Dating Up, Settling Down: Moira Weigel’s Book Details Shifts in Courtship

How Americans find partners has changed according to economic prospects, women's changing roles, and social movements.

According to author Moira Weigel, U.S. courtship and marriage practices changed in the late 19th century. Pushed from farms by an economic downturn, girls and women sought work, play, and suitors in cities. Many decades and social movements later, Americans still view their dating choices through the lenses of the economy and work. Shutterstock

For decades, the New York Times wedding section has been offering accounts of so-called good matches: pairings that connect people of similar class backgrounds and educational levels, with compatible values, interests, and tastes. While the narratives have become more diverse over the years—the paper now acknowledges same-sex nuptials, for examplethe newspaper’s accounts of how folks met and fell head-over-heels continue to provide an entertaining window into the coupling of America’s lovebirds.

Moira Weigel’s first book, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) enters this territory, delving into U.S. social mores about dating and marriage. It explores how capitalism has influenced attitudes about women and family, and addresses how economic shifts affect domestic life and intimate relations. Although much of the historical information has been written about before (notably by writers including Elizabeth Abbott, Stephanie Coontz, Kathy Peiss, and Ruth Rosen), Weigel’s easy-to-read overview ties past to present and brings the material into the 21st century. The end result is a fascinating but limited look at trends among mostly white, middle-to-upper class cisgender heterosexuals.

“All human societies, and many animal ones, have always had courtship rituals,” Weigel writes in the book’s introduction. “They have not all had dating. The male, blue-footed booby does a mean mating dance, but he does not date. Neither did Americans until around 1900. Since then, experts have constantly declared that dating was dead or dying. The reason is simple. The ways people date change with the economy.”

To wit: In the 1890s, a serious economic downturn pushed many young, single women off the family farm and into city-based jobs. By 1900, Weigel reports, more than half of all U.S. women were working outside the home—most commonly in laundries, textile plants, and in domestic service. Because they were paid much less than men, they relied on male suitors to take them out, whether to restaurants, saloons, dance halls, amusement parks, or nickelodeons.

This sometimes caught the attention of the police. Weigel notes that “in the eyes of the authorities, women who let men buy them food and drinks or gifts and entrance tickets looked like whores, and making a date seemed the same as turning a trick.”

The class politics of these encounters were particularly glaring since the upper crust was slow to incorporate dating into its social rites. In fact, “calling” remained in vogue for ladies of leisure until World War I. This required a young woman to decide whether to allow male visitors to see her in the family parlor, albeit with an adult chaperone. After the suitor presented his card, the girl decided whether she wanted to fraternize. If she did, he entered. If not, he was sent away; both scenarios reinforced the idea that men were the seekers and women the sought.

Meanwhile, “charity girls” made it clear that if they accepted a date, the man was responsible for buying them whatever they wanted, from a pack of cigarettes to a meal. By the second decade of the 20th century, however, this practice had not only lost the taint of disapproval, but was consistently described as romantic in novels, short stories, and popular magazines. After all, “nice girls” had shrugged off concerns about the practice and were openly appreciative of the perks that came their way.

By the “Roaring Twenties,” Weigel writes, many working-class women felt free to express an overt interest in dating or marrying “up.” As opportunities to work in department stores, restaurants, and offices expanded, clerks, secretaries, and waitresses could potentially marry the boss or catch a wealthy patron’s eye.

The growing cosmetics industry took advantage of this ideological shift, giving women a way to telegraph “that she valued her femininity and was willing to spend time and money on her appearance.” Alongside frequent magazine articles that described the feminine “beauty duty,” women were told how to market themselves, as if they were products to be consumed by male shoppers.

Any other alternative to heterosexual romance seemed near-impossible, even scorn-worthy, and while a small LGBTQ community was coming into its own in several big cities, homophobia kept the vast majority of individuals from publicly coming out.

Weigel’s nod to queer culture—including bars and clubs catering to gay men, lesbians, and “drag” performances—is brief; nonetheless, the book includes several vivid descriptions of “the secret theater” that allowed LGBTQ folks to be themselves in a few urban settings.

Still, it was World War II that allowed a crack in the closet door. As Weigel writes: “During the war, the armed forces had been eager to enlist recruits, and many young gays and lesbians who felt isolated in their hometowns saw military service as a chance to escape.”

The book says nothing, however, about the many “Rosies” who took to riveting and left me wondering how—or if—their employment affected dating and sexual behavior. Despite this gap, Weigel writes that by the end of the war, straight shop girls, secretaries, and waitresses were sharpening their flirtation skills in order to find a man, leave the workforce, and pursue domesticity.

In addition, college girls followed an equally well-honed script to earn an “M.R.S.” degree. College, as Weigel explains it, gave those with the resources for postsecondary schooling a chance to mingle freely, date openly, and “pet” before marriage. Going “all the way,” however, was explicitly verboten. As popular culture presented it in the early 20th century, female virginity was a woman’s most cherished asset. According to Weigel, “as soon as she married, America about-faced. Not only should a young wife have sex, she should have lots of sex, and she should like it. If you do not like sex as much as your husband, your marriage will not be well-adjusted,” the media warned.

Betty Freidan pinpointed the contradictory messages about sex, marriage, monogamy, work, and love that bombarded middle class stay-at-home wives and mothers decades later when she published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. The critique resonated. But Friedan also had critics. “Because African American women had always worked outside their homes,” Weigel points out, “ever since their ancestors were brought to the United States as slaves, they did not mistake the ‘opportunity’ to work as an adequate solution to all the problems that women had to deal with. … [Black and working-class women] knew that earning a wage was not a fix-all. In fact, many black feminists attested that in their homes was the only place that they felt respite from a racist world.”

A few years later, when the Free Love movement elbowed its way into popular consciousness, many male adherents seemed to forget that women could not legally abort unwanted pregnancies. Needless to say, Free Love did little to change gender roles or equalize gender dynamics. By the end of the 1960s, Weigel notes that hippies began to realize that creating a new world was going to be a lot harder than they had initially anticipated. “They had not clearly established who would do the things that still needed to be done,” she writes. “In the absence of a plan, they often fell back into highly stereotyped gender roles.”

Yuppies eventually replaced hippies and rejected the indiscriminate coupling of the previous generation. What’s more, the advent of AIDS in the 1980s coincided with workforce changes that encouraged telecommuting and longer hours on site. Taken together, these changes have had a marked impact on how we date, whether we date, and how we partner.

In fact, by the 1980s, Weigel reports that many highly educated heterosexual women were pushing to marry their intellectual and social equals. Perhaps more startling, not only did yuppies want to marry other yuppies, they began to see dating as similar to other work. New businesses popped up to accommodate them: speed dating, virtual dating assistants to “manage” their social engagements, and a wide array of dating apps and online services to connect them with a potential Mr. or Ms. Right.

But despite the assistance, all was still not well in Dating Land. Many considered going out with a stranger to be a chore, “less like a pleasurable diversion and more like one more thing to fit in.” Then, as messages about one’s biological clock start to tick, the market in assisted reproductive technologies increased the disquiet. Add in bestselling books like The Rules, Ignore the Guy, Get the Guy, and It’s Not Him, It’s You, and the retro message that every 30-something needs to settle down started to blare. If one listens closely enough, the declaration is unmistakable: No heartbreak can compare to turning 40 and being unmarried and childless.

To her credit, Weigel challenges this absurdity, but Labor of Love never deconstructs the equally damaging idea that every person has a soulmate and needs to find this person in order to be complete. Where this notion comes from remains a mystery. Nonetheless, as the linchpin for most romantic mythology, it deserves an attentive and complete undressing. Likewise, the dating games of nonwhite, working-class and low-income individuals, and religious immigrants need the same attention and scrutiny that Weigel gives to rich professionals.

Furthermore, anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows that finding a potential mate is merely the starting point. The real labor of love comes long after the initial attraction and centers on the daily work of keeping the relationship going. At the end of the day, dating may have been an invented form of social engagement, but the chase is meaningless if the parties never hunker down in the muck of everyday life.