PUBLIC VOWS

A History of Marriage and the Nation

By Nancy F. Cott

Harvard Univ. 297 pp. $27.50

THE WIFE

A History

By Marilyn Yalom

HarperCollins. 441 pp. $30

Marriage is doing pretty well these days. True, individual unions face about a 50-50 chance of eventually dissolving, but these dismal odds have had little effect on the vitality of the institution as a whole. Today's postfeminist, pro-family mood has us more comfortably invested in the ideal of wedded bliss than we've been at any time in recent decades.

Even the mid-'90s look like a countercultural battleground compared with contemporary domesticity. Then, Murphy Brown's single motherhood and the vengeful fantasies of "The First Wives' Club" led to national anxiety lest women lose faith in married life. Today, pundits of every stripe would rather contemplate Judith Wallerstein's anti-divorce doomsaying. Meanwhile, the angst-ridden adventures of the single girls in "Sex and the City" pass for an edgy portrayal of independent womanhood.

It's hard to believe we've made such a complete circle since the tumultuous '70s, when angry women abandoned unfulfilling marriages and radical feminists compared wifehood to slavery. Two veterans of that era have decided it's time to renew our historical perspective on married life. In strikingly similar books, celebrated scholars Nancy F. Cott and Marilyn Yalom document the changing nature of marriage in, respectively, American society and Western culture as a whole.

In doing so, they visit well-trodden but recently neglected ground. Back in the days of The Feminine Mystique, feminist historians labored to show how the institution of marriage was constructed differently throughout history. Once controversial, this notion has become so commonplace today that it's seldom even mentioned in public discussion about the family.

By refurbishing the classic feminist deconstruction of marriage, Cott and Yalom hope to inject some context back into the conversation. Interestingly, though, these books incorporate many of the same pitfalls that have dogged feminist scholarship since its inception. In Public Vows, Cott looks at American marriage from the founding of the colonies through the present day. She compares it to a sphinx that, "shadowing the public landscape with its monumental bulk, confounds as much as it shows." Indeed, the picture of marriage that emerges from her work is more of a shared idea than a rule -- and a vague idea at that.

Cott's writing style often add a needless layer or two of mystery to the Sphinx's secrets. As in her best-known work, the classic study The Grounding of Modern Feminism, she resists the kinds of general claims that, while probably oversimplified, are inestimably helpful to the reader. As a result, she frequently seems to marshal voluminous evidence in support of no particular contention. Informed of a mid-century Supreme Court case affecting the legal status of wives or an anecdote of adultery in the Carolina hinterlands, the reader has little impetus toward any response beyond a helpless "My, how interesting."

The arguments Cott does codify are unfailingly conservative. She ushers the reader through such familiar terrain as the common-law basis of American marriage, the connection between marriage and women's legal status, and the role of the wife in debates over abolition and women's suffrage. Less well-known topics, such as the government's use of marriage to "civilize" American Indians and control Chinese immigration, invariably shine. Here Cott's use of her own and others' research reveals new connections between marriage and other American preoccupations -- particularly race. "Restriction of immigration began in an era when the qualifications for citizens . . . always engaged considerations of 'race'," she notes. "Alarmists believed that when 'lower' races intermingled with 'higher' ones, the tendency of the whole was to 'degenerate' to the lower type . . . Thinking about race always turned attention to marriage." Cott may be cautious, but she fulfills her project, undercutting modern complacency about marriage's seemingly foreordained function in stabilizing our society.

Yalom is less successful. Where Cott tiptoes, she kicks up her heels, brimming with the unconstrained vitality that suffuses so much feminist writing. But by favoring emotional resonance over scholarly authority, she ultimately squanders her authorial power.

The author of A History of the Breast, Yalom is no stranger to the sexy side of scholarship. In A History of the Wife she confidently summarizes available evidence about wives in ancient Rome, medieval Europe, young America, Victorian England and assorted other times and places, never hesitating to savor a favorite anecdote or simply editorialize. This is less a factual study than an impressionistic evocation of women's timeless lot.

The overall effect is both entertaining and irksome, as in Yalom's breezy summary of women's response to the revolutions of the late 18th century. "Something new was added to the identity of Western women in the 18th century: a political consciousness," she writes. "Forged in the crucible of revolution when both America and France threw off the rule of monarchy, the political awareness of women . . . took on new dimensions. Whether they were patriots or loyalists, women felt they were as implicated in national events as their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons." Yalom supports these generalities primarily with quotes from the letters that leading American revolutionaries exchanged with their wives. It's hardly a representative sample, but she's less interested in proving academic points than in evoking a heroic picture of wise, brave women fighting beside the husbands they loved.

Similarly, she meditates on various figures, both real and fictional, whom she holds up as archetypes of their times: Antony and Cleopatra, Abelard and He{acute}loise, the Wife of Bath, Pocahontas. Yalom would like to create a "New Wife," to quote one of her chapter headings, by buttressing the romantic side of wifehood while dismantling its connotations of subservience. But her myth-making rings hollow in the wake of Cott's more complicated approach. Apparently facts and citations, no matter how dry, can still dispel the most appealing myths. Better not tell that to any exuberant brides-to-be. *

Etelka Lehoczky is a Chicago-based writer who contributes to the Chicago Reader, the Advocate and Salon.com.