Conversation: Katherine Turk, Chelsea del Rio and Nicholas Syrett discuss Alison Lefkovitz’ Strange Bedfellows

One of the most highly anticipated new works in postwar American legal history is Alison Lefkovitz’ Strange Bedfellows: Marriage in the Era of Women’s Liberation.  As the book’s publisher puts it, “Examining the effects of law and politics on the intimate space of the home, Strange Bedfellows recounts how the marriage revolution at once instituted formal legal equality while also creating new forms of political and economic inequality that historians—like most Americans—have yet to fully understand.”

The Docket asked three historians who are engaged with Lefkovitz’ work to discuss the book.  The result?  A wide-ranging and compelling discussion about Lefkovitz’ groundbreaking research, the state of the field, and more.  Lefkovitz also offers a nuanced response.



July 3, 2018

Katherine Turk (KT): Thanks so much to both of you for participating. Let’s start out with some general thoughts and comments about the book.


Nicholas Syrett (NS): It struck me that the title of the book as a whole doesn’t tell us exactly how capacious all of the arguments are going to be. That is, the book is not just a history of what marriage looked like in the age of women’s liberation in terms of individual marriages. It’s very much a legal history of the consequences of women’s liberation that’s trying to question what remained of coverture, and then a whole bunch of other people picking up on those challenges, looking to use or change marriage to their own ends as well.


KT: And also how effective conservatives were after feminists successfully pried open the centuries-old breadwinner-homemaker model and got courts and state legislatures to remake it. That provided an incredible opening for conservatives to limit the benefits everyone might receive from marriage but also to prevent groups like immigrants and queer people from making their way in.


Chelsea Del Rio (CDR): That’s why Lefkovitz’s inclusion of the men’s rights activists is so effective. It is a concrete example of how the civil rights movement and women’s rights movements were coopted in these sorts of fights.


NS: I agree with Chelsea that this is an example of unintended consequences. It also gets at this interesting question: if you are going to remove some of the gendered obligations and perquisites of marriage, it isn’t shocking that these conservative men’s rights groups and other conservatives would also come along and demand that if marriage was going to be gender neutral, that they also wanted the gender-neutral benefits. It seems like we’re stuck in a situation where you can make marriage legally gender-neutral, but we don’t live in a gender-neutral world. The law was changing, but in a way that would advantage some people and not others because women were not positioned in a way that they could be treated as gender-neutral in marriage, or at least at the end of marriages.


CDR: One of the things that came to mind is my experience interviewing feminists of this era who expressed the feeling that everyone was moving so quickly and that they were changing everything all at once. Perhaps this speaks more to the marriage dissenters or the more radical feminist position, but there was a belief that they were on the verge of complete revolution. They didn’t have the ability to predict their uneven successes. They were challenging marriage alongside employment laws and state laws and all of these other things. When there isn’t the accompanying advancement on these other issues, you have this uneven outcome of the changes to marriage.


KT: One insight that might link both of these comments is something I think about in my own work on changes to labor laws and women’s rights claims in the same era Lefkovitz covers. Feminists were really struggling with how to create meaningful sex equality that could also account for differences between the sexes—whether practical or culturally constructed—as well as millennia of inequality that was so entrenched in culture, in law, in how work was defined. As you’re saying, Chelsea, feminists were more successful in some areas than others.


CDR: We could debate whether feminists fought the right battle first or whether they had the right priorities. How does un-gendering marriage benefit you when you don’t have equal pay or equal access to the workplace? Everything was moving so quickly and all at once, how do you predict where you will and won’t be effective and how one thing will affect the other as change happens unevenly?


NS: One related issue Lefkovitz touches on is alimony. I found myself at war with myself in reading those parts of the book. I absolutely want to live in a country where everything does not hinge upon marriage. Lefkovitz points out, toward the end of the book, that in a society with mediocre social welfare programs, if you build a society around marriage and then gut marriage of the protections that it is giving to people, we’re not really left with anything. That’s the feminist argument for why this is a real problem. At the same time, I don’t want everyone to have to be dependent upon vowing to love and only sleep with one person for the rest of their lives as a means of apportioning out rights and privileges. Alimony exists in the middle; I understand that women are much more penalized by divorce, and yet at the same time, alimony seems like it’s binding us to marriage as a means of awarding benefits even more.


KT: And it’s so class-dependent, as Lefkovitz shows. If you didn’t make much money in the marriage to start with, you’re not going to get much of anything, even if alimony does exist as a principle.


CDR: We might discuss some of the actors and concepts that Lefkovitz did not fully explore. I want to draw a chart of all of the actors and their positions, because there is so much at play. Part of what I’m struggling with is reconciling the two parts of the book. We have feminists and those people or groups pushing back against them. The state is there too, but the first half heavily deals with those activist agents. The second half is organized around the three groups of welfare recipients, immigrants and queer people and their relationship to the state. I’m trying to think through the implications of the transition between those two sets of relationships.


In part, I’m trying to reconcile how much this is a book about marriage, about divorce, and about family. If we’re talking about radical feminists and gays – marriage dissenters – we might also talk about lesbian feminists who were also offering another form of critique in ways that were different from straight radical feminists. They were offering other possible avenues, which is more family-oriented than marriage oriented, and they were challenging what family means. Lefkovitz does talk about communes, but that was primarily among heterosexual couples. Love was another category that didn’t quite get fleshed out. She talks about it briefly with the radical feminists critiquing love as a way to chain women to the patriarchy. But lesbian feminists were talking about love as a way to revolutionize relationships and choosing who you love. Forming relationships around affection and intimacy did not have to be organized around gender and did not have to be limited to a single couple or to biological children. This is a legal history but the activist impulse in the first half of the book speaks to the types of alternatives to marriage that people of the time envisioned.


NS: I would add that, when Chelsea asks, is it a book about marriage, or family or divorce, in some ways it’s a book about all three of them. Part of this is a source question. I was really struck that, for a book that is about marriage, in order to get at what obligations are for people, you have to look at what happens when the marriages dissolve. That’s why it ends up being about a lot of divorce, because we then see where the gendered obligations are made explicit about who owes what to whom. It’s also a source question in that we certainly see radical feminists saying, we want our marriages to be looking more like this, and we want men to do more housework and childcare. In Strange Bedfellows we see how marriages founder and when they fall apart and what’s problematic in the marriages that are no longer working, as opposed to—and this might be a boring book—a book about couples who are really trying to make it work on feminist principles, and men are doing incrementally more housework, for example. One, it’s not really happening all that much, and two, I don’t know how you would get at that, what kind of sources you would be able to find. But the consequence for the book is that the legal focus of the first half ends up being more about divorce.


KT: How might Lefkovitz have written about this same phenomenon using a more cultural or social history approach? Legal history is such a rich avenue into explaining what happened and why, as well as what was at stake and who the big players were. But in reading I couldn’t help but wish for some more characters. Perhaps Lefkovitz might have spotlighted individual families or couples who experimented with different kinds of marriage or different ideas about love?


CDR: That may be part of why the men’s rights activists really stood out to me, even though the main character in that section is a man I never want to be in a room with. That section did give some more characters to attach the story to.


NS: I agree that the men’s rights activists were fascinating, in part because they were so new to me. I did not know about them in that moment. I knew about Bly and Iron John and that sort of thing, but they were later. These guys were a total revelation to me, in their rejection of alimony and child support. And the men who basically believed that once a child stopped living with them, there was no relationship any longer, and publicly said this. That was astounding to me!


KT: This section adds an important new wrinkle to the growing literature on how the rights revolution was coopted. In the second half of the twentieth century, the language of individual rights and equality was incredibly powerful for minority groups. But that kind of language could easily be taken up by others who claimed countervailing rights.


CDR: Nick, your comment made me wonder if there are these connections between these men’s rights activists and anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly. I thought about that when Schlafly made the comment that marriage was the only thing that made men do what they were supposed to do and support their families. That argument sounded a lot like the behaviors of the men’s rights activists.


NS: On Schlafly’s part, it’s such a deeply pessimistic view of men’s possibilities, and then it was echoed by the very men she’s talking about.


CDR: From that perspective, why do these women want to be attached to these men for the rest of their lives, if they have so little regard for their value?


KT: A key argument of the book is that the marriage revolution, in the end, really only served to deepen inequalities of race, sexuality and class. For whom was their real contingency in that moment?


CDR: Lefkovitz said, at the conclusion of Chapter 2, that a few components of coverture were dismantled—including the husband’s ownership his wife’s sexual and household labor. One of the small silver linings was the change of rape law, some of the un-gendering of marriage opened up women’s right to lay greater claim over their bodies, and the ability of gays and lesbians to make inroads toward their right to marriage. But I agree with you that most of it feels like highlighting increased inequality.


NS: I agree. Lefkovitz doesn’t deal extensively with the overturning of the rape laws, simply because it’s outside of the period she is mostly discussing. At least some women and their husbands did benefit from the ability to be able to have pensions and social security and to de-gender the benefits that some people got. Given that the military does draw on not our wealthiest citizens, that would seem to be one way in which some families at least might benefit. But overall, I agree with both of you that this is a pretty sad story of growing inequality.


KT: One aspect of the book we haven’t touched on yet was the extent to which these debates about marriage offered different groups of Americans a way to express deeper fears about their changing society. The third chapter shows how conservative women saw the Equal Rights Amendment as dangerous in terms of culture, class and economy. Lefkovitz makes the point, for the first time I’ve ever seen, that a lot of these anti-feminists were lower middle class or had just made inroads into a kind of middle class existence. They believed they had the right to a breadwinner husband who kept them out of the labor force. For them, the ERA was a cultural danger, weakening their gender roles in their families, but it also appeared to them as a real economic threat. For these women, the kinds of economic benefits feminists claimed ERA would offer paled in comparison to the economic benefits they derived from a breadwinner husband.


NS: That argument was brand new to me as well. I was also struck by how Lefkovitz highlighted how conflicting and non-sensical the anti-ERA arguments were. In essence, most of these lower-middle class breadwinner jobs didn’t exist or hadn’t existed for that long or weren’t going to exist for that much longer. Women weren’t going to be forced out of their homes to earn wages, and/or the more complicated scenario of men’s breadwinner wages having to pay their wives as well in order to force the wives to work to afford their homemaker salary was never going to happen. Different arguments from different sides led to confusion and lots of fear, on an economic level.


CDR: I agree and I noted the various ways Lefkovitz linked moral and financial anxieties. I kept thinking how useful that would be in helping my students understand how these ideas became linked in the 70s and 80s. She is also effective in demonstrating how other social issues such as affirmative action and bussing get drawn into these conversations.


KT: And it’s the ERA chapter that marks the pivot from the first half of the book, which talks about how marriage was de-gendered, to the second half of the book, where the thin, de-gendered form of marriage got denied to other groups. It was precisely because traditional, “thick” marriage was fading that folks who had access to it were trying to shore it up and prevent other groups from having access to it.


NS: This reminded of a book that I read as an undergraduate that has left a lasting impression on me: Symbolic Crusade by Joseph Gusfield. The author is a historical sociologist writing about the temperance movement. He describes what he calls a “status movement.” People who will not lose if something changes—whether drinking is available or unavailable, you can just be a teetotaler yourself—mount an enormous campaign either on behalf of others, or really on behalf of your own status, that is, to gain the respect of being a teetotaler, or to gain in, our case here, the respect of being a married heterosexual couple where the wife stays at home and the husband goes out to work, and they have certain perks from that life. The goal, as it’s fading, is to prevent other people from getting into it because you still want the status of that thing. I was also struck by the way that Lefkovitz detailed in those later chapters how welfare recipients and immigrants had to live up to absolutely blissful expectations of what marriage was supposed to be. They had to have a breadwinner husband, and to be married for two-plus happy years, and so forth, all in the name of policing the boundaries of who can get in and gain access to the benefits. It’s people playing fast and loose, basically, with definitions of marriage: some people can’t have it, other people can but in fact must go further in demonstrating how “real” their marriages supposedly are.


CDR: Reading the second half of the book, I was trying to compare and contrast between the groups. Chapter 4, on welfare rights activists, stood out for the resistance to marriage rather than struggle for access to it. We’re dealing more in these chapters with the state rather than activist groups pushing back. Not that those groups weren’t there, but the focus was more on the legal side. It seemed to me that those groups were dealing with the state trying to limit its own “thick” obligations to marginalized groups as marriage was changing.


KT: And marriage or pseudo-marriage became a convenient vehicle to do that.


NS: That sounds accurate to me. In the last three chapters, which dealt with people making a number of claims upon the state, it was interesting that most of the claims are not really about marriage. In these instances marriage is a legal device that can get them other things—that is, other benefits that they have been denied because of their status. Or marriage becomes this tool that the state can use in order to deny benefits. Marriage is bound up in all of these issues and policies, in ways that historians who are not as obsessed with marriage as I am, and clearly Lefkovitz is as well, might not see as much. Marriage insinuates itself into policy in all these other ways.


KT: So that even as the benefits of marriage were rolled back in the period that Lefkovitz writes about, marriage still maintains its hold in American culture as a significant institution.


CDR: For some people, it was the only option for certain protections or rights—for gays and immigrants. With the immigration and same-sex marriage chapters, marriage was the most direct way into certain protections.


KT: So that by the end of the story, the people who needed the protections the least actually got the most from it, and the folks who need this protections the most got little or nothing.


NS: Lefkovitz also demonstrates how much we still have an idea of marriage as if it is doing performing certain functions, but it has been so “thinned out” that it isn’t really doing the things we think it is, and as you said, Katie, it is only doing those things for the most privileged of all, but we’re still looking to it as the solution for various issues that it is in many ways no longer capable of doing.


KT: Do you think she offers a way forward? Perhaps there might be a policy solution, or a cultural reckoning?


NS: I did not see a direct policy prescription aside from the obvious contrast she draws with countries that have more defined legal rights of citizenship. There are many European countries, as well as Canada, and other places, where healthcare and a living wage and childcare are citizenship rights. There are some Scandinavian countries where very few people marry any longer, or far fewer than used to, but the consequences aren’t the same as here because rights and responsibilities are not hinged upon whether you have a husband or a wife.


CDR: Her final sentence seems to question the role of historians in offering a way forward. She says that historians have repeatedly made haphazard predictions that have not proven true. That is a historiographical question as well.


KT: One way forward that I took from the book is that we need to better square up our ideas of the cultural, economic and political work that we think marriage should do, with the reality of how little it’s doing. Lefkovitz’s last couple of pages reference society becoming more atomized. Maybe we’re now semi-atomized, and we need to just go all the way. This doesn’t mean we should abolish marriage, but we should stop expecting it to do the work it hasn’t done for a long time, remembering that when it did do that work, it buttressed a pretty unequal society.


NS: I think that makes sense. As a pretty staunch opponent of marriage, this made me question my opposition. I’m not exactly changing my mind, but I see how, in gendered heterosexual marriage, historically the fact of legal marriage managed to protect some people if that marriage ended. That doesn’t say anything about what the marriage was like as long as it lasted. As we know, homes and marriages are more dangerous for women than anywhere else in the United States. But when marriage came with its thicker obligations, certain privileged women were better off. Given that we likely can’t go back to that, I don’t know where that leaves us.


One thing that we haven’t talked about all that much was Lefkovitz’s use of expansionist versus individualist approaches to marriage as a framing device. This seemed really helpful to me. What the Supreme Court was doing was expanding who could occupy various roles. These looked like great victories, but the way that the states took marriage and limited what a person had to do within the confines of marriage ended up making marital obligations much thinner. Expansionist versus individualist as mapped onto federal versus state helped explain what was actually transformed legally in this period.


KT: That really spoke to me in terms of 1970s feminists’ conflicted impulses and goals. The liberal-radical framework is as problematic as it can be useful. Lefkovitz reveals how complex “liberal” feminism was. Even those who agreed on reforming rather than abolishing marriage were conflicted between de-gendering roles in marriage and the more individualist goal of thinning the obligations for both partners.


CDR: Groups like NOW and other liberal feminist groups are often painted with a broad brush. Adding that layer of nuance is critically important as we continue to work through what feminists were trying to do and what they were fighting for.


KT: Lefkovitz also explains how feminists became such a convenient target for anti-feminists. They successfully accused feminists of ruining traditional marriage even as these deeper economic shifts were driving the changes.


NS: I thought that was smart too. It’s a lesson in media manipulation and how it is easier to blame people who are being outspoken about something, even if you are going to manipulate what they say, than it is to talk about larger, structural economic changes that are incremental and hard to explain.


CDR: There’s also what is visible. Women out in the streets fighting for the ERA is often more visible than what legislation states have recently passed.


Does Lefkovitz define what she means by the age of women’s liberation, in terms of the book’s chronology? Especially since within feminist historiography there is debate about the term “women’s liberation” and whether it only refers to the very onset in the late 1960s and early 1970s.


KT: My interpretation of Lefkovitz’s point was that once the wheels of women’s liberation got turning in the late 1960s, it kept going. But that returns to our earlier discussion about who was actually liberated by these changes.


NS: There are always these problems with titles. There’s what you want to call it, then there’s what the publisher will agree to call it. The publisher wants it to be as capacious as possible so that everyone will read it, even if what you’re doing is slightly more narrow, which it is for almost all of us. This book is about what started in the age of women’s liberation. That conclusion, on 1996, is really a chapter in and of itself. It is not just a three-page throwaway. It is tracing the revolution and what came afterwards, and in some cases, well beyond, as she’s discussing the Supreme Court same-sex marriage cases as well.


KT: In reflecting on who might read and teach this book, I think it would do all kinds of important work in a women’s legal history class. The Fourteenth Amendment cases are often framed as a step toward women’s legal equality. I think Lefkovitz is so smart to use those cases as a starting point for her narrative. She shows how the federal courts were moving one way, and the state courts were engaged in a much different project, and it was the state courts that had more power in defining what marriage became.


NS: I agree, and not just the state courts, but the state legislatures that were revising all the statutes on alimony and other things, and it really does extend and complicate the history of what we thought about where coverture had gone.


CDR: As I said previously, her linking of social and economic fears in her discussion of feminists and their opponents through the 1970s will be quite helpful in discussing the larger political landscape of the 70s and 80s, particularly the shifts in the Democratic Party and the rise of the Right.


NS: I’ve taught classes on the history of marriage and family where the book could be assigned. I also think some of the chapters would really work as standalone essays in a classroom. Everyone should read the whole book, of course, but you could easily assign one or two of the chapters that are covering transformations in marriage, or the consequences of marriage for immigration law. They would fit well into classes on other topics aside from women’s or marriage history.


CDR: To your point, Nick, I think this book shows the need for comparative and cross-movement, cross-identity studies, and how much richness there is to be mined in that approach.


Critical Response by Alison Lefkovitz


First of all, I am incredibly honored and humbled to have Katie Turk, Nick Syrett, and Chelsea Del Rio read my book and for the excellent insights they generated. All three are brilliant scholars, and I am so lucky to have had each of them turn his or her intellect to my work! I am also so grateful to be part of this delightful new forum on the Docket.


I’ll begin by expressing appreciation for Syrett’s point that I am a person obsessed by marriage, and that the chapters that aren’t actually “about” marriage show how “marriage insinuates itself into policy in all these other ways.”

Alison Lefkovitz

This is a very helpful way to frame this issue and helps somewhat mitigate my own and del Rio’s concern that the two halves of the book aren’t knitted together as elegantly as I would like. Moreover, the readers are right that I struggled with the title, which did not really bring all these threads together. (Don’t we all struggle with titles? A friend in grad school suggested 80s sitcom titles for all our dissertations, and some of us took these very clever suggestions with relief). Though the title perhaps does not cover the breadth of the book, I do hope the book shows that issues stemming firmly from the “age of women’s liberation” had ramifications well beyond gender and feminism.


Del Rio’s point that I might have paid more attention to affect—and the radical family formations it might have led to—is also true. I found love to be an important category for all sorts of actors. Gay liberationists, cohabiters, and immigration policy makers identified love as a significant and important public issue. On the other hand, radical feminists, ERA opponents, and men’s rights activists were skeptical that the emotion was even real. That these groups aligned so unevenly is another issue that I didn’t really address and something I hope another scholar investigates. Moreover, I might have noted how little liberal feminists and welfare rights activists seemed to talk about love at all. Shouldn’t they have been discussing it more one way or the other? What about the liberal feminist project barred that? What about the demand for welfare rights made discussions of love seem like a poor strategy? It would also have been worth observing—though probably the least productive line of inquiry on affect—that lawmakers cared about love only when it suited their political agendas. Finally, thinking about and teaching the current-day battle for marriage equality has taught me that my emphasis on the material aspects of marriage is important but also only part of the story. I think recent scholars are right that focusing on love helped shift public opinion about marriage equality and also that the focus on marriage equality has foreclosed the possibility of recognizing other forms of family. Therefore understanding better how gay marriage activists presented the issue of love and how it was received in the 1970s would have helped us understand what has and has not changed since that time. I already teach this issue differently than I wrote about it.


Similarly, I too wish, as Turk expressed, that there were more characters in the book. At one point I considered doing oral histories and decided not to because I wanted this to be a book about structure. I think I somewhat accomplished that, but more stories and characters still might have made these structural changes less abstract. More significantly they also might have revealed better the everyday life of these laws. For example, I found one divorce record where a woman asked for less child support than the judge was offering. She thought that if the child support order were too high that her husband wouldn’t pay it at all. It’s likely women often decided this in settlement negotiations behind closed doors, but I only found it written into the record this one time. Without this transcript, the lived experience of the law would have been much less visible to me. More sources like this might have led to further insights. My only excuse is that I was overwhelmed with even the structural story I was telling. I will say that both of my current projects have more people.


One other regret that the discussion generated for me was that I didn’t further foreground that the problems of marriage in the United States stem in large part from the lack of stronger social safety net programs. In part, I did not want to foreground a counterfactual in a part of the book at which it would have been historically anachronistic to do so. My actors only occasionally noted the stronger welfare states elsewhere. In part, even this would not solve everything—even countries with mothers’ pensions have not solved the problem of unpaid labor in the home. In part, this concept had become so central to my thinking that I perhaps underemphasized it as too obvious. Hopefully readers do get through the conclusion, though I know this is a tall order to expect.


This also is a good place to address Turk’s question of whether I have a policy subscription here. I hope I imply both the more and less ambitious solutions that the readers refer to. An ambitious solution would be simply to replicate the European model—grant people rights on the basis of their citizenship rather than their marital (or work) status. Less ambitiously, I agree with the readers that I would at the very least hope we stopped assuming that marriage offers protections that it no longer does (or never did for some couples).


There’s so much more that I wish I could address in this rich conversation, but I’ll end by simply expressing my gratitude again. Thank you so much to Turk, Syrett, and Del Rio—and also to the Docket, Gautham Rao, and Michan Connor.