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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 330-332



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Book Review

Man and Wife in America:
A History


Man and Wife in America: A History. By Hendrik Hartog. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. 416. $29.95 (cloth).

This book is great fun to read although somewhat difficult to describe. My efforts to compose a brief summary and to draw conclusions only remind me how messy is the subject it covers. Reading it is like following a fine teacher on a romp across the bumpy legal terrain of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century marriage and divorce, and I greatly enjoyed the trip--but if you prefer simple conclusions about good guys and bad, or even good law and bad, read something else.

The map of the law of marriage used to be so tidy. Men and women married and became husbands and wives; husbands ruled and owned, wives submitted and sacrificed; and once married, people stayed married, absent the most egregious abuse, and fulfilled their conventional obligations. To be sure, conflicting judgments were passed on this simple narrative, not least of which was that it didn't always "work." Some considered marriage and coverture divine, its hierarchies proper and permanent; others, notably nineteenth-century feminists, considered it oppressive and unfair and sought to ameliorate its effects through married women's property rights, divorce reform, and women's suffrage. In any case, this was all common law, and common sense.

Well, forget it. Man and Wife in America wreaks havoc on our simple notions of marital unity, not to say harmony, in earlier times. True, the law and its practitioners largely agreed on what made one a wife or a husband and what were the obligations and rights of each. However, what actual women and men could do to enforce or transform those identities was messy, involving complicated interactions with a legal culture that, it seems, would just as soon have ignored the topic entirely.

Hendrik Hartog frames his fascinating discussion of marriage around separations. Having explored countless legal treatises and textbooks, as well as cases of marital discord, divorce, separation, adultery, and murder, he offers (as he cheerfully admits) an unsystematic account of how people used the law to structure their marital identities and departures. Hartog is quick to point out that legal history alone cannot tell the story of marriage--and that in any case, American towns were littered with people who had simply left old marital lives and started new ones. (Who in a western town, after all, would check the legal status of a newly arrived widow with small children?) Husbands and wives who did place (or find) themselves in legal proceedings provide Hartog with the "struggles at the margins of marital life and marital identities" (p. 1) that help him explicate people's relationships to concepts once considered self-evident: wife and husband, transformation and unity. [End Page 330]

Man and Wife in America is thus not a history of the institution of marriage so much as it is a narrative of how people turned to the law to help them enact their understanding of what a wife or a husband was, and how those gendered identities changed or endured when the parties ended a marriage. The stories themselves are fascinating, and regardless of whether they made "good" law or none at all, Hartog brings to each a penetrating eye. He introduces us to Lydia McGuire, who thought the law should force her husband Charles to support her in accordance with his means; Charles, in contrast, believed it his right as husband and property owner to decide whether to spend money on indoor plumbing, electricity, or visits to family members. (The year was 1951.) In examining Abigail Bailey's divorce from a truly horrific husband, Hartog illuminates how one eighteenth-century wife turned to law to resolve the tensions between her religious obligations and her marital ones. From cases of husbands murdering their wives' lovers (a crime for which men could not be convicted), we learn about men's growing doubts...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 330-332
Launched on MUSE
2001-04-01
Open Access
No
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