I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage
Susan Squire, 2008
A provocative survey of marriage and what it has meant for society, politics, religion, and the home.
For ten thousand years, marriage—and the idea of marriage—has been at the very foundation of human society. In this provocative and ambitious book, Susan Squire unravels the turbulent history and many implications of our most basic institution. Starting with the discovery, long before recorded time, that sex leads to paternity (and hence to couplehood), and leading up to the dawn of the modern “love marriage,” Squire delves into the many ways men and women have come together and what the state of their unions has meant for history, society, and politics – especially the politics of the home.
This book is the product of thirteen years of intense research, but even more than the intellectual scope, what sets it apart is Squire’s voice and contrarian boldness. Learned, acerbic, opinionated, and funny, she draws on everything from Sumerian mythology to Renaissance theater to Victorian housewives’ manuals (sometimes all at the same time) to create a vivid, kaleidoscopic view of the many things marriage has been and meant. The result is a book to provoke and fascinate readers of all ideological stripes: feminists, traditionalists, conservatives, and progressives alike. (From the publisher.)
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About the Author
Susan Squire is the author of The Slender Balance, For Better, For Worse: A Candid Chronicle of Five Couples Adjusting to Parenthood and the best-selling essay collection, The Bitch in the House. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Playboy, New York magazine, and the Washington Post, among many others. She lives in New York City with her husband of nineteen years. (From the publisher.)
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Critics Say . . .
It's not always easy to follow the hops and skips of Squire's logical structure, and at times her penchant for one-linery gets in the way of her argument as opposed to helping it along. But I Don't is a charming book and a wonderful resource for those who think they have a bead on why the church and everyone purporting to speak for the church got themselves so firmly entrenched in the marriage business in the first place.
Dahlia Lithwick - New York Times
Fascinating.... Valuable insight into an institution that has recently been transformed yet again.
Squire archly reconsiders the disobedient Biblical helpmeet Eve (‘Shouldn’t the buck stop with the senior officer, not the assistant?’), as well as witches, bitches, nymphomaniacs, concubines, clerics, cuckolds, and others.... Take this potent, hugely entertaining book to bed.
O - Oprah Magazine
In breezy, irreverent prose, Squire (The Slender Balance) catalogues the history and religious significance of the institution of marriage from Adam and Eve to the Renaissance and beyond. Writing as if gossiping with a girlfriend, Squire argues that marriage was developed to establish paternity by controlling the sex life of women. We learn that the men of Athens had hetaera (courtesans) to entertain them, concubines for their daily "need" and wives with whom to breed legitimate children; the women of Rome, on the other hand, learned how to use their power to threaten male rule of society. The New Testament offers equality to husband and wife, at least in the marriage bed; the association of lust with Eve's original sin can be attributed to Augustine. Squire explores sixth-century penitentials on sexual sins, adultery in the Middle Ages and the intersection of wife and witch during the Renaissance inquisitions. Readers are left questioning whether our modern idea of love matches might end up as a chapter in a future book about the incarnations of marriage. "Love may not be the answer, but for now, it is the story."
Squire (The Slender Balance) begins with Genesis and works through biblical and secular history through Martin Luther, deconstructing marriage with a vengeance. Like Fox-Genovese, Squire does not pretend to be unbiased in her negative view of historical marriage, especially in terms of Christian history. The subtitle describes the book as "contrarian," but that is almost too mild a term to describe Squire's sarcastic yet breezy style, which while very amusing, is sure to offend many readers as she gleefully surveys Western history. Squire is mainly concerned with the subjugation of women within the strictures of marriage as a social and religious convention. Both works are passionate intellectual manifestos, with completely different tones and aims, and both are recommended for sociology and women's history collections.
Elizabeth Morris - Library Journal
The roots of Western ideas about getting hitched, from early humans up to Martin Luther. That's right, Martin Luther, who used sermons on the "godliness" of marriage as an opportunity to stick yet another finger in the Pope's eye and in 1525 gave up a lifetime of celibacy to get married himself. Squire (For Better or for Worse: A Candid Chronicle of Five Couples Adjusting to Parenthood, 1993, etc.) halts her history of marriage there, contending that "as the Protestant influence spreads across Europe...so does its marital vision, which is essentially Luther's." Well, maybe, but surely the last 500 years of marital theories could stand a bit more scrutiny. For the millennia she does cover, Squire pores over classical and medieval diaries, treatises on marriage and religious tracts on why women are inferior, and her narrative moves at a brisk pace. She argues that marriage was basically designed to protect fragile male egos so they could retain the sense of power they needed to project in society. It had no such positive aspects for women, who were constantly accused either of being insatiably intent on sexual variety or of being needling shrews; marriage was an instrument to control them. Despite the subtitle, readers with any knowledge of the subject will find little new information or "contrarian" analysis here; the less well-informed will probably find their worst suspicions confirmed. Squire detracts from her argument with a jarringly jocular tone-giving historical figures silly nicknames, for example. Cutting off the story in 1546 (the year of Luther's death) makes her claim to be revealing something about modern marriage nothing short of ridiculous. Lively and a pleasure to read, but falls well short of what it promises.
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Book Club Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:
Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for I Don't:
1. Can you sum up how Squire presents the history of the church's involvement in marriage? If you accept her approach, what are the implications for today's society? (Right, this is a huge question—it's, like, the whole book. Still...give it a try.)
2. What about Adam and Eve? Who took the fall, so to speak, and why? Who should have taken the fall?
3. What did Martin Luther's believe about marriage, and how did his views differ from the Pope's?
4. What does Squire suggest was the purpose of marriage in the first place? Has that purpose changed over the millennia?
5. Talk about the role of women, historically, in marriage and how it has changed. For better, for worse? Or, honestly?...not at all?
6. What have you learned, if anything, about the history of marriage. Does this book change your ideas of marriage...as a sacred or secular institution?
7. Consider the title: "A Contrarian History of Marriage." Did some of Squire's contrarian views offend you? Do you think she is too contrarian, too politically oriented to offer an objective view of marriage? Or is she simply laying out historical evidence—and allowing readers to judge for themselves?
8. Squire ends her history in 1546. Would you like to have seen her history extended to the present day...or at least for a couple of hundred more years?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
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