Blogs > HNN > Jim Cullen, Review of Rebecca L. Davis's "More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss" (Harvard, 2010)

Mar 30, 2010 2:45 pm

Jim Cullen, Review of Rebecca L. Davis's "More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss" (Harvard, 2010)

[Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of ten books, among them The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003) and Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History (Blackwell-Wiley, 2009). He blogs at American History Now.]

Flashy title aside, this elegantly conceived and executed monograph (one that probably, though not explicitly, began its life as a doctoral dissertation) is delimited by a specific body of information: the public discourse surrounding marital counseling in the last 75 years. Drawing upon an array of archives around the country, as well as popular literature of the time and contemporary academic research, Rebecca L. Davis charts changing attitudes -- and persistent tensions -- that have accompanied the pursuit of happiness through matrimony. This pursuit was conducted in public and private through the Great Depression, World War, the social upheaval of the 1960s, and continues to be the locus of considerable discussion. As Davis notes, many of the issues that characterize this discourse have been reiterated and refracted in the debate over same-sex marriage.

At heart, the book is a chronicle of power struggles -- and not just those between husband and wife. The first was over the establishment of marriage counseling as a legitimate professional enterprise. This was actually a two-front battle that required both government support, typically through local family welfare agencies during the Great Depression, as well as a bid for legitimacy in the broader, Progressive-minded field of public health. The establishment of organizations like the American Institute of Family Relations (AIFR) in 1930 by Paul Popenoe, one of the major figures in marriage counseling for the next half-century, was pivotal to the movement's eventual success. A key element in this strategy involved aligning the profession with the then-influential eugenics movement, emphasizing the risk of mixed-race marriages, a term that was defined relatively broadly. (Popenoe was also among those, like Margaret Sanger, who supported involuntary sterilization for the mentally and physically impaired.) Davisa also writes, more approvingly, about other pioneers of marital counseling, like Emily Mudd of the Philadelphia Marriage Council (MCP) who took a broader, more holistic approach.

Another fault line in the history of marriage counseling was class conflict. From an early date, many in the marriage profession labored to break free of its early association with relief services and place it on a more securely middle-class footing that focused on emotional rather than economic issues. Such an approach tended to alienate those who considered material factors the primary stressors in the marriages, who then tended to drift away. But Davis emphasizes that the significance of this class bias also had important cultural dimensions, particularly in enshrining white heterosexual norms as the baseline of a normal, healthy relationship. This bias would survive manifold challenges in the second half of the 20th century, and became the cornerstone of social policy in the Bush administration of the 21st century.

One of the more complex relationships in the history of marriage counseling was that between social science professionals and clerics of the major U.S. faith traditions, who tended to have a similar outlook in the public debate over marriage (notwithstanding important differences on birth control, for example, or the ideological divide between mainline and evangelical churches). In some ways, science and religion shared common ground, even as they competed for authority. Priests and rabbis were happy enough to condone, if not sanction, eugenic thought that had the effect of discouraging interfaith marriage. And at least until the 1970s, both emphasized a strong divide in gender roles. Later, when the diverse ideological challenges of the 1960s questioned both religious and scientific orthodoxies surrounding gender and sexuality, religious leaders borrowed heavily from the language and tactics of contemporary psychology. But they used it for different, even antithetical ends. Davis offers an intriguing discussion of the Catholic Marriage Encounter movement of the 1970s and the evangelical Total Woman Program of the same era to show how liberal ideas about sexual liberation were harnessed to a neoconservative vision of marriage and family.

Throughout the book, Davis emphasizes the strong influence of the state in marriage, even to the point of prizing public purpose over private interest."Marriage counseling in the United States . . . has been as much about the consequences of successful or failed relationships for the general welfare as for the individuals involved," she notes in her introduction. But this may be one way in which the narrowness of her focus leads to a kind of myopia. Where or when has marriage not been about economic and even political considerations at least as much as romantic ones? Why would she expect otherwise? As she notes, Americans have a particular passion for marriage (and divorce), no doubt attributable to the promises implicit in the pursuit of happiness. But that charter was itself a state document, and only the most naive of Jeffersonian libertarians can consider the habits of the heart solely a private matter.

Davis also seems to have a somewhat parochial political vision. There's an air of disappointment, and even disapproval, at the resilience of (sexist) tradition that runs through the book. This is perhaps attributable to an ideological alignment consonant with that of important feminist scholars like Nancy Cott, Elaine Tyler May, and Stephanie Coontz, all of whom are cited in the notes (and who provide blurbs on the book's jacket).

But it's possible to view the story she tells in terms of a glass that's at least half full, if one considers -- in a way Davis rarely does -- the tremendous professional, economic, and political strides women have made in the last 75 years. The mere existence of no-fault divorces and newer child custody laws favoring mothers, to cite two examples, have strengthened the hands of wives. A dose of the bracing optimism of Gail Collins's recently published survey of women's lives since 1960, When Everything Changed, might have helped here.

More Perfect Unions is nevertheless a useful, and usefully provocative, book. It should find a durable life in the discourse of marriage and gender studies generally.

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