Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. 297 pp. Notes index. $27.95
(cloth) ISBN 0-674-00320-9; $15.95 (paper), ISBN 0-674-00875-8 .
Felice Batlan , Department of History, New York University.
Beneath the Private Mask: Marriage as a Public Institution
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
Cott's Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation is thus
especially important at this moment. In her examination of marriage from the
early Republic through the late 1990s, Cott, professor of history at Harvard
University and director of Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library, reminds us that
marriage is not only about the joining of a couple but rather is an
institution deeply connected to the polity through which the state apparatus
shapes and institutionalizes gender arrangements (p. 3). Yet, as Cott
observes, "The monumental public character of marriage is generally its
least noticed aspect" (p. 1). In making this argument, Cott subtly brings
before her readers the question of the extent to which marriage and the
structure of married life is truly voluntary and the ways that its
compulsory aspects have been masked by an ideology of choice and consent.
Although Cott is perhaps best known for The Bonds of Womanhood, her
groundbreaking 1977 work in women's history, one of her great strengths is
her ability to synthesize material as evidenced by her widely-read and
assigned book The Roots of Modern Feminism. Public Vows
answers Thomas Bender's call for works of historical synthesis; it
beautifully takes the scholarship of the last twenty years produced in the
fields of gender and women's history, African-American history, southern
history, native American history, immigration history, and the development
of the welfare state and produces something larger than the sum of its
parts. A reader familiar with these fields can predict the content of
Cott's endnotes and the sources from which she has drawn. Although little in
the work comes as a surprise and some of her examples are widely known and
have been studied in depth elsewhere, Cott's narrative puts together the
bricolage in an innovative manner, which allows for fresh
interpretation. Indeed, Public Vows can be read as a re-narration of
the history of the United States through the lens of marriage.
provides a coherent framework for this chronologically wide-ranging work by
focusing on the theme of citizenship--what it means, how it is enacted and
performed--and its relationship to marriage. Unlike other recent works on
marriage by historians such as Hendrik Hartog, Norma Basch, and J. Herbie
DiFonzo, Cott is less interested in the ways that the law of marriage,
coverture, separation, and divorce functioned in courts, legal offices, or
even among couples themselves, and more focused on the political and social
meaning of marriage and its relationship to the construction of gender,
race, the nation, and citizenship. Further, although it is axiomatic for
legal scholars to understand marriage as the epitome of federalism (in that
it is regulated by state law), Cott demonstrates the myriad ways that
federal law and policy shaped and promoted monogamous matrimony.
begins by exploring marriage in the Revolutionary era and early Republic,
and examining how marriage and citizenship became intertwined. She argues
that virtue, understood as a necessary trait of the citizen of a republic,
also informed marriage. The virtuous citizen was public-spirited and
concerned with the social good rather than with promoting his own
self-interest. Marriage became "a training ground for virtue" where citizens
learned to care for one another and the male citizen's natural reason and
judgment complimented women's natural affection (pp. 18-19). Furthermore,
like a republic, marriage seemingly rested upon voluntary consent through
which the wife became represented by her husband. Cott writes that in the
years of the early Republic, marital monogamy became deeply associated with
political liberty and a republican state. Married couples, enacting
appropriate gender roles, would form the units on which to construct the
nation. For instance, Cott points to federal efforts to reform Native
Americans' understanding and practice of marriage as evidence that they were
appropriately civilized to be incorporated into the polity. Likewise, slave
marriages were not legally recognized for marriage represented at least one
indicator of the citizenship that a slave could not claim.
recognizes, however, that during the antebellum period state and federal
control were weak and community standards regarding what constituted
marriage and appropriate behavior within marriage prevailed. Cott describes
the familiar landscape of antebellum heterogeneous marriage practices,
including self-marriage, separation, desertion, out of wedlock births,
bigamy, and (less often) marriage across the color line, as well as the
experiments of numerous utopian communities in radically restructuring
marriage, gender, and family arrangements. Although Cott attempts to
demonstrate that even within this space (which allowed for a variety of
marital practices), community mechanisms, formal and informal, policed
marriage, her argument regarding the relationship between citizenship and
marriage unfortunately seems to falter as she pauses to examine these
practices that formed an alternative to life-long monogamous marriage.
Cott's most powerful chapters is her analyses of abolitionists', slavery
defenders', and women's rights activists' arguments over the question of
marriage. Although Cott does not unearth new material, her juxtaposition of
these various understandings of marriage provides a new perspective and
allows these groups of historical actors to enter into dialogue with one
another, while demonstrating the centrality of marriage to the discourse of
all three. Abolitionists argued that slavery's great injustices were its
denial of Christian marriage to the slave and slave owners' disregard for
monogamy as they raped slave women and sold members of slave families.
contrast, slavery's defenders portrayed it as a paternalistic institution in
which the slave stood in a relationship of natural hierarchy, similar to the
relationship between husband and wife or parent and child. As Cott notes,
white Southern elites believed that "[j]ust as women were fitted by nature
and God to conform to their place as wives, enslaved African Americans were
suited for slavery; and slavery, like marriage, was a relationship of
unequals benefiting both parties" (p. 61). This ideology provided all white
southern men (most who were not slaveholders) with the patina of being
masters of their own household. Unfortunately, Cott does not discuss Justice
Thomas Ruffin's 1829 opinion for the North Carolina Supreme Court in
State v. Mann. In Mann, the court specifically rejected the
analogy between slavery and domestic relationships. Examining Mann
might have added further complexity to her argument. As slavery's defenders
analogized slavery to marriage, some women's right's activists, many of them
committed abolitionists, agreed with the analogy, condemning both slavery
and marriage as anathema to self-ownership and liberty. Cott makes the
important if at times forgotten point that the early woman's right movement
emphasized marriage reform as much as if not more than suffrage.
Union victory, the slaves' emancipation, and the growing power of the state,
monogamous marriage took on a hegemonic quality. Marriage became one of the
primary foundations on which a unified and national state was constructed.
The Freedmen's Bureau (the first foray of the federal government into a
bureaucratic welfare state) equally emphasized the importance for freedmen
of wage labor and of marriage. The male slave, formerly dependent, was to be
reconstructed as an independent wage-earner and provider for a dependent
family that he controlled. The possibility of his attaining citizenship
depended, in part, upon such a transformation, and former slaves often
embraced marriage as part of freedom. Yet state-sanctioned Christian
marriage foreclosed older African-American practices of self-marriage and
divorce (rooted in part in their creative responses to the tyranny of
slavery). Furthermore, as Cott emphasizes, masculinity and male citizenship
depended upon a man having a wife who was financially and politically
dependent upon him. A wife's dependency underwrote her husband's political
an almost Hegelian dialectic, Cott balances the hegemonic quality of
state-sanctioned monogamous marriage with alternatives that could not be
entirely quashed. Thus in the post-bellum period, divorce generated concern
among the Protestant clergy, cultural elites, and politicians alike. Cott
writes, "Divorce was the leading edge.... It stimulated the vagaries of
desire, which Christian-model monogamy had meant to foreclose" (p. 107). If
divorce provoked nightmares on the part of some, many saw Mormon polygamy in
the Utah territories as a visible rupture in the promotion of a national
marriage model. In Reynolds v. United States (1878), the U.S. Supreme
Court ruled that Congress had the power to criminalize polygamy in the
territories and that polygamy was not protected by the First Amendment.
Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite made clear the Court's understanding of the
link between monogamy and democracy, on the one hand, and polygamy and
despotism, on the other hand. Engaging with some of the new scholarship
on racial construction, Cott argues convincingly that Mormons were
discursively constructed as non-whites.
post-Civil War years, the federal government promoted monogamous marriage
through the Freedmen's Bureau, social purity, anti-obscenity and birth
control laws such as the Comstock Act, Indian policy, and immigration laws.
Turning to immigration, Cott demonstrates how such laws and policies were
both deeply related to marriage and profoundly gendered. They sought to
transform the immigrant family into an appropriate male-headed household.
For instance, when Congress debated a literacy test for immigrants, one
controversy arose over whether the test would apply to men and women. As
passed, the test applied to both--but exempted members of a male immigrant's
immediate family. Cott argues that this measure, as well as other
immigration laws, promoted a national policy that saw male citizenship as
encompassing the right to be a husband and father. Yet immigration law
recognized only certain types of marriage. Marriage in the popular
imagination and enacted through national policy was supposed to be
consensual and grounded in romantic love which stood outside of market
relationships. Port inspectors and officials guarded the nation's borders
against "sham," un-American marriages, which included Asian picture brides
and arranged marriages.
detects a shift in marriage in the second quarter of the twentieth century.
Where marriage had been linked to good governance, public virtue, and the
creation of the nation, by the 1920s it primarily underwrote an economic
order in which the husband functioned as breadwinner. Cott makes the
important point that by the 1920s women were increasingly employed in the
work force, primarily in low-paying jobs. Access to wage labor, however,
reconfigured the role of housewife as a freely-chosen individual decision
made by a woman.
1930s, New Deal programs sought to shore up the male breadwinner and were
structured to provide the most generous benefits to white men. Many of the
New Deal's best-funded work programs, such as the Civilian Conservation
Corps, provided construction work from which women were excluded. Section
213 of the Economy Act of 1932 prohibited two people in the same family from
simultaneously holding federal jobs. Although gender-neutral on its face,
Section 213 resulted in wives leaving federal employment as their husbands
almost always held the higher paying job (p. 173). Social Security's old age
provisions covered only full-time workers and excluded domestic,
agricultural, and government employees (including teachers). This structure
effectively created a mediated relationship between women and the state in
that it benefited many women only through the male head-of-household's
least satisfying chapters of Public Vows are those discussing the
period following World War II. These chapters seem rushed, lacking some of
the creative analysis and juxtapositions earlier achieved. They also have a
slightly teleological quality and culminate in the partial popular
acceptance of a multitude of alternatives to non-monogamous marriage. They
are not, however, without keen insight. For example, in discussing Cold War
politics, Cott writes, "In confrontations with the Soviet Union and its
socialist allies, American propaganda and Americans themselves often
translated their political economy into private aspirations, linking
capitalism and representative democracy to personal choices in marrying,
having children, buying a home, and gaining access to a cornucopia of
consumer goods" (p. 197). Cott then briefly discusses the Supreme Court's
decisions in Griswold v. Connecticut (1963), Eisenstadt v. Baird
(1972), and Roe v. Wade (1973). Although these cases are rightly
celebrated as landmarks, the reader is left wondering how they too were part
of the Cold War political agenda. Although hinting at it, Cott does not
fully develop this analysis.
Public Vows ends
by querying why marriage remains such a powerful draw when over half of them
end in divorce. Somehow, against all odds, like clapping our hands for
Tinkerbell, we keep believing in the possibility of happy endings. Marriage,
Cott theorizes, presents one of the few spaces where we imagine that our
full subjectivities can blossom. Cott does not make the argument quite this
way, but she inspires the reader to wonder whether marriage and family life,
cloaked in the illusion of privacy and representing an ersatz bright-line
boundary between the public and private, has taken on such renewed
importance because of the relative poverty of our other public institutions
in playing a positive role in fashioning our creativity, well-being,
citizenship, and sense of community. Cott ends Public Vows with a
point well worth contemplating and perhaps even more important than when she
wrote the book two years ago: How can a renewed institution of marriage,
with its understanding of private intimacy, nurture generous attention to
the public interest?
. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W. W. Norton,
1963), 305. For a discussion of this analogy and the roots of The
Feminine Mystique in McCarthyism see Daniel Horowitz, Betty Friedan
and the Making of the Feminine Mystique: The American Left, the Cold War,
and Modern Feminism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998).
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Creating a Life: Professional Woman and the Quest for
Children (New York: Hyperion, 2002). In response see Katha Pollitt,
"Backlash Babies," The Nation (May 13, 2002).
Regina G. Kunzel, Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the
Professionalization of Social Work, 1890-1954 (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1993).
Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: 'Women's Sphere' in
New England, 1780-1835
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977); Nancy F. Cott, The Grounding of
Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).
Thomas Bender, "Wholes and Parts: The Need for Synthesis in American
History," Journal of American History 73 (1986): 120-136.
Hendrik Hartog, Man and Wife in
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000); Norma Basch, Framing
American Divorce: From the Revolutionary Generation to the Victorians
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); J. Herbie DiFonzo,
Beneath the Fault Line: The Popular and Legal Culture of Divorce in
(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997).
State v. Mann, 13 N.C. 263 (1829).
98 U.S. 145 (1878).
literacy test for immigrants was first proposed and debated in 1896 but was
not enacted until 1917 (pp. 141-142).
381 U.S. 479 (1965); Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972); Roe
v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
Citation: Felice Batlan . "Review of Nancy F. Cott, Public Vows: A History
of Marriage and the Nation," H-Law, H-Net Reviews, August, 2002. URL:
“This book does more than offer insight into the
history of marriage (though it does that too); it demonstrates how women’s
and gender history illuminates wider (and older) questions relevant to U.S.
political history in the broadest sense: about citizenship and the national
government, race and public life, and the meaning of individualism in social
communities. By the same token, the limitations of Public Vows raise
questions about the evolution of women’s and gender history in a new
Ruth Feldstein, review of Public Vows: A History of
Marriage and the Nation, by Nancy F. Cott, Reviews in American
History, 30 (March 2002): 106-113.