Making Marriage Modern: Women's Sexuality from the Progressive Era to World War II.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Coontz, Stephanie
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3
Topic: NamedWork: Making Marriage Modern: Women's Sexuality from the Progressive Era to World War II (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Simmons, Christina
Accession Number: 254405143
Full Text: Making Marriage Modern: Women's Sexuality from the Progressive Era to World War II. By Christina Simmons (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. vii plus 306 pp.).

Making Marriage Modern is an important contribution to the growing body of research that situates the origins of modern marital ideals--and their attendant tensions--in the early twentieth century.

Christina Simmons begins by explaining the ideology of nineteenth-century marriage, with its emphasis on separate spheres for males and females, female passionlessness, and individual self-restraint in the service of a larger moral order. Although respectable middle-class men and women did indeed explore their sexual passions in the Victorian era, the condemnation of public sexual expression and the insistence on the procreative functions of marriage remained extremely powerful at the dawn of the twentieth century. The emergence of new views that promoted the primacy of the couple relationship and viewed sexual intimacy as the fundamental glue of marriage was thus a profound shift in attitudes regarding sexuality.

The groups and individuals who overturned the Victorian model of marriage were responding to a context in which urbanization provided more room for individuals to escape traditional parental and community controls, while the development of consumer culture replaced older values of self-denial with new ones that emphasized self-realization. Even people alarmed by these trends began to realize that moralizing would not suffice to reverse them. Social hygienists, for instance, were highly conservative on questions of gender, sexuality, and marriage. But in attempting to combat prostitution and the spread of venereal disease, they brought the topic of sex education into the public arena and looked to science rather than sermons to support their cause.

Sex radicals took the critique of nineteenth-century sexual reticence further, arguing for an open, egalitarian sexuality that was not confined to marriage. They called for greater gender equality, freedom of sexual expression, birth control, and destigmatization of divorce. Some supported interracial marriage, challenged monogamy itself, and called for acceptance of same-sex relationships.

In the 1920s, many sex radicals backed away from these demands, some in response to the Red Scare, others having discovered the difficulty of trying to establish sexual equality between men and women in a context where men retained many more rights and privileges than women. But reformers, educators, physicians, and ordinary men and women continued to restructure marriage to meet sexual and emotional needs that many now agreed had been repressed by Victorian norms.

The result was growing convergence around the ideals of companionate marriage: assertion of the need for sexual and psychological parity between men and women, validation of sexual pleasure, acceptance of birth control, and recognition that divorce could be a legitimate response to a bad marriage.

Simmons describes several variants of companionate marriage. The most visible and widespread was what she terms "flapper marriage," which softened traditional patriarchy and made room for female sexual pleasure, but did not challenge women's economic dependence, Simmons argues that flapper marriage actually "modernized" male dominance by denigrating women who did not put heterosexual marriage at the center of their identity.

A different variant of companionate marriage developed among middle-class African-Americans, for whom race and class anxieties created distinctive tensions around sexual respectability, but whose daily lives encouraged co-breadwinner marriages and engagement in activities beyond the nuclear family. Although African Americans generally accepted male dominance, their "partnership" marriages were marked by "a less flamboyant approach to sex, a greater concern for race loyalty and community connection for the married couple, and a greater acceptance of wives' employment" (p. 164).

A feminist version of companionate marriage was championed by some women, black and white, who endorsed women's economic independence and claimed a right to female sexual fulfillment without necessarily linking that to monogamous marriage or heterosexuality. But Simmons notes that the feminist perspective occupied only "a small niche within companionate marriage discourse" (p. 165). This leaves open the question of whether the egalitarian marital ideals held by many Americans today represent a logical extension of the precepts of companionate marriage or a definitive break with them.

Simmons does an outstanding job of describing the new ideas and practices of the marriage modernizers, and her final chapter tracing the proliferation of sexual advice from the 1920s through the 1940s contains a wealth of fascinating information. She never reduces the companionate marriage movement to a one-dimensional phenomenon. Thus she observes that although the sexual advice books sustained male dominance "in many ways," they also promoted greater independence for women both before and within marriage and encouraged the idea that female sexuality did not exist primarily to serve men or fulfill reproductive needs but "at least partly" to serve women themselves (pp. 190, 183). Still, while the manuals "opened some space for women's sexual claims" (p. 190), Simmons says, they simultaneously encouraged the idea that "normal" women followed their husband's lead in sex, and that any reluctance to have sex represented prudery.

While Simmons' nuanced analysis is to be commended, she is so even-handed that the reader gets somewhat confused about how to assess the gains and limits of the companionate marriage ideal. The book is filled with "buts", "howevers", and "on the other hands". Toward the end, we read that much of the advice "potentially supported" greater female sexual equality. "Yet ... this advice sustained a male dominance that undermined the goals of women's active participation and pleasure. Still, for women with greater power to negotiate sexually, this literature could have offered substantial support for improving their sexual lives in marriage" (p. 201).

Similarly, Simmons tells us that the support the advice manuals offered for female-controlled contraception and clitoral stimulation "increased possibilities for women's sexual comfort." But she also asserts that the emphasis on male sexual initiative "sustained male dominance in a new, more sexualized form" (p. 215). Then she concludes: "Yet this framework did not completely overwhelm the elements that spoke to women's sexual needs, and it remains historically significant that such elements appeared in the texts" (p. 216).

I admire Simmons' rejection of one-sided, even conspiratorial, interpretations of these sexual advice manuals. And I agree that is it important to counter the idea that no progress occurred in the struggle for women's individual fulfillment between the end of the suffrage movement and the beginning of the women's liberation movement in the 1960s. But this thesis leaves the reader unclear about Simmons' ultimate assessment of the impact of companionate marriage on the emergence of today's more egalitarian values about sexuality and marriage.

Was companionate marriage, despite all its limits, a critical step in establishing ideals that feminists, and later gays and lesbians, could use to challenge gender inequality and heterosexual privilege? Did it, as the inside cover flap of the book maintains, contain "the seeds of second-wave feminists' demands" for transforming marriage? Or was it a mass of contradictions that continually raised expectations of gender equality and personal fulfillment only to frustrate them, and created dissatisfactions that would eventually explode the precepts of companionate marriage rather than push them beyond their initial limits? And if the latter was the case, how many of those contradictions and tensions are still with us?

The fact that these questions occur to the reader, however, is tribute to the breadth of Simmons' research. Her book is a treasure trove of information and interpretation that contributes important new perspectives on the history of sexuality and marriage.

Stephanie Coontz

The Evergreen State College
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.