


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