live-blog postscript: female and male scholars in 'the future of marriage'

Welcome to part eight of my live-blog reading of David Blankenhorn's The Future of Marriage (2007). You can read part onepart two, part threepart fourpart fivepart six and part seven here. 

As promised, my final installment of this series is a rough-and-ready survey of the treatment of the four key same-sex marriage proponents David Blankenhorn wrestles with in The Future of Marriage, and particularly the way his respect rather suspiciously lines up with the gender division of the four individuals: Evan Wolfson (founder and president of Freedom to Marry) and Jonathan Rauch (journalist; guest scholar at the Brookings Institution) on the one hand; Judith Stacey (sociologist; NYU ) and Stephanie Coontz (historian; Evergreen State College) on the other.

I'm going to break this down super-simply and present you with side-by-side lists of words and phrases used to describe these four individuals. At the end are a few observations about how language contextualizes these people within David B's narrative.

Evan Wolfson
  • "Executive director ... of a group advocating equal marriage rights for same-sex couples"
  • "He had anger and urgency"
  • "With passion"
  • "Offered me hard-headed political analysis"
  • "Evan's political analysis of the same-sex marriage issue is probably accurate"
  • "Evan is surely right to insist upon the equal dignity of all persons"
  • "For Evan, insofar as I understand his argument..."
  • "My conversation over lunch with..."
  • "Almost everything that Evan says here is wrong"
  • "He has next to nothing to say about what marriage is"
  • "I don't mean to single out as unusual, or as particularly flawed, this one description of marriage by Evan Wolfson"
  • "My friend Evan Wolfson..."
  • "Evan's definition [of marriage] is insubstantial to the point of meaninglessness ... on the other hand ... Evan reveals an understanding that he and his colleagues are seeking to engage and transform a substantial social institution."
  • "I think I understand [his argument]"
  • "Evan Wolfson, who served as co-counsel ... angrily dismissed this line of argument"
  • "When I had lunch with..."
  • "I tried to raise the issue... He could hardly have been less interested..."
  • "Evan sees people who are suffering and wants to help them. As a leader of a grassroots movement, he has spent many years working for a certain kind of social change."
  • "...it's also personal. He is gay -- one of the 'them' in this matter. He is fighting partly for himself, and that accounts for much of his passion."
  • "Evan is confident that his side, the side of new freedoms, is going to win. He may be right."
Jonathan Rauch
  • "Jonathan Rauch has a dream. His dream is also a prediction: that permitting same-sex couples to marry will strengthen marriage as a public norm."
  • "Rauch argues convincingly"
  • "Jonathan Rauch's Gay Marriage is by far the most precise and serious argument to date in favor of the proposition that marriage supporters should accept gay marriage."
  • "I've met Jonathan a few times, and I admire his integrity and good will."
  • "How I wish he were right!"
  • "I believe that Jonathan Rauch is fundamentally mistaken...He gets around huge bodies of disconfirming evidence simply by ignoring them."
  • "Most fundamentally, Jonathan casually glosses over..."
  • "Jonathan Rauch's rose-colored prediction"
  • "Sunnily predicts"
  • "Jonathan misframes the question"
  • "I agree with him..."
  • "Vigorously insist"
Stephanie Coontz
  • "Historian Stephanie Coontz"
  • "Books of this type [historical surveys] usually suffer from serious shortcomings ... Coontz's Marriage: A History ... is a clear example of glossing marriage's history in a way that is superficial and unsatisfying."
  • "Has made a career out of arguing that her own philosophical preferences and the laws of historical inevitability are one and the same."
  • "She consults history and announces"
  • "She reports further researches telling her that marriage has already changed deeply and irreversibly"
  • "Whatever idea Coontz doesn't like -- whatever idea she believes that History has ruled out of bounds -- she likens to a cancelled television series"
  • "Stephanie Coontz is also a prominent activist...she co-founded ... a group largely devoted to defending the upswing in divorce and unwed childbearing, or at least castigating anyone who speaks against either of these trends."
  • "Stephanie Coontz declares yet again, with such emphasis"
  • "Stephanie Coontz's favored, according-to-what-History-requires..."
  • "Stephanie Coontz's perfunctory assertion"
  • "Coontz is wrong"
  • "What is the basis of Coontz's wildly inaccurate assertion? It's hard to be sure, since she rarely bothers with detail and almost never explains her terms..."
  • "Coontz's apparent belief ... is consistent with her general (basically Marxist) belief... But I am only guessing. This particular assertion by Coontz remains a mystery. Someone writing about anthropological research on marriage and yet not really knowing what 'illegitimacy' means is like someone writing about art history and not really knowing what 'nude' means."
Judith Stacey
  • "To put it mildly is an unlikely marriage proponent"
  • "She never met a divorce (or a divorce rate) she didn't like"
  • "...formerly the Barbra Streisand Professor of Contemporary Gender Studies at the University of Southern California -- I'm not making that up -- Stacey is an activist as well as an intellectual. Her main project is to combine socialism with women's liberation."
  • "She casts a friendly eye toward Community China ... in a 1979 volume"
  • "Stacey calls for much more 'family diversity' ... by which she basically means not-marriage"
  • "Judith Stacey has suddenly found her pro-marriage voice ... That is, of same-sex marriage."
  • "For Judith Stacey, the strategic brilliance of campaigning for same-sex marriage ... is that advocating the seemingly benign goal of extending marriage's benefits... [can] help to deconstruct [marriage]... A good day's work."
  • "Stacey approvingly quotes"
  • "Stacey reports that her position has carried the day, and she is right about that.
  • "(Stacey is straight.)"
  • "The cause to which Stacey has devoted her entire professional life"
  • "A determined cheerleader for divorce"
  • "Her cause is winning new recruits"
  • "Stacey regards [moderate] talk with bemused disdain"
  • "Let's call this agenda 'The Full Stacey'"
  • "The sought-after Staceyan future of economic collectivism combined with radical sexual liberty"
  • "Judith Stacey and her anti-marriage colleagues"
Several things strike me about these four word portraits. 

First, the two men are humanized through personal connection. Not only does David B. know these men personally -- he even calls Evan Wolfson "my friend" -- but he explicitly and repeatedly acknowledges this within his text. Neither woman is similarly humanized, either because David B. has no personal experience with them or because he wants to make them feel more alien to the reader than the two gay men whose arguments he engages. Intentional or not, the presence and absence of empathy for one's "enemies" here is striking.

Second, when men engage in activism it's a noble cause; when women engage in activism it's suspicious behavior that destroys their credibility in David's eyes. Notice how Evan Wolfson is "executive director ... of a group advocating equal marriage rights for same-sex couples," a gay man who "sees people who are suffering and wants to help them"? Stephanie Coontz, meanwhile, has the gall to be a "prominant activist ... devoted to defending" social trends David B. dislikes, "or at least castigating" those who dare to "speak against" her? And Judith Stacey is "an activist as well as an intellectual" (you say that like it's an insult!) whose "main project is to combine socialism with women's liberation" (how dare we!).

Third, I find it interesting to note that personal (male) passion and involvement in grassroots activism is lauded while (female) scholarship, or association with the academy, is scorned. Both men, it is true, are educated authors who are knowledge workers to some extent. Yet as a political advocate and journalist they are not working within the traditional realm of higher education. Coontz and Stacey, meanwhile, have pursued careers in teaching and research at various universities -- in addition to their "talking head" appearances and writing for more general audiences. I wonder how much of Blankenhorn's disgust with their work stems from the fact that they're women and how much stems from the fact that they're scholars. 

Fourth, the missing conversation about feminism and marriage might make it clear what stake women like Judith Stacey, Stephanie Coontz, and myself have in revising "traditional" marriage culture. David Blankenhorn utterly fails to engage with the feminist critique and gender analysis of heterosexual marriage that could shed some light on why alternative visions (however pinko-commie they look to him!) might appeal to many of us. Instead, he dismisses feminist critique of marriage practices in a frustrating section on "patriarchal distortion" which basically seeks to argue that marriage isn't truly sexist -- it's just sexist people that have twisted it the wrong way!

Obviously I believe marriages don't have to be sexist, but I also don't believe marriage is somehow fundamentally non-sexist (any more than I believe any human culture is "fundamentally" free of inequality and harm -- puh-leeze). 

Finally, one could argue that the disparities in characterization here have less to do with gender than they do with "moderate" vs. "extreme" viewpoints. David B. has picked two men who argue middle-of-the-road, coalition-building advocacy and two women who stand proudly in more radical-leftist intellectual and political space. Perhaps his attitude is not rooted in gender so much as it is in political persuasion? Yet I'd argue that the selection of one's adversaries -- particularly in a book project such as this -- is telling. David B. might have as easily picked Dan Savage to scorn and E. J. Graff to admire. He didn't. He chose these four individuals, a decision I find indicative of deeper attitudes around gender, around knowledge work, around what it means to be an expert scholar and use one's evidence, about the legitimacy of political advocacy by some versus others. 

And with that, I'm closing the door on The Future of Marriage. Thanks for joining me! Let's move on now and create a future that encompasses -- joyfully! -- much more than marriage. Maybe even a little socialist feminism!


  1. Interesting observations, thanks for breaking it down.

    I remember being really struck by David's contempt (maybe fear or suspicion are better words?) for progressive feminist scholarship when I read the book, especially compared to his relatively civil treatment of the male scholars he disagreed with.

    I think it's a particularly apt point to observe how he really emphasized and took issue with the "activist" aspects of Stacey and Coontz when he himself is an activist too and Evan Wolfson is one of the most prominent gay rights activists in the nation.

    Does activism only discredit the scholarship of progressive feminists, but when it's done by more mainstream (especially) men it's very important business that's a respectable complement to their scholarship?

    I just remember thinking that many of his critiques of his opponents were kind of cheap, red-baiting, gendered, non-substantive, and unsatisfying.

    On the humanizing point, maybe he just needs to become friends with more progressive feminist women?

    1. I, like you, feel the book sets up a double standard of scholarship vs. activism ... because David himself is clearly a scholar-activist, making no bones about his advocacy for marriage. He has a clear agenda, and is upfront about that fact (something I am grateful for; he doesn't, most of the time, hide behind the conceit of objectivity). But he pours a lot of scorn upon scholar-activists who are similarly situated, but on the left of center (or on the feminist-of-center, haha). I don't think it's fair to imagine you can have your cake and eat it too in that fashion.

      I do believe there are better and worse ways of mixing advocacy and scholarship -- one's commitment to a cause can color over-much one's interpretation of historical or cultural evidence. Historical arguments (my area of specialty) can be stronger or weaker depending on how you engage with the evidence and with others who interpret that evidence differently. But David B. doesn't really spend the time digging into the research Coontz and Stacey have done ... because his book is (*kof*kof*) "glossing marriage's history in a way that is superficial and unsatisfying" -- trying to do a LOT in under 300 pages.

      I actually agree with him that Stephanie Coontz' Marriage: A History is a fairly whirlwind tour. I didn't find it added much to my knowledge of the history of romance, marriage relationships, or family formation. But there is a difference between acknowledging that a respected scholar in the field has written a survey history with inevitable shortcomings and dismissing her career as agenda-driven because she is open about her political advocacy and the connections she sees between the historical context of marriage and change over time -- and our ability to actively MAKE change over time.