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What Is Marriage For? Strange Social History of our Most Intimate Institution

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What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of our Most Intimate Institution , by E. J. Graff

What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of our Most Intimate Institution , by E. J. Graff

Nearly every culture on record has an institution we can label “marriage” if we define the concept broadly enough — and that’s precisely the point we need to keep in mind. Marriage, as an institution, does not exist at every time and in every culture in exactly the same way. Marriage, like culture, has evolved in a variety of ways in order to serve human needs. Unfortunately, marriage has also become a political football in which people invest all their ideals and expectations.


Title: What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of our Most Intimate Institution
Author: E. J. Graff
Publisher: Beacon Press
ISBN: 0807041157

•  Reveals that efforts to "freeze" marriage in time are wrong and wasted
•  Full of important and interesting information for anyone who wants to understand marriage better

•  Brings up same-sex marriage a bit more often than is probably needed

•  Analysis of the history and social uses of marriage in the world
•  Describes just how varied and diverse marriage has been throughout human history


Book Review

The politicization of marriage isn’t new and wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that those who make the most use of it fail to appreciate the long, diverse history of marriage. People imagine that marriage as it exists today — or better yet, marriage as they think it existed in the 1950s — sprang fully formed from human communities and has never significantly varied. This is flatly wrong, and E. J. Graff’s What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of our Most Intimate Institution reveals just what has and has not changed about marriage.

Graff came to her strange social history through a strange and circuitous route. As a child, she watched her mother and decided that she herself would never become a wife. As an adult, being a lesbian seemed to preclude marriage — and she certainly didn’t experience any pull to enter something which appeared to reflect traditional, patriarchal attitudes. Over time, though, her experiences with the weddings of heterosexual friends inspired her to investigate the nature of marriage more closely; what she found caused her to change her mind and eventually marry herself.

The most fundamental and important way in which marriage has changed is economic. As Graff explains in a very detailed but engaging history, marriage through most of human history was primarily an economic institution: who you married was the most powerful determining factor of your economic future. If you were rich, marrying well meant marrying someone who could ensure your economic future by making political, financial, and social connections. If you were poor, marrying well meant marrying a hard worker who could help you create a future in which you stood a decent chance of surviving — and maybe even having a couple of children who would survive.

Circumstances have changed dramatically in the West, but this basic story remained largely the same whether you were a Roman senator or English aristocrat, Greek farmer or French serf. Even the development of capitalism didn’t do much to alter this because the merchant class was dependent upon marrying people who would either bring in money and connections, or who would be a good worker and ensure the success of the business.

Not until the late 19th and early 20th century were there enough people with a strong enough financial position that marriage stopped being such a crucial factor. At this time marriage started to become not so much an economic institution as a personal one: people married not to secure their financial future, but to secure their own personal happiness. Marriage today is about being happy and feeling fulfilled; when people stop feeling happy and fulfilled, though, this means that they are likely to want to end the marriage. This is an important source of the increased divorce rates in the modern West and it cannot be wished or legislated away. The nature of marriage has changed too much.

As interesting as all of this is, it only scratches the surface of Graff’s history of marriage.

What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of our Most Intimate Institution , by E. J. Graff

What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of our Most Intimate Institution , by E. J. Graff

Economics may have been of great importance, but it wasn’t the only factor in marriages through history. Marriage today may be largely about happiness and fulfillment, but it’s not the only reason people continue to marry. Graff explores a multitude of issues and thus helps readers not only understand marriage itself, but also human culture because marriage has been such a fundamental human institution.

Graff’s book was deliberately written as a response to those who want to “freeze” marriage in time and keep it at a certain stage of its evolution — a stage we have already moved beyond. Even if she didn’t keep linking her arguments to the idea that same-sex marriage should be legalized, though, the same goal would be accomplished because simply teaching people the fact that marriage has evolved, continues to evolve, and will evolve in the future is sufficient to demonstrate that marriage is not what it once was and shouldn’t be treated as a crystalline object that never changes.

Marriage is not an institution created by gods and imposed on humanity; instead, it’s a human institution created by human beings for the purpose of serving human needs. As our needs change, so will our marriages change.

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