Home >> Volume 1, Issue 02

“The Promise of an Enduring and Engulfing Bond”: Personal Reflections on Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Marriage: The Dream that Refuses to Die

Sheila O’Connor-Ambrose

When I recall my life as a graduate student in Atlanta, where friends and I lived as self-described “starving aristocrats,” I remember best an oval-shaped kitchen table. The table was stuffed into an alcove made endless by three windows that framed the countless wild saplings growing in the backyard of Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s graceful and inviting red-brick home in the Buckhead neighborhood that always welcomed front-door visitors with the good-smelling mixture of luxury cigarillos and exquisite perfume. I still remember that unique fragrance, all these years later. It means I am home again, ensconced in a place that taught me profound lessons about what it means to live a dedicated life, the source of so much goodness, joy, and suffering too.

I never knew Gene and Betsey’s other houses, but surely each one would be found familiar in the ways that matter to those who seek conversation, understanding, and friendship: the colony of indulged cats who barely tolerated the sweetest dogs. There were always plants and books, pretty table linens and framed maps, and the irresistible salty-and-spicy mixtures of nuts and crackers in tabletop bowls. Betsey loved to mix photographs of loved ones with images of her favorites saints, who were treated as beloved friends. And she also loved machines, including the fax, telephones, televisions, computers, printers, cell phones, and the powerful Italian-made coffee machine that sat over the dishwasher. It never stopped grinding and heating the strongest and darkest blends of coffee, unsoftened by milk or sugar.

Most guests found their way to the kitchen table, a comfortable place to sit and be with the family. Of course, as this was an academic family, the table functioned as a giant desk, with piles of newspapers, invitations, catalogs, crossword puzzles, magazines (a smorgasbord of fashion, news, commentary, and sports), bills, journals, student papers and theses, marked-up rough drafts, sheets of intricate doodles, personal and academic mail. But with the arrival of a guest, all that would be shoved aside, the television muted, a chair cleared of cats or mail, something offered to eat and drink, and a place made comfortable for the caller at the family table.

A chair was cleared for me countless times, not only for dinner. I came to the table to talk, read the newspaper or a rough draft, help chop vegetables for dinner, watch a game, smoke a cigarette, discuss the news, or enjoy some coffee. Being with Gene and Betsey at the very place in which the private pleasures and conversations of their lives intersected incessantly with their demanding academic and public duties shaped me deeply, teaching me the contours of the dedicated life and allowing me a glimpse into the workings of a glorious, heartfelt marriage in its quotidian unfolding. As I think back to life in their kitchen, now two years after Betsey’s death, in my mind’s eye at least, I can reclaim the chair in the middle—Betsey on my left and Gene to my right—and savor a momentary return to the circle of light cast by these two vividly brilliant intellectuals who brought every gift and sorrow to their marriage, who, in refusing to hold back, found in marriage the ability—in the best sense—to be “one and one another’s all.”[1] Long before I had made a happy marriage for myself, I saw in Betsey and Gene what I hoped for my own life: the sort of serious, faithful, passionate, fulfilling, sacrificial, supportive, and humor-filled marriage that seems worthy of becoming one’s life’s work, the kind that could lead both husband and wife to heaven. After thirteen years of marriage, I now can understand even better why and how Gene and Betsey’ marriage, especially in the domestic rituals accomplished on and around the table, was able to teach me so much about life and love.

And I was not the only one touched deeply. Robert George, the renowned Princeton professor and close friend of Gene and Betsey, wrote that their marriage was “one of the great love stories of our time. They were two very different personalities, perfectly united. He was the head of the family; she was in charge of everything. Their affection for each other created a kind of force field into which friends were drawn in love for both of them.” George perceptively noted that although Gene and Betsey were “unable to have children of their own, they lavished parental care and concern on their students and younger colleagues, who in turn worshiped them.”[2]

Anyone who knew Gene and Betsey sensed immediately the centrality of marriage to their lives. And anyone familiar with Betsey’s work in particular knows that marriage figures prominently in her scholarship and worldview. In her award-winning Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South, Betsey writes of a slaveholding world in which “the relations between men and women remained unequal.” Nevertheless, Betsey argues, many white women of the Old South “invest[ed] kin and the signs of family with deep emotional significance” that emphasized the “importance of kinship” to women’s sense of identity. Writing of Sarah Gale whose story represented the lives of many slaveholding women, Betsey argues that a woman’s feelings about her own identity “intertwined with her relations to her husband and her own children; they constituted at once the wellspring and the prolongation of her mature identity as wife and mother.”[3] Marriage and family life, in other words, contributed profoundly to women’s sense of themselves. And Betsey makes clear in Within the Plantation Household how keenly slave women felt the prohibition of slave marriage that deprived them of any legal protection for their roles as wives and mothers. And in “Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life”: How Today’s Feminist Elite Has Lost Touch with the Real Concerns of Women, Betsey argues that although feminism has decisively contributed to the revolution that has transformed women’s lives and has helped to reshape the ways in which we think about what it means to be a woman,” feminism “has not convinced the majority of American women that it offers an adequate story of their lives.”[4] Contributing to American women’s resistance to or ambivalence toward feminism is that many women of all races and classes still see “marriage and children as central to their sense of themselves.” These women “do not believe that feminists care about the problems that most concern them or they believe that feminists favor policies they cannot support, such as abortion, affirmative action, or women in combat.”[5] In Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism, Betsey explores how the rapidly expanding market in the modern era decisively transformed marriage and women’s lives and she reflects at length how the “steady, quiet encouragement of my husband, who understood what I wanted—or rather, what I could be—better than I” helped her to finish her dissertation and to begin to see herself as a professional scholar and teacher, and not only “as a girl.”[6]

Betsey devoted prized time and intellectual vigor to understanding and defending marriage not only because she experienced first-hand the ways in which marriage can mature, secure, and deepen a person’s sense of self in the world, but also because she believed deeply that its status as a “unique and uniquely valuable social bond and the essential cornerstone of cohesive society”[7] meant that it deserved serious and respectful intellectual, moral, and cultural attention. In 2003, Robert George invited Betsey to deliver a series of lectures at Princeton University on a topic of her choosing. George urged Betsey to expand the lectures—a studied and brilliant defense of marriage—for publication by ISI, a project on which Betsey was working at the time of her death in early 2007.

Several months later, with Gene and my family in attendance, I was awarded my Ph.D. in Women’s Studies from Emory University. Although Gene teased me that the only reason he was attending my graduation ceremony—his first since high school—was to protest Emory’s rash and appalling decision to grant me a degree, tears stung my eyes during the courtyard reception when Gene warmly introduced me to the dean as “Betsey’s last student.” It meant the world to me to have Gene, who was so much a part of my life as a student and friend, to stand in, as it were, for his beloved Miss Betsey.[8] And through him, I felt her presence and beaming love and that made all the difference to me. You see, eighteen months before Betsey’s death, “out of the blue,” or so the Holy Spirit let me think, despite pressing domestic claims on my time that included three very young children, a busy academic husband, and sometimes shaky health, I had firmly resolved that it was time for me to finish my long-neglected doctoral degree. Betsey had never pushed me to finish, but she had always insisted that she knew I would finish when I was ready, and that my work—so long buried beneath other passions and obligations—would be good. When I made the commitment “out of the blue” to finish, Betsey’s confidence and encouragement strengthened my own desire to get it done. As it turned out, Betsey insisted on reading my many chapters while in the hospital recovering from back surgery. Three days before Christmas 2006, in a voice weary beyond imagining from a series of long hospitalizations, Betsey left me a message that she had finished reading my dissertation and was delighted with it. Eleven days later, Betsey died, a hard loss to understand, but her gift to me—to all her friends, colleagues, students, and readers—remains and consoles: that she truly achieved and modeled the dedicated life, and even more rare and moving, a life dedicated to living out the noble task of marriage profound in the depth and aim of its shared commitment. Gene and Betsey’s marriage asked of both of them to offer to each other the sort of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual ripeness that would then nourish and sustain all those drawn to the circle of their light. Without a doubt, these two born scholars did shine—and would have shown—independent of the other, but a united Betsey and Gene—intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, and physically—lived the ideal of marriage, one in which, as the novelist Gail Godwin describes: “their having each other make[s] more of them both.”[9]

Through the singular and combined efforts of Gene, their friends and family, and Betsey’s students and colleagues, the wisdom of Betsey’s work continues to teach, inspire, influence, and even admonish. Since Betsey’s death, Gene has overseen the editing and publication of the second volume of their magisterial study of “the mind of the master class,” a work of dazzling erudition and penetrating analysis.[10] With the help of a dedicated committee led by the historian David Moltke-Hansen, Gene has watched over the forthcoming publication of five volumes of Betsey’s writings on southern literature and history, European history, women’s history, and religion. In April 2008, Gene will publish a poignant and powerful remembrance of their nearly thirty-eight-year romance, entitled Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage.[11]

Although I had stubbornly insisted to Betsey during the writing of my dissertation that I had no intention of ever “using” my degree, a defense mechanism that Betsey wisely tolerated and ignored, it came to be in a way I never imagined that my work dovetailed with Betsey’s. As it happened I wrote my dissertation on the role of marriage in the quest for the dedicated life, in which I examined the extraordinary writings of the contemporary novelist Gail Godwin, a writer whom Betsey and I both deeply admired. I saw in Godwin not only a compelling storyteller of women’s lives, but someone who takes seriously the role of vocation in which to fulfill and express one’s unique gifts. One of Godwin’s earliest heroines, Jane Clifford, prays to “find my best life,” and in Godwin’s work, marriage offers a unique terrain in which to find one’s own dedicated life, a blessed and mutually supportive mixture of meaningful work and sustaining love. Godwin treats marriage as a challenge to a woman—married or single—to become truly who she is, a challenge that in turn allows her to help others—spouse, family, and community—to find their best lives. I see now with a grateful and solemn heart that although it happened in a way neither of us foresaw nor intended, my own work, supported and encouraged by Betsey, helped me take up the responsibility of continuing Betsey’s work after her death. Shortly after my graduation, with deep grief in my heart, I accepted Robert George’s gracious request that I bring to completion Betsey’s final project: the lectures on marriage that she had hoped to expand.

Edit and expand I did, not in the way Betsey had planned to develop the lectures, but by foraging through her life’s opus and selecting pieces that contributed to her clear vision of marriage as absolutely central to the cohesion, coherence, depth, and longevity of our historical, social, and personal good.[12] Although the essays I collected to supplement the Princeton lectures were written at different times in Betsey’s career, it became stunningly clear to me not only how much of her life’s work attended to the questions of marriage, family life, women’s public and private work, the tensions between the individual and the communal claims upon his or her identity and interests, but also how acutely she grasped the complex forces moving throughout history that have brought us to an unprecedented time and place in which “some form of marriage and family as the ideal—and as a norm to which most people were expected to aspire”—has been “rejected” in favor of a “concerted attempt by a portion of the elite to deny the value of the norm.”[13] And this norm has existed throughout history: “Until recently, even the harshest critics of marriage never denied that, for better or worse, its nature and purpose has been to unite a man and a woman.”[14]

It was Betsey’s prescience, the clear sense of urgency, and her steadfast respect for the true meaning of marriage that led me to suggest to Gene and the publisher that we use Betsey’s own words for the book’s title: “Marriage for love—the promise of an enduring and engulfing bond between a man and a woman—is a dream that refuses to die. In defiance of the rising tides of cynicism, sexual liberation, promiscuity (before, after, and during marriage), and declining interest in children, the dream still promises that we will finally be loved as we long to be loved.”[15] To my mind, this fragment captures both Betsey’s acute historical insight in the age-old function of marriage as “the essential cornerstone of cohesive society”[16] and her heartfelt conviction that “the current campaign to destroy marriage as a unique and uniquely valuable social bond”[17] has brought human society to a “precipice, over which many seem eager to plunge, some maliciously, others blindly.”[18] But the fragment also evinces Betsey’s hope—for she knew that we can never succumb to despair, however dark the horizon—that notwithstanding the “cynicism” of our age, the dream “refuses to die.”

Throughout the book, Betsey—a historian of extraordinary depth and objectivity—makes clear that the history of marriage has not been a story of sexual equality, and most of its inequalities call out for redress.”[19] Pointing out that “our forebears in virtually every culture have tolerated a husband’s beating—or chastising—of his wife, many have tolerated his taking more than one wife, no few have allowed him to repudiate her if she fails to bear children (male infertility seems to exceeded their intellectual grasp), and virtually all have regarded men—fathers, brothers, sons who have come of age—as her natural representative in the public sphere,” Betsey returns her reader again and again to her main defense of marriage: that in “one way or another, all the players in this premodern social drama understood the importance of marriage to the social, economic, and political context of their lives—and to the cohesion of their society.”[20] Betsey points out with abundant evidence that throughout most of history, “one’s people carried even greater significance[than the individual], for family grounded and defined what today is know as the individual’s ‘identity.’ The self was understood as the articulation or expression of the group, which was viewed as prior to it, not an ‘autonomous’ being that could assume and discard commitments at will….Marriage bound peasants and villagers, as well as nobles and kings, into indispensable social, economic and political alliances.”[21]

It is Betsey’s erudite historical perspective on the shifting meaning and function of marriage that is desperately needed in today’s heated and consequential debate on the legal and social definition of marriage. Marriage, she argues with clarity and force, “has not been about the gratification—much less the rights—of the individual but about the good of society.”[22] As the foundational social bond, Betsey writes, marriage “ease[d] the antagonism of sexual difference”; “promote[d] economic well-being and social stability”; “ground[ed] legitimate secular authority”; and “infused the most important social bonds with a sacramental character.”[23]

The rise of individualism in the modern era, especially in Western society, has conferred unprecedented benefits and recognition to the individual. The pursuit of human freedom, Betsey argues, “has heightened the dignity and improved the lives of countless persons throughout the globe…. We have witnessed the abolition of slavery, an improvement in the position of women, greater attention to the discrete needs of children, respect for the needs of those who suffer handicaps, and so on.”[24] But—and this is the crux of Betsey’s argument—because of individualism’s increasingly radical focus on the rights and desires of the individual unfettered by any social claims, “marital and family ties have increasingly come to be viewed as secular contractual relations, which primarily concern the state, if indeed they concern anyone other than the immediate participants.”[25] The primacy of individual rights has “reduced our most intimate personal relations, including those that have been our most reliable social bonds, to styles.” As a result the “insistence upon viewing the world—including all forms of social and personal relations—from a purely subjective perspective has led us to embrace…the comfortable position that the weightiest questions about the value of human life are matters of purely personal concern—to be decided by each individual for himself or herself.”[26]

Space does not permit me to express with the force and gracefulness that Betsey does the bristling insight of her analysis of marriage’s decline and the threats that seek its fall, but central to her argument is our need to recognize how damaging modern possessive individualism has been to marriage, to children, to families, and, indeed, to any social bond that demands sacrifice, restraints, self-denial, and genuine charity. The arguments for same-sex marriage, as appealing as the rhetoric is, threaten to redefine social and family relations beyond recognition, but we are foolish to believe that proponents for same-sex marriage started this debate. As Betsey points out, if one believes that “marriage exists only to serve the interests and comfort of the individual, you are left with few weapons against the advance of same-sex marriage.”[27] No-fault divorce, out-of-wedlock births, abortion on demand, and birth control—all have rendered women and children more vulnerable and decisively weakened marriage. And, to Betsey’s great sadness, with each passing day “we Catholics seem to be finding it easier to acquiesce in the logic of the secular world. The results are disastrous for our understanding of the human person and our ability to sustain binding relations with others.”[28]

After the publication of Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, ISI asked me if I would agree be interviewed about the book, Betsey, and the raging debates over same-sex marriage. Those interviews—I mercifully lost count but they numbered more than thirty—opened my eyes to what Betsey’s work means to people, especially those outside the academy. Speaking about Betsey as my teacher and dearest friend and speaking about her work was a humbling and moving experience. But foremost was sensing that people long—at some unarticulated but real level—for what we have lost and are losing in our efforts to find and keep lasting sacrificial love in our lives. At the same time, talking with these hosts and callers—Catholic, Protestant, conservative, liberal, divorced, single, long-married—it hit me hard that not only has the story of marriage’s decline touched all our lives, but that people are beginning to ask themselves—even if they have come to believe (and who could blame them?) that a life-long loving marriage is a fairy tale—what will happen to us individually and collectively if we don’t figure out how to go beyond ourselves to bind with others in “loving relations and shared purposes.” What, in short, is the hope for a “vital and, yes, grown-up social life”?[29]

It was Betsey’s belief—and prayer—that the Church and its teachings not only on marriage but on human dignity and freedom offer the best hope “to break through the prison house of individualism,”[30] and to establish a “culture of life in which personhood is understood as mutual recognition rather than autonomy and no person is ever objectified as the means to an end.”[31] Sustained and encouraged by the lifeblood of sacrificial love that flowed within her own marriage, Betsey sought with the full force of her intellect and with great moral courage to explain and defend the institution of marriage. It is my dearest wish that through Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die readers will find that a chair at that welcoming table has been cleared for them to sit and listen to Betsey’s clear, sympathetic, and knowing voice.

[1] John Donne, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.”

[2] Robert P. George, “A Well-Lived Life,” afterword to Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2008), 168.

[3] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 10.

[4] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Feminism is Not the Story of My Life”: How Today’s Feminist Elite has Lost Touch with the Real Concerns of Women (New York: Nan Talese/Doubleday, 1996), 13.

[5] Fox-Genovese, “Feminism is Not the Story of My Life,” 17.

[6] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 248.

[7] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 4.

[8] During her academic career, Betsey supervised dozens of PhDs in history, women’s studies, English, and comparative literature. She took special pleasure in the hooding ceremony for her students.

[9] Gail Godwin, Evensong, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999), 30.

[10] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[11] Eugene D. Genovese, Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, forthcoming, 2009).

[12] Tina Trent, a true friend and fellow PhD student of Betsey’s, came to my aid with her characteristic generosity and gifted intelligence in finding and suggesting possible additions.

[13] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 126.

[14] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 3.

[15] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, xxi.

[16] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 4.

[17] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 4.

[18] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 45.

[19] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 41.

[20] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 17.

[21] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 18.

[22] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 21.

[23] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 21.

[24] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 141.

[25] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 114.

[26] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 45.

[27] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 60.

[28] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 152.

[29] Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die, 61.

[30] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Equality, Difference, and the Practical Problems of a New Feminism,” in Women In Christ: Toward a New Feminism, edited by Michele M. Schumacher (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 305.

[31] Fox-Genovese, “Equality, Difference, and the Practical Problems of a New Feminism,” 311.