WOMEN AND THE COMMON LIFE: Love, Marriage, and Feminism

WOMEN AND THE COMMON LIFE: Love, Marriage, and Feminism

Robyn Gearey

By Christopher Lasch. Edited by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. Norton.223 pp. $23

Read Time:
2m 35sec

WOMEN AND THE COMMON LIFE: Love, Marriage, and Feminism.

By Christopher Lasch. Edited by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. Norton. 223 pp. $23

When American historian Christopher Lasch died in 1994, America lost one of its true iconoclasts. The author of such provocative works as The Culture of Narcissism (1978) and The Revolt of the Elites (1994), he could always be counted on to challenge conventional wisdom. This collection of essays, edited and introduced by Lasch’s daughter, is no exception.

Written between 1974 and 1993 and organized topically rather than chronologically, the essays are only loosely connected. Still, there are common threads. One is Lasch’s preoccupation with the rise and fall of "bourgeois domesticity," and along with it a change in attitudes about marriage. Until the 1700s, marriages were more a matter of business than love. Lasch cites one notable exception in "The Suppression of Clandestine Marriage in England: The Marriage Act of 1753." He relates how Parliament outlawed the medieval practice of "clandestine marriage," whereby a couple’s verbal agreement to marry was, if consummated, as binding as an official marriage ceremony. In ruling against the custom, Parliament helped to suppress the emerging idea of marriage as a relationship between equals, entered into freely.

Bourgeois domesticity blossomed in the late 18th century, Lasch argues, when middle-class women began to imitate the leisurely lives of their upper-class counterparts. A greater focus on the comforts of the home and the challenge of childrearing fostered a "cult of domesticity" in which women were glorified as the "guardians of the moral order." As women gained respect in this realm, marriage began to be seen as an arrangement based on mutual affection. This ideal was extended into civic life, and throughout the first half of the 20th century women became increasingly involved in the community, only to see that involvement diminish with the rise of the suburbs. When middle-class families left the cities, women became isolated in the home—the source, Lasch believes, of the dissatisfaction that in the early 1970s gave rise to contemporary feminism.

Underlying these historical essays is Lasch’s evident belief that there is more to women’s history than a long dark night of patriarchal oppression—that, to the contrary, women have actively shaped their own social roles. Lasch also rejects the notion, articulated by the psychologist Carol Gilligan, that women are more nurturing, and less egoistic, than men. In a scathing essay titled "Gilligan’s Island," he calls this idea "insidious." The sexes are alike, he insists, in needing to test themselves against adversity. Whether achieved through work or through caring for others, the ideal of human life is selflessness. Hence Lasch’s long-standing conviction (stated in the final essay, "Life in the Therapeutic State") that as doctors and other specialists become the fount of wisdom on family life, women are the losers. Instead of gaining self-respect by tackling some of life’s hardest problems, they become passive consumers of "expert" advice.

—Robyn Gearey


More From This Issue