How did Work Invade Our Idea of Marriage?Historians in the News
tags: family history, marriage, history of the family
What do we mean when we say that marriage is work? To me, it’s the idea that entering a long-term union requires essentially becoming an office manager. Partners manage communication, both emotional and logistical. They carve out time from busy social schedules to plan events, such as date nights and sex. They must learn the careful, tricky language of conflict resolution. Perhaps this conceit stems from a desire to make marriages happily long-lasting, and an uncertainty about how to do it. Conceptualizing marriage as work allows us to make happiness legible: Anyone can have a happy relationship, provided they are willing to do the necessary toil. There’s a kind of American bootstrap optimism in this. But thinking of our relationships as labor changes them, too. What if there were a way to think of marriage—the everyday action of it—as something less like work and more like play?
In her book Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States, the historian Kristin Celello writes that the concept of marriage as work was not inevitable. In the 1800s, marriage in the U.S. was driven more by familial duty than by individual choice. But marriage soon became more motivated by love, which meant divorce became more feasible from the lack of it. The result—combined with expanded women’s rights, a changing legal landscape, and other factors—was a rise in divorce.
To address growing societal concerns about this rise and the suddenly fragile-seeming family, experts in the 1920s linked marriage and work to each other, according to Celello. Take Ernest Rutherford Groves, a sociologist who designed marriage-preparation courses for both men and women, first at Boston University in 1922 and then at the University of North Carolina in 1927. They included writing lists of traits for ideal partners, taking personality assessments, and learning how to balance household finances. The courses conceptualized marriage as a job to prepare for, an occupation in which success could be achieved through the perfection of various skills. By 1937, nearly 30 percent of colleges and universities in the United States offered marriage courses similar to Groves’s. The implicit message seemed to be that whereas courtship might be fun and playful, life after the wedding day required labor, not levity.
At times, the connection between work and marriage was made incredibly literal. Consider the Brides’ School, a program put together in 1939 by Good Housekeeping magazine, where Eleanor Roosevelt once addressed a crowd of young women by warning them that newlyweds “should understand that they are undertaking a full-time job which is going to be part of their everyday existence from the time the marriage ceremony is read until ‘death do them part,’ a job which they cannot neglect for a day without being confronted with failure.” In the ’50s, this sentiment was strengthened by a booming marriage-advice industrial complex, replete with expert counselors and books. The implied audience for this advice had long been white and middle class. Still, by the time the final decades of the century rolled around, marriage as work had wormed its way into the American lexicon.
Marriage work isn’t equal, though. The part frequently not said aloud is that marriage is often work for women. In her history of the concept, Celello points out that in the U.S. in the early 20th century, “experts assumed that women needed marriage more than men, for both financial and emotional reasons.” So it was up to women to work for their happy marriage. Even as women joined the workforce in larger numbers and were guaranteed access to bank accounts and credit cards, they still did more domestic labor than their male partner when they got home.
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