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A Critical Review of Nancy Cott

A Critical Review of Nancy Cott

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Published by Matt Cromwell
A book review of Nancy Cott's Public Vows: a History of Marriage and the Nation.
A book review of Nancy Cott's Public Vows: a History of Marriage and the Nation.

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Categories:Types, Reviews
Published by: Matt Cromwell on Dec 13, 2010
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09/06/2013

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 Cromwell, Matt
Critical Review: Public Vows Page 1 of 14
 
A
 
C
RITICAL
R
EVIEW OF
N
ANCY
C
OTT
S
“P
UBLIC
V
OWS
 
By Matt Cromwell
November 18, 2010I.
 
Introduction
Nancy Cott’s
Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation
(Cott 2000) is anextremely valuable contribution to current discussions on the purpose, place, and legalaspects of marriage in America. It is well researched, well written, clear, concise, and itsaims and conclusions are strong and valid. It is a beneficial read for anyone interested inmarriage as a political construct or the legal history of marriage in America.
Every book arrives in a time full of controversy for some issue or another. Cott’s
arrives in the middle of a national debate on the nature of marriage in America; and yet,this work has thus far steered clear from controversy. It is particularly surprising for me as
I went about searching for modern reactions to Cott’s book to discover that after 10 years
in the public domain this work has survived virtually untouched by significant criticism.The actual criticism among the many reviews read for this critique (which can be found inthe Bibliography) can be summarized in a few sentences. Candice Bredbenner correctlypoints out that courts have more often affected marriage rather than legislation and Cott gives courts scant coverage (Bredbenner 2002)
. Bredbenner then defends that “[t]his
observation does not necessarily suggest a weakness in Cott's argument, however, becausecourts' associations with politically controversial issues have provoked charges of 
legislating by a politicized judiciary.”
 
 Cromwell, Matt
Critical Review: Public Vows Page 2 of 14
 
Only the review of Ruth Feldstein provided substantial criticism (while remainingstrongly positive of the overall work). Feldstein contends that (1) though Cott is a feminist historian, women are largely absent from any agency; (2) Cott does not comment on howvarious forms of marriage affected concepts of femininity; and (3) her discussion of current transformations in marriage is completely absent of consideration for concurrent trends in
women’s sexuality
(Feldstein 2002)
. Each of Feldstein’s criticisms stem from her desire
asa fellow feminist historian
that Cott be more overtly feminist in this important work. If Bredbenner and Feldstein provide the only criticism of this work, it is clear there is much
room for a more lively discussion of Cott’s perspective and method.
 II.
 
Why The Author Matters: Nancy Cott Nancy Cott is a legal historian and a feminist; a powerful combination. Her emphasison legal history leads her to look at history through the lens of the powerful
theauthorities of the land
while her feminism pushes her to advocate for those without power. This particular combination makes her uniquely skilled to wrestle with the topic of the political history of marriage in the United States.
Another important aspect of Cott’s background that should be addressed is how this
book specifically brought her into the national limelight. In 2010, Nancy Cott was brought to the California Supreme Court to testify in the case seeking to repeal Proposition 8 as ahistorical expert on marriage specifically because of this work. Her testimony was used toadvocate against the argument that procreation is part of what defines marriage and wouldtherefore exclude homosexual relationships from enjoying the right of marriage. She
 
 Cromwell, Matt
Critical Review: Public Vows Page 3 of 14
 
argued persuasively that procreation has never been part of the legal understanding of marriage in the history of the United States and that marriage as an institution hascontinually grown and developed rather than being a fixed idea (Dolan 2010). This echoesthe
nature of Cott’s overall message in
Public Vows
and how it is seen as a bastion of reasonfor those who advocate for same-sex marriage.Within a year after publishing
Public Vows
Cott was interviewed by a popularwedding site called IndieBride.com (Yamin). In the interview she explains that part of her
reason for writing this book was because “the history of marriage as a political institutionhadn’t been put together,” and to focus “on how mar
riage related to the question of thenation and national identity
.” This unique perspective on marriage as a political institutionand its impact on the nation is the book’s greatest strength. Later, in 2004, National Public
Radio (NPR) interviewed Cott about the book. When asked if she is a supporter of same-sex
marriage she answered that she thinks “it is the next phase of evolution of marriage in oursociety”
(Gross 2004). Her answer confirms a particular perspective that is obviousthroughout the book: marriage has continually evolved in the United States and willcontinue to do so. This argument is well documented but it begs the question of howforcefully her opinion shaped her research.III.
 
An Overview
Public Vows
is especially comfortable reading because of the chronological nature inwhich Cott organizes the book. The narrative begins shortly after the American Revolutionwith the Founders setting out to create a new political reality. Though monogamy was

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Matt Cromwell added this note
I really enjoyed writing this review, primarily because I noticed that even though the subject is very controversial the book itself has received basically no criticism at all. Plus, I believe her lack of attention on the religious aspects of this issue is detrimental to her overall argument.

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