Elevate Difference

Making Marriage Modern: Women’s Sexuality from the Progressive Era to World War II

Making Marriage Modern by Christina Simmons explores the many changes to marriage, courtship, and women’s role in society that took place following the Victorian era until World War II. Using a variety of sources such as “marriage manuals” and popular fiction, Simmons follows the progressive efforts of social reformers during the period.

The evolution of marriage from the Victorian standard of “separate spheres” to the more equalitarian partnership model today was far from an organic process. Instead, women’s rights activists, doctors, and others deliberately set out to not only change mindsets about women’s role in the family and society, but to present actual marriage models for couples to adopt. The goal: to redefine marriage to fit the new, independent spirit of the 1920s. 

Although many of the ideas espoused by so called “sex radicals” failed to fully catch on until the second wave of the women’s movement in the 1970s, their efforts were not in vain. Access to birth control, more freedom to chose a mate, a growing understanding about sexual health (including a widening of the language used to discuss the topic), loosening of anti-miscegenation laws, opening of the workforce to include more females, and increased equality between couples were all results of the "radical" efforts of the period, however antiquated they may seem to us today. Some of the concepts presented were simply too radical for the time. Furthermore, sex radicals found that while many were willing to accept changes to the status quo in theory, practical issues such as childcare and sharing domestic responsibilities—issues that still plague modern marriages—required too large an adjustment for immediate adaptation by society as a whole. 

Simmons avoids a common mistake of women’s studies scholars of generalizing circumstances using the perspective of white, upper class women and families. Instead, she compares and contrasts the experiences of white and black couples giving special attention to the efforts of black activists and influential authors such as Nella Larsen. Simmons gives particular attention to the experiences of young black women using a variety of popular fiction as a tool for describing the psyche of such women during such a dynamic and transitional period. I was pleased that Simmons focused on authors such as Larsen and her book, Quicksand, which tells the story of a young mixed race woman attempting to “find herself” in a society that so fraught with oppressive stereotypes of young black women. 

Making Marriage Modern is particularly relevant in an era when marriage is again in the process of being redefined. It is encouraging to think that those of us fighting the battle for gay rights are facing challenges similar to those from this era who fought for more privacy for couples, the right to marry across class lines, access to birth control, and the right to interracial marriage, complete with a mixture of victories and losses along the way.

Written by: Janice Formichella, June 18th 2009