In Plutarch’s Lives, the first-century essayist relays an anecdote in which Cato the Elder expels a man named Manilius from the senate after Cato learns of a deeply immoral act he had committed: Manilius had kissed his wife—that is to say Manilius’s own wife—in public and in front of their daughter. In her biography Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff tells a similar story about Mark Antony, saying that he had been reprimanded for having “openly nuzzled his wife;” of Pompey the Great, she writes that he had “made himself a laughingstock for his indecent habit of falling in love with his own wife.” These stories may make the Ancient Romans sound as if they rivaled the Victorians in terms of physical prudery, but nothing could be further from the truth; in fact, Roman men took pride in their varied and lurid sexual appetites. It was the idea of love—specifically love within a marriage—that aroused their disgust.
An Ancient Roman marriage was a social and financial contract that existed for two purposes: the sharing of property and the creation of new Roman citizens through the birth of legitimate children. Marriages often happened for political reasons, and were almost always brokered by senior members of the two families. Within this framework—one in which the father held patria potestas, or absolute authority, over his wife and children—there was no place for love. Because marriage was strictly a business arrangement with no sentiment attached, divorce and remarriage were quite common in Ancient Rome; after all, there is little sense in staying roped into one contract if a better one appears on the horizon.
So how did we get from there to the West’s current cultural ideas about love, partnerships, and the catastrophe of the dissolution thereof? This is one of the central questions—with emphasis on the latter part of that equation—in Kelli María Korducki’s Hard to Do: The Surprising Feminist History of Breaking Up.
Anyone who has ever wandered down the self-help aisle at a bookstore knows that there isn’t exactly a scarcity of books about ending relationships. But, as Korducki explains early on in hers, most of these books are concerned with either getting over a difficult split or dumping a bad boyfriend; few if any attempt to understand the complex dynamics of departure, or its complicated opposite, hanging in; and none examine the long history of the “expectation that [women] should want to stay, to make it work, the moment we find ourselves with a partner who is decent and willing.”
Hard to Do plumbs the roots of that expectation by applying a critical feminist analysis to the history of breaking up, from Ancient Rome to the present day. The book is less concerned with the what, why, or how of breaking up than it is with who gets to leave, and the circumstances that allow them to do so. As Korducki explains, the breakup itself, at least in the way we currently culturally apprehend it, is a fairly new phenomenon. For most of Western history, women were unable to leave even the unhealthiest relationships, and for a laundry list of reasons: religion, social mores, property laws, and, above all else, financial dependency. Korducki explores how all of these factors have historically impacted women; she also examines how legislation has shaped the issues, from Britain’s Marriage Act of 1753 to the advent of no-fault divorce in the 1970s. Using the exit from a relationship as her starting point, Korducki neatly picks apart complex socio-economic power structures that exist in romantic partnerships.
Although Hard to Do is a short read—it clocks in at just 144 pages—it manages to cover a lot of territory in an area ignored both by other books about women’s history and by pop culture, which evinces great interest in the subject but tends tend to gloss over the way it is actually experienced by a wide swathe of people. Hard to Do devotes a fair chunk of its space, for instance, to the romantic separations of working class women, queer women, and women of colour. Korducki takes a particular look at what marriage meant to women living in slavery in the American South. She examines both the fact that legal marriage was often not permitted among slaves (in spite of the fact that the slave owners often espoused the belief that they were Christianizing their slaves, and the sanctity of marriage is a core teaching in Christianity) and the traumatic dissolution of slave families that occurred when husbands, wives, and children were sold to different owners. Marriage among slaves, explains Korducki, was an act of rebellion—“a claim to humanity, an assertion of love.” For slave owners, separating and selling off members of slave families not only had financial benefits, it also continued the dehumanization of black people that the American chattel slavery system relied on.
Korducki could certainly have delved more into certain subjects (for example, I would have loved to read more about the ripple effects the trauma of familial separation has had on the descendants of slaves in America, or about pre-eighteenth-century marriage), but in general Hard To Do is quite satisfying in length and depth. In any event, “it left me wanting more” is not the worst thing ever said about a book.
And the book may be revelatory for people who, like me, grew up in a world where divorce is common and women are able to have much more financial autonomy than has historically been offered to them. Women in the Western world today take for granted the ability to leave (or stay with) the romantic partners of their choice. I have never had what I would call an easy breakup, but the fact that I’ve had any sets me apart from many of the women who came before me.
There are other illuminating moments, such as the direct line Hard to Do draws from post-Enlightenment ideas about marriage to the performance of motherhood on social media, through “a series of photogenic vignettes that establish a simulacra of maternal serenity.” In the rise of the idea that marriage should be a union born out of love—rather than a union made for financial, social, or political reasons—Korducki sees the roots of the modern social pressure on women to approach domestic life not out of a sense of duty but a sense of deep joy.
This, then, is what Hard to Do does best: it takes aspects of modern-day relationships that are rarely considered and puts them in a historical context that sheds an entirely new light on them. Before reading this book, I had thought of breaking up as a rite of individual passage, albeit an unhappy one. It turns out to be much more. Who would we be if we could not leave the relationships that didn’t serve us? And who would any of us be if the women who came before us had had this power?