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What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution Paperback – June 9, 2000

21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

E.J. Graff had a very personal reason for asking the question in this book's title: she was married in 1991, but in a ceremony legitimized by neither church nor state. Graff and her dearly beloved, you see, are lesbians. But instead of being dominated by agenda, What Is Marriage For? is a playful and informative study of the institution of wedlock throughout history that will appeal to readers outside of its obvious constituency. Chapter by chapter, Graff looks at the legal, sociological, and anthropological assumptions about money, sex, procreation, tribal affiliation, and the pursuit of personal happiness that underlie the concept of matrimony in Western societies. Her eye for the odd historical footnote is especially striking: we learn, for example, that in ancient Rome, marriage vows were exchanged by the groom and his father-in-law, and that--the assertions of right-wing fundamentalists notwithstanding--families were actually far less stable in the premodern era (where as many as 50 percent of all French children lived with a stepparent) than they are today. Graff's conclusion? The rules of engagement have fluctuated so wildly over the centuries that the term "traditional marriage" is something of an oxymoron; same-sex unions are but one of the many ways in which marriage has evolved to meet the changing social dynamics of the 20th century. --Patrizia DiLucchio --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

"What is marriage forAlike most serious political or social questionsAis a question about what it means to be fully human," contends Graff in her lively feminist treatise on why same-sex marriage should be legalized in the United States. Beginning with her own desire to be married to her partner, Madeline, and the (non-legal) ceremony they shared, she explores why people yearn to be married, the state's investment in such unions and why society might object to particular couplings. She contends that since marriage encourages hard work, fidelity and legitimate children and creates social parameters for sex, it's good for society. Given that it is, fundamentally, a matter of "individual spirit," Graff argues that same-sex partners should be able to share in these virtues. The book's strength lies in her well-researched and entertaining history of Western marriage. Revealing how social change has always preceded legal and religious change, she delineates how couplings we take for granted todayAsuch as marriages for love, marriages in which women work outside the home, those in which the partners use contraception for family planning or remain childless, and those between members of different races and religionsAwere all once thought to provide such extreme threats to the institution of marriage that critics claimed each would destroy it. Since none did, asserts Graff, same-sex marriage won't, either. Although her repeated summaries of "what marriage is for" and why it must include same-sex couples can become a bit tiresome, and her dismissals of alternative views don't always take into account their tenacity (she ultimately spurns as "doomsaying" the idea that marriage won't survive social change), on the whole Graff's argument is spirited and likely to generate discussion. (June)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Beacon Press (June 9, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807041157
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807041154
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.9 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,915,816 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A. J. Luxton on May 11, 2005
Format: Paperback
The historical overview Graff provides covers not only the institution of marriage itself, but also the wide spectrum of gender roles that have been standard in past Western culture. (For example, the idea that the wife should stay at home didn't occur to anyone until Victorian times brought along industry and 14-hour factory jobs!)

The author writes a fine history, quoting original sources and backing up her information, in a tone conversational and interesting enough for even a reader like myself, usually terrible at reading history books, to follow and enjoy.

Her overview of polygamy is the only thing in this book that fails. The overview is brief, and the only examples given are the Mormons and the Oneida commune. I might opine that she neglected this area on purpose. Part of this book's thrust (perhaps ten percent of the text is focused on it) is providing factual support for the idea that marriage between two people of any gender is simply the next natural consequence of the changes in our society and economy. The critics of this idea often use the negative media image of polygamy to their credit.

I'm guessing that she glanced over it in order to keep this argument at bay -- which is a pity, because the book could have been stronger with an actual refutation, citing historical and modern examples of polygamy in their societal context. But at least she is careful enough with her language that she does not tar all multi-person couples with the same brush.

Aside from this qualm, I'm quite satisfied with the text as a whole, and would recommend it to anyone who wants a better understanding of marriage and gender roles throughout the ages in their economic and social context.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Karina Montgomery on January 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I picked up this book when I was having doubts about my friends' upcoming nuptials - I had hoped it would give them something to think about before they made that major step. I examined it more closely and realized it was a much more interesting book than that! The author has throroughly researched the various reasons marriage has existed as an institution (in Western civilization) and presents a compelling case in favor of same sex marriage as well. I was already in favor of same sex marriage, but now I have ammunition! It's lively, amazingly researched, and also full of facts you just don't get in history class. A must-read for social history buffs, gay-rights advocates, or anyone who wonders about relationships today.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 4, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This book is a wonderful read. It talks about the history of marriage in a way that is incredibly engaging, and also grounded in careful historical research. There is no other book which presents the history of marriage in the US and Europe in this way; most such books are quite dry but not this one. The author uses the wide variety of functions of marriage over the years to craft a persuasive argument in favor of allowing marriage by same-gender couples. But the book is much more than that! It discusses religion, economics, law, and a host of other social phenomena as they have related to marriage over the centuries, in a format that is brilliantly organized and eminently readable. This book makes a great wedding present or birthday present. It is timely and important. Marriage is the subject of much public policy discussion these days, and this book gives readers an informed, nuanced perspective on the institution. It is especially strong in pointing out the ways that what many of us think of as "traditional marriage" has changed over the years. The author shows, in her entertaining way, that many of the things we take for granted as part of "traditional" marriage (like Love, for example), actually are rather recent additions to the elements of marriage. I highly recommend this book.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 9, 2004
Format: Paperback
Like Graff, my daughter is a lesbian in a committed relationship, and it angers me that she is prohibited from marrying the person she loves. I was delighted to find this book exploring the changing purpose of marriage in the western world from Roman times to the present and read Graff's case that the battle over same-sex marriage is just the next iteration in a centuries-old line of views of what marriage is for.
Graff never claims that her book is a balanced history; she lets readers know right up front that she is gay and that her purpose for doing all the research and writing was to present her argument that same-sex marriage should be legal. Anyone (like an earlier reviewer) who is surprised by that simply wasn't paying attention.
Graff's writing is both informative and lively, with plenty of facts interspersed with anecdotes and human interest. I already agreed with her premise so I didn't need to be persuaded, but she makes her case so well that it's hard to see how anyone could read this book and still believe gay people should be denied the right to marry. Even for those who are already believe that, the book is well worth reading. Now I can back up my assertion that same-sex marriage should be legal with a persuasive argument based on historical fact: What conservatives call "traditional marriage" is actually less than 100 years old, and this is the logical next step in its evolution.
This is an excellent book that belongs on the bookshelf of everyone who believes in human rights.
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