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Mon Sep 23 08:50:34 MDT 2002
Nancy F. Cott. Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. 297 pp. Notes index. $27.95
(cloth), ISBN 0-674-00875-8.
Reviewed by Felice Batlan, Department of History, New York University.
Published by H-Law (August, 2002)
Beneath the Private Mask: Marriage as a Public Institution
In the past months, a gnawing question has haunted me. Has the United
States entered a period which is as conservative as, and in some respects
similar to, the 1950s? Is this especially so if we look at issues of gender
and the family? Let me present some anecdotal but relevant evidence.
Recently I attended a party of about sixty people. Only three of the women,
myself included, were employed outside of the home. The others had husbands
who worked while they tended the home and raised the children. Many had
recently moved to suburbia where they had their hands full driving their
children to activities, decorating the house, and coordinating an
ever-expanding list of play dates, chores, and sports practices. As they
described their lives, the suburban kitchen, complete with sub-zeros and
free standing isles, was anything but a "comfortable concentration camp" as
Betty Friedan described it, almost thirty years ago, in The Feminine
Mystique. Rather, these couples had decided that the husband was to be a
breadwinner and the wife, as housewife, financially dependent upon him.
Interestingly none commented that in many ways this was an economically
rational decision, as in most cases their husband's earning potential (as
partners in major law firms, or in the upper echelons of Wall Street) far
exceeded their own earning potential, although their educational
achievements were similar. Rather, these couples appear to understand the
choices that they have made to represent private and individual decisions.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett's much-publicized new book Creating a Life: Professional
Women and the Quest for Children claims that women's career success has
come only at the cost of forgoing marriage and children, leaving women in
their forties and fifties unfulfilled and desperately searching for love
and a family life. She urges women in their twenties to set out to find a
husband and to have children before their thirties, when their fertility
In numerous conversations with acquaintances and strangers, I hear the
argument--to support anything from the administration's "war on terror" to
the further dismantling of the welfare state--that one has to think of
their families first. The argument is as follows: "I don't support the
government's welfare spending on the poor because it doesn't benefit my
family--lower taxes do. My responsibility is to my family, not to other
people's families." A variant is: "I feel bad if we kill civilians in
Afghanistan but I need to worry about protecting my own family against
In the July 5, 2002 New York Times, the Ad Council ran an advertisement in
which the text appearing below an illustration of the American flag reads
in part, "Your right to backyard barbeques, sleeping on Sundays and
listening to any darned music you please can be just as fulfilling as your
right to vote for president. Maybe even more so because you enjoy these
freedoms personally and often."
In the popular HBO cable television series "Sex and the City," the leading
characters seem ever more urgently to be searching for true romantic love.
While waiting, they spend increasing sums of money, from their
all-but-invisible labor, on designer fashions.
In a U.S. women's history class I taught this past semester, thirteen of
the fifteen self-selected, bright and motivated students had never heard
the slogan, "The personal is political."
These examples are not unrelated. Rather, as with 1950s domesticity, the
family has once again taken on a certain quality of being the last bastion
of stability in what is perceived as an increasingly unstable and
frightening world. Describing the family ideology of the 1950s, historian
Regina Kunzel writes, "A crucial site for fighting cold war battles, the
family was charged with nothing less than providing refuge from nuclear
weapons, halting communist subversion, ensuring economic progress by
operating as a consuming unit, and reviving conventional gender roles."
To what extent could such a description apply to today's family? This
stress on the family as a cohesive and conflict-free unit with a relatively
rigid division of labor, providing for the emotional and physical needs of
its members is not necessarily problematic--but it becomes so when the
privatized family serves as a mechanism for de-politicization and assumes
an imaginary but nonetheless atavistic quality, making it appear unattached
to the polity.
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