Wineskins Archive

January 23, 2014

A Higher View of Marriage: One Feminist’s Perspective That Yields Surprising Conclusions (Nov-Dec 2008)

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by Robbie R. Hutchens, M.MFT, LMFT
November – December, 2008

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s
Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to DieMarriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die

Feminist scholar Elizabeth Fox-Genovese explores the ramifications of the changing roles of marriage and family in Western society in Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, part of Princeton University’s American Ideals and Institutions Series.

Editor and protégé Sheila O’Connor Ambrose has assembled her mentor’s salient thoughts on the role individualism has played in the transformation of marriages, families, and society at large. The first section was edited from three speeches Fox-Genovese originally delivered at Princeton University in December of 2003. Several previously published essays on women and the family in history comprise the second section. It is clear from her introduction that Ambrose’s intent was to honor Fox-Genovese’s legacy as an authentic feminist scholar.

One might not expect to find anything so conservative as religion and morality in this integrative commentary, but this is one of the book’s many surprises. It turns out that Fox-Genovese, founding director of the Department of Women’s Studies at Emory University, experienced some profound transformations as a result of her ongoing research. In fact, her investigations through the years led her to hold religion in growing esteem, culminating in her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1995.

It appears that this search for faith challenged Fox-Genovese to ask herself hard questions about her earlier stances on the value and repercussions of a woman’s—and consequently a man’s—full independence in society. Her essays outline the historical ramifications all members of western society have faced because of its movement towards feminine independence. Her research leads us to the question: Have we made global progress through the practice of marrying purely for love and personal happiness versus enjoining clans and stabilizing a communally beneficial social structure? Her implication is clear: we have made an unfortunate tradeoff.

“Having originated more as a relation between families, tribes, or clans than as a relation between individuals, marriage has gradually been transformed into an exclusively personal relation—a matter of an individual’s “right” to specific benefits and privileges,” she writes. “Thus, the institution that anchored and transmitted legitimate authority has emerged as the frontline target of a comprehensive attack on any notion of legitimate authority, natural or divine. The flurry of opinions on the crisis of marriage and the family obscures the magnitude of this transformation, but we can ill afford to ignore its implications.”

She parts ways with her former position to do away with traditional forms and expectations of marriage and family by instead defending marriage as “the unique and uniquely valuable social bond and the essential cornerstone of cohesive society.” In simplest terms, every choice has been made permissible, but has every choice been, in the long-term, beneficial (e.g., no-fault divorce, legalized abortion, sexual liberation)? Fox-Genovese finds plenty of historical evidence to support the moral notion that there is an ultimate standard of right and wrong that must be honored when it comes to the social status of children. She asks: “Has the devaluation of marriage been largely responsible for the devaluation of children from a fruit or gift of marriage to a trophy or burden of it?”

Fox-Genovese reminds us time and again of our interconnectedness. The fact of the matter is, when each marital thread is broken, the larger tapestry of society weakens. I can attest to this sad, but enduring fact in my private practice as a marriage and family therapist. Every day I hear of resounding loneliness in marriage. Most people I know cry out for the benefits and privileges of community. And yet the moment it is offered, I watch the majority cling to the safe harbors of rugged individualism; the responsibilities of community appear too daunting. The smothering forces of a consumer culture, both secular and religious, overpower the inner cries for intimate, long-term belonging.

Certainly this work nourishes scholarly discourse, but at least as important, it invites us to walk alongside the inner processes and experiences that have informed this scholar’s personal evolution alongside a cultural evolution. This ultimately makes the book highly unique and valuable. This is the kind of moral courage I long to see modeled—to witness a sojourner’s search for truth—to study, learn, and grow personally and professionally; and then, to challenge those around them to do the same.

Personally, I am challenged to create the community I so desire by keeping my own marriage bond strong and modeling for my children and others that mutually beneficial, long-term relationships are possible, important, and eternal. I am reminded that it matters that I wrestle to balance my needs and the needs of others in a mature fashion. Professionally, I am strengthened by the fearless and authentic compassion that is evident throughout her writing. I will refer to it often, as I muster the courage to speak the truth to those struggling with decisions to embrace or run from the bond of marriage. And case-in-point, I find myself longing for the kind of communal, mentoring relationship that Ambrose and Fox-Genovese clearly shared.New Wineskins

Robbie HutchensRobbie Robinson Hutchens is a Marriage and Family Therapist licensed to practice in Tennessee. She is a graduate of the Marriage and Family Institute at Abilene Christian University (94) and also did masters work in Biblical Studies. She has established her private practice in Smyrna, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville. One of Robbie’s areas of interest is addressing the emotional needs that are unique to gifted children and their families. She is married and has two children. Visit her website at [].

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