Women’s Studies


Mederer, Helen

Advisor Department

Sociology and Anthropology




marriage; gender; history; sociology; family; letters


Research on the evolution of marriage can be found quite easily, but the opportunity to see into the lives of married couples from the past is rare. Through the analysis of letters between my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, I provide a glimpse of what being married has meant throughout the 20th Century for heterosexual couples. Societal ideas about what makes a marriage ideal have changed over time, but they have always been closely linked with gender expectations (Berk, 2013), so a feminist approach to the analysis of the evolution of marriage is used with my family’s letters as a case study.

Throughout history, marriage has functioned in several different ways. Whether benefitting of society, the family unit, or the individual, the institution has been an instrumental part of American culture. The ways couples perform gender roles, express affection, and communicate are reflective of the particular cultural conceptions of marriage, and letters provide a way to enter the lives of couples and see first-hand what it was like to be married during the last 100 years (Cherlin, 2010).

In order to examine how marriage and gender have changed throughout history, I analyze letters between my paternal great-grandparents, paternal grandparents, and parents. Each couple consists of a man in the military and a woman who corresponds with her husband from home. The letters of focus are the ones written within the two years before and after each couple’s wedding (1917, 1951, and 1985) because those letters are the most likely to reveal societal views of gender and marriage. Using the tool of textual analysis of letters, I use a sociological lens to examine the ways marriage and gender have transformed not only in my family’s history but also in United States history.