What Is Marriage For?

iVillagers chat with EJ Graff, author of What is Marriage For?

EJGraff: I'm looking forward to talking about the history of marriage.
Cadette34: E.J., what are your credentials?
EJGraff: I'm an affiliated scholar at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library, and have spent several years researching the history of marriage. My book is What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social history of Our Most Intimate Institution, available now on amazon.com!
Cadette34: Thank You.
Kherrity: E.J., was it always more important for a woman to marry than for a man?
EJGraff: I'm not sure that was so. For centuries, neither men *nor* women could make their livings without having either a partner or the support of their families. I can talk more about this. A farmer required a farmwife, a fisherman required a fishwife. Those weren't just words, but jobs. The German medieval guilds, for instance, wouldn't let a man move up from journeyman to master unless he married. Certain jobs -- gaoler (jailer), for instance -- were only given to those with spouses. Someone widowed had to prove they had a fiancé in mind to keep the job.
Kherrity: Why was there the name "spinster" but no equivalent for men?
EJGraff: Spinster began as a word meaning anyone who spun wool. That was often the job given to unmarried young women who had left home to earn their dowries.
Kherrity: Wow -- so initially it wasn't a derogatory term.




EJGraff: But because there's a bit more misogyny out there than male-bashing (yes, it's still true, gals), that word got downgraded while "apprentice" never turned into a word meaning "bachelor." And no indeed, it wasn't derogatory: It was a working term. Young women did all the textile jobs. In fact, women didn't stop working until the 19th Century ... what's happening now is that women are reclaiming our place in the working order. How did women get shoved into the home? The answer (if you'll excuse the term) is industrial capitalism. Work left the home: The workshop stopped being downstairs (the bakery, the leather-making, etc.) and women were shoved back into the home. No longer could they keep the books, take the goods to the market, etc. Now, instead of having servants -- young women had traditionally earned their dowries by being dairymaids, laundrymaids or caring for children -- *married* women were the servants.
Kherrity: Were "bachelors" looked down upon?
EJGraff: I can't say I know about 'bachelors,' but it is true that fathers forced young men to marry by withholding their inheritances....
Kherrity: Thanks E.J. -- I loved your book, by the way.
lisa0765: Women stopped working because they had to? Not because it meant more to them to stay at home taking care of the family?
EJGraff: Essentially, yes. Work was taken away to another part of the city. Very slowly it became a show-off thing to have wives who didn't work. Men were allowed to leave home but women weren't, and work was no longer at home so they started doing the serving-girl routine.


catherine13: Why do you have to get married to be recognized as a couple by insurance companies, the state, etc.? Why don't they change with the times?
EJGraff: Excellent question, catherine13. In fact, traditionally people did live together without any official registration or recognition (even from the church). However, today we live in much more complicated times than our ancestors did. We constantly bump up against institutional strangers -- insurance companies, cemeteries, employers, etc. How do they know whether a given person who claims to be our beloved really is, or is just a lunatic stranger? Marriage is the marker we have to let the hundreds of strangers know who we believe counts to us.
catherine13: Why can't we just wear signs?
EJGraff: More on Catherine's question ... marriage is a convenient legal mailbox. Unfortunately, the history of humanity is the history of disagreement. Since people *do* disagree about such things as inheritance, separation and child custody, "marriage" is the word that marks a relationship that counts and "marriage" is that sign. However, other countries do things differently. Australia, Canada and some other countries have an intermediate status for "de facto" couples but it's imposed, whether you like it or not.
Runningincircles: What's a de facto couple?
EJGraff: Do you live with someone? Do you act "married"? That's a de facto couple ... although Canada and Australia have specific legal definitions about who counts (and same-sex couples count) under that definition.
caseyjones99:Why haven't marriage vows changed in wording through the years?
EJGraff: The vows question -- a very beautiful question. They have, in fact, changed through the years. The Romans' was a much more legalistic formula: The groom asked the father-in-law whether he'd give away his daughter, and the father-in-law would say yes! As for the Christian wording, it's just such a beautiful poem: For better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health ... how could it get better?
Cmtemom: What were the marriage rules before the 19th century vs. what they are now?


EJGraff: Cmtemom -- fab question. And it took me 253 pages to answer! But let me take a few stabs at this. First, marriage has *always* been a social battleground, the rules *constantly* in flux. Before the 19th Century, a marriage was a working partnership. Once capitalism made it possible for people to make their livings independently -- to choose their work lives, and therefore their love lives -- there were several resulting battles. There was the battle over whether contraception should be legal, over whether divorce should be allowed for more reasons than adultery and attempted murder (the traditional Protestant reasons), over whether women should be allowed to have custody of their own children (which they never could before 1858), and whether they could own property or get educations. And now there's the battle over same-sex marriage.
Kherrity: You mentioned contraception -- is that something you looked into as well?
EJGraff: In detail, yes. What do you want to know? Here's a thought -- the Catholic Church called contraception "the crime against nature." One theologian said that "it is bad for a woman to have sex with her own father, but it is worse for her to have lay with her husband against nature...." By this he meant any act that prevented conception, whether coitus interruptus or drinking pennywort tea to prevent conception.
Kherrity: Was it always a challenge (both financially and in terms of knowing what was available) to protect oneself from pregnancy? What did women do before the Pill?
EJGraff: Before the Pill, people used the various positions that did not lead to pregnancy ... or they used such contraceptives as olive oil (which worked as a kind of diaphragm, temporarily) or tried various herbal preparations like pennywort or rue. Or they tried abstinence, which is what the Church encouraged.
Kherrity: Was the Catholic Church the exception or the rule regarding views on contraception?
EJGraff: The late-19th and early-20th Century battle over whether contraception should be legal was really a battle over whether you should have sex for love or just for babies. The Catholic Church was an extreme exception. The Romans and Jews had very different ideas -- the Jews believing that sex was to refresh the spirit and the bond between two people.


Runningincircles: Your historical view/insight is interesting ... but what is your take on why we marry today, and as women have we come to understand how to use it well enough?
EJGraff: Ah, why we marry today. Since the 19th Century, the main rule has been love. Once we can make our own livings we can also make our own beds. You're really asking two main questions, though: First, why do we want to marry emotionally -- to bond with one other person? People have done that throughout the ages for lots of honorable (and dishonorable) reasons. Second, why do we have the outer ceremony, the public registration? From my point of view, it's to adjudicate disputes. Given that the history of humanity is the history of disagreement, society always needs some way to decide who's being fair and who's being unfair, and to whom. Should my brother inherit, or should my beloved? Marriage is the marker (sorry to be repeating myself).
Runningincircles: Systemic control -- is that what you're saying?
EJGraff: Not control, no. Given that we bump up against thousands of strangers in our lives, marriage is a way to mark who belongs to whom -- whether I care about X enough to want her by my side if I'm ill, or whether that role falls to my mother or my daughter.
Kherrity: When was the first documented marriage?
EJGraff: Whoops! You know, they don't know that. Marriage exists in every recorded and discovered society.
Kherrity: Really? Do you think there has always been some form of marriage then?
EJGraff: Yes, apparently people have been finding bonds with each other for lots of reasons, forever. But the reasons that societies marry differ. For instance, one anthropologist was told that marriage was to create brothers-in-law ... so you'd have someone to go visit.
Zrica: What are your thoughts on arranged marriages?
EJGraff: Great question about arranged marriages. They work when people's expectations are *not* to find a best friend, but to find a partner who will help them meet certain social and financial expectations: making a living, passing on the family name or preserving the culture. In fact, arranged marriages are more common, historically and even now, than love-matches. Although most of our ancestors got to choose their own mates, unless they came from wealthy families, the more money your family had, the less choice. If you worked, you had more choice.
Cmtdarden: E.J., thank you for joining us for tonight -- I really enjoyed it. Everyone, thank you for joining our special guest author chat with E.J. Graff, author of What Marriage is For. If we didn't get to your question, don't forget she is hosting the board as well.

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