An upbeat history of the evolution of marriage, “wifedom,” and women’s status through European and American history.
Yalom (Institute for Women and Gender/Stanford Univ.; A History of the Breast, 1997, etc.) suggests that she intends to examine the historical roots of the dramatic changes marriage roles have undergone over the last 50 years, but instead she meanders amiably through wifedom’s many permutations over the centuries with little momentum toward a conclusion. The book’s scope is too broad for much groundbreaking original scholarship, or even scrupulous historical accuracy, especially in the early chapters; for example, the Iliad and the story of Jacob’s marriage to Rachel and Leah are presented as evidence of beliefs and even practices, without any discussion of their status as literary inventions, and there are casual references to “the biblical period” as though all times and regions over the thousand-year course of Biblical composition were basically the same. Still, brisk, jargon-free prose and wonderfully vivid case histories, including the 15th-century Florentine soap opera of Lusanna di Benedetto and Giovanni della Casa, more than compensate for any lapses of scholarly rigor. Yalom hits her stride with the early Renaissance, offering the redoubtable couple Katherina and Martin Luther as an early prototype for politically charged “republican marriages” in the era of the American and French revolutions. Although the Victorian dogma of “separate spheres” damped down this 18th-century burst of egalitarianism, the demands of Empire and frontier paradoxically offered women new opportunities, illustrated by passages from previously published journals and letters. The struggles of women like Bethenia Owens-Adair, who divorced her abusive husband to become a medical doctor in 1880, culminated in the activist “New Women” of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. After a brief tour through the backlash of the 1950s, Yalom traces the growing flexibility of marriage in the postmodern era.
No startling new insights here, but a useful and refreshingly cheerful overview of women’s changing roles in marriage and society.