Working Women

A new social history says that the women were given the burden for making 20th century marriages work. Whose responsibility is it today?


If I told you that “relationships take work,” you’d roll your eyes. That’s so obvious to all of us in 2010 that it barely counts as advice.


With thousands of relationship self-help guides in print, daytime talk shows featuring advice on achieving better sex, compatibility and romance, and government funding for marriage preparation and education initiatives, the belief that relationships take work is firmly embedded in the modern consciousness.

The “relationship expert” — be it Dr. Phil McGraw with his televised tough-love guidance for couples on the rocks, or specially trained marriage and family psychologists — holds a central place in the American conversation about family formation and dissolution.

But these experts — me included — are a relatively new breed, argues social historian Kristin Celello in her fascinating new book, Making Marriage Work. She tracks explicit and subtle examples of how popular media, academics and marriage counselors helped construct a national language and dialogue about marriage, placing the burden for “making marriage work” squarely on the shoulders of women.

Here’s the brief history:

  • In the early 1920s divorce rates rose to 6.6 per 1,000 women; still tiny numbers by today’s standards, but they were rising and people were concerned. To educate couples on the modern, companionate marriage — and quell the rising tide of divorce — a diverse group of experts began writing for popular press outlets offering advice on how to improve marriages and create lasting relationships.
  • From the get-go, marital advice was primarily geared toward women. Experts assumed that women had a greater vested interest in marriage, both emotionally and financially, and held them accountable for the success or failure of the relationship.
  • Colleges and universities held marriage preparation courses throughout the 1920s and 1930s which stressed the scientific complexities of the role of “wife” in an attempt to appeal to the modern young women who, some feared, might eschew marriage and childrearing responsibilities for a career. The idea was to convince young women that marital work was a necessary and noble goal — and that working on marriage would yield benefits not attainable through divorce.
  • Then came World War II, and marriage experts cemented their role in American relationships. Wartime unions, often entered into in patriotic haste before the young serviceman shipped out overseas, created new social concerns about the future of American matrimony: What would happen when these young men, scarred by memories of battle and deprivation, returned home to their wives, virtual strangers to one another? Would America see a spike in divorce rates and social discord?
  • This is social history at its best because it makes us reconsider things we think are obvious. Who does the “relationship work” in your partnership or marriage?
Enter the experts: Women received a constant bombardment of advice on how to prepare for the return of their men from war. To fail at a marriage after a serviceman returned, experts warned, was a failing on the part of the wife. And with this advice, marriage experts were seen as patriotic themselves — helping the war effort by saving marriages.
  • Women’s magazines got on board in a big way, writing articles about how a good wife should encourage her husband’s success in business, monitor his diet, tend to the emotional and spiritual success of the marriage, and be willing to create spontaneous moments of romance and sexual intrigue to break up the monotony of family obligations. Being a wife, then, was a full-time job that required job-skills training and expert advice. And, in contrast, to have a marriage end in divorce was viewed as a failure to perform the “work” necessary in marriage.
  • Marriage experts, along with psychologists and other therapists, also introduced Americans to a new vocabulary for dealing with our emotional challenges and desires. In the early 1960s, “lack of communication” was seventh on the list of things that couples complained about in marital counseling sessions. By the early 1970s, it topped the list.

This is social history at its best because it makes us reconsider things we think are obvious. Sure, this is “history” and not present-day findings, but how different are modern relationship? Who does the “relationship work” in your partnership or marriage?

Women account for half the paid workforce, and in more than one-third of married couples, the wife outearns the husband. So should she be the one doing the bulk of both the paid work and the care work?

Guys, what do you think about this? Do you think that this history is an unfair lens through which to view your 2010 relationship? What kind of “relationship work” do you do — and do you feel valued for your efforts?

Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section, or email me at puresex AT bustedhalo (DOT) com.