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Breaking Conventions: Five Couples in Search of Marriage-Career Balance at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century

Breaking Conventions: Five Couples in Search of Marriage-Career Balance at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century tells the stories of five marriages that defied social norms and supported two careers – hers and his – more than 100 years ago. The couples – all of whom married between 1887 and 1912 – constructed marriages that are commonplace today. But they were deeply shocking in their own time, when well-to-do white women in America and Britain were not supposed to have careers, and career women were not supposed to marry. Instead, women were expected to find fulfillment in being wives and mothers, caring for their children and husbands, and creating an uplifting and nurturing home environment. They were socialized to defer to men and be subordinate to their husbands.
Pursuing careers of their own made it difficult for these women to be the self-effacing, self-sacrificing domestic angels, helpmate wives, and companionate spouses that their social world expected them to be. Instead, they upended gender stereotypes and romantic ideals, sought new ways to build emotional connection with their husbands, and chipped away at the foundations of male privilege and patriarchal power that defined most marriages of their time.
The Palmers, the Youngs, the Parsons, the Webbs, and the Mitchells – who worked in education, mathematics, social science investigations, anthropology, economics, law, and government – faced substantial obstacles in building more equitable and emotionally fulfilling marriages in late19th and early 20th century America and Britain. Some succeeded; some failed; all struggled. Breaking Conventions draws on extensive archival research to explore the dynamics of each couple’s courtship and marriage.
More than a century later, dual-career couples still struggle to combine intimacy with independence and balance the demands of home, family, and work, just as this earlier generation did. These five path-breaking marriages offer both inspiration and cautionary tales for readers today. Their stories remind us how far women have come and how much still needs to change if women and men are to be more equal in the home as well as in the workplace.