Labor of Love (2016), by Moira Weigel

Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (2016), by Moira Weigel, is a nice, short book about the history of “dating,” or, if you like, the replacement of Traditional Courtship, beginning around 1890 but really getting going after 1920.

This book could have gone wrong in many ways. One of the reviews calls it “a radical Marxist feminist tract disguised as a salmon-pink self-help book.” It is not that, thankfully, although the reviewer wishes that it was. There is more detail about faggots and trannies than I care for, but that is to be expected in these dark days. The author has a PhD in comparative literature from Yale, but she also got married, so she is not completely nuts. She looks about 30 on the back cover, and she says the book arose from her attempts to figure out what exactly was this thing that she spent so much time doing, and where it came from.

Fortunately, most of the book is history rather than opinion/analysis (the author’s attempts to do this in the last chapter are rather pathetic), and since it covers about 130 years of history in 267 pages, it is a fairly light treatment of the major features of each age. The author did a lot of work reading from materials from those times — advice columns from the 1920s, self-help books from the 1950s, or How To Court guides from the 1890s. There is a lot of valuable material in this historical study.

Basically, “dating” arose from the trend, beginning around 1890, for young men and women to migrate from farming communities to cities. In Courtship, women lived at their father’s houses, until they moved to the house of their new husbands. However, these single working women, living alone in the big city, were not so constrained, and soon began to meet with similarly single and displaced men. From the beginning, it was rather degenerate. Often, women would walk around amusement centers hoping for attention from men. Since they often had no money, they would hope the men would buy them something to eat. Kissing and sex often followed soon afterwards. The 1913 term for them was “charity cunts.” Police didn’t know what to do with these women. They appeared to be very cheap prostitutes. But, the women themselves, at times finding themselves in jail, would insist that they were doing it for love.

This was a fringe activity at first, but by the 1920s, “dating” had become more mainstream, and also, as it assimilated the mainstream, somewhat less degenerate. If they weren’t leaving their parents’ house to go to the big city to get a job, by this time women were often going to college. The “boyfriend” appears, which doesn’t exist in Traditional Courtship.

All in all, the book confirms my view that “dating” has been one long slope of disintegration from traditional Courtship models that existed for centuries. In 1946, the anthropologist Margaret Mead, who had become reknown for her studies of courtship processes worldwide, was asked to give a talk at Stanford University about American Courtship Rituals. She did not see “dating” as a dysfunctional courtship ritual. Dating, she said, had nothing to do with courtship. Americans had no courtship rituals at all.

Published by proprietor

Happily married, with children.

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