STARRED REVIEW
October 2020

American marriage under the microscope

STARRED REVIEW
October 2020

American marriage under the microscope

October 2020

American marriage under the microscope

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Although we’re now living through a time of all-access Zoom weddings, marriage throughout history wasn’t always so easily achieved. For some, it was celebrated; for others, it was withheld. These books explore the complicated history of marriage in two very distinct ways.

Access to marriage means access to equality. Dianne M. Stewart, professor of African American studies at Emory University, investigates the complex conditions that have led to low marriage rates among Black heterosexual women in the United States in Black Women, Black Love: America’s War on African American Marriage.

Stewart notes that 70% of Black American women are not married—many not by choice but because of centuries of injustices that continue into the present day. She begins this powerful and wholly original work by discussing how slavery made it impossible for Black women to control their own bodies, much less their families and relationships. Even after emancipation, lynching, terror and the stress of poverty continued to threaten the stability of Black communities. In the 20th century, the scars of Reconstruction still controlled Black women’s upward mobility through systemic restrictions like federal “man-in-the-house” policies, which stripped Black women of public assistance if they lived with a boyfriend or husband. Combined with a lack of access to well-paid jobs, these polices caused marriage rates to decline in Black communities. But the most devastating barrier to Black marriage is modern-day mass incarceration, which continues to pull families apart.

Scholarly and moving, with deeply personal notes and references to pop culture, Stewart’s eye-opening analysis reveals how marriage is an enduring civil rights issue for Black women in the United States.

Matrimony, Inc.: From Personal Ads to Swiping Right, a Story of America Looking for Love explores a very different type of relationship history. In this book, Francesca Beauman delves into the quirky history of the romantic personal advertisement and reveals how it has aided Americans’ never-ending search for love and companionship throughout the centuries.

This entertaining and well-researched account begins with the very first known personal ad, placed in a Boston newspaper in 1759. Beauman, a bookseller and historian, curates the archival materials in a witty and accessible way, and both history buffs and readers of romance will find her to be a dependable yet amusing guide. She writes authoritatively on American courtship through a historical lens, touching on different examples of the personal ad over the past 250 years.

Advertisements written by soldiers in the middle of the Civil War were circulated through “penny presses” designed for a middle-class public who was becoming more literate and refined. As the popularity of personal ads flourished in the 19th century, so did scams, deceptions and danger. Behind the ads were faceless strangers who might be bigamists, or worse. At the turn of the 20th century, Belle Gunness, one of the most prolific serial killers of all time, lured more than 40 men to her farm in Indiana by promising marriage though personal ads in newspapers. The threat of meeting a similar end, however, has never stopped the public from searching for love through the personals.

Primary source materials play a prominent role in Matrimony, Inc. As readers see antiquated, sexist language in action, they will laugh at how far we’ve come, and sigh at how far we still have to go.

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