Given the social centrality of the family institution and the role of courtship in the family formation process, it is not surprising that the study of courtship has received attention from several disciplines. Anthropologists have described practices in primitive and other societies, historians have traced courtship patterns in America from colonial to contemporary times, psychologists and social psychologists have examined intra- and interpersonal components of relationships, and sociologists have developed research-based theories explaining the process of mate selection, and have investigated various courtships dynamics. Here, some attention will be given to each of these approaches, along the way selectively noting scholars who have made major contributions.
Historically, according to Rothman, the term courtship applied to situations where the intention to marry was explicit (if not formally—and mutually—stated). Courting was the broader term used to describe socializing between unmarried men and women" (Rothman 1984, p. 23, italics in original).
Scholars have disagreed as to whether dating—a twentieth-century term for a primarily recreational aspect of courting—should be considered a part of courtship since, according to Waller (1938) and others, dating may be merely thrill-seeking and exploitative, and not marriage oriented (but see Gordon 1981 for an opposing view). However, wooing (that is, seeking favor, affection, love, or any of these) may be integral to courtship and yet not result in marriage. For present purposes, then, courtship will be understood in its broadest sense—as a continuum from casual to serious. Thus, "the unattached flirt, the engaged college seniors, the eighth-grade 'steadies,' and the mismatched couple on a blind date are all engaging in courtship" (Bailey 1988, p. 6).
Queen, Habenstein, and Quadagno's (1985) classic text provides much of the basis for the following brief and highly generalized overview of some mate-selection patterns unlike those found in contemporary America. Some of these systems involved little or no courtship. For example, among the ancient Chinese, Hebrews, and Romans, marriage was arranged by male heads of kin groups. Among the ancient Greeks and until recently among the Chinese, many brides and grooms did not meet until their wedding day. Around the turn of the century (1900), infant marriages were the rule among the Toda of south India, and the bride was deflowered at about age ten by a man who was not of her clan and not her husband. In medieval England, contrary to the literature of chivalry, love had little to do with mate selection in any social class because marriages were arranged by lords or by parents with primary regard to the acquisition of property.
In societies where romantic love is not a basis for mate choice, such sentiments are seen as dangerous to the formation and stability of desirable marital unions—those that maintain stratification systems (see Goode 1969). Queen, Habenstein, and Quadagno (1985) describe still other mateselection patterns that do involve some form of love, including the systems found on Israeli kibbutzim at midcentury, among ethnic immigrant groups in the United States, and among African-Americans during slavery (see also Ramu 1989). In the twentieth century, however, and especially since the 1920s, courtship in Western societies has been participant-run and based on ideas of romantic love. In the United States today, it is not uncommon for a couple to meet, woo, and wed almost without the knowledge of their respective kin. "Compared with other cultures, ours offers a wide range of choices and a minimum of control" (Queen, Habenstein, and Quadagno 1986, pp. 8–9).
In colonial America, practices differed somewhat between the North and South. In the North, mate choice was participant run, but a suitor's father had control over the timing of marriage since he could delay the release of an adequate section of family land to his son while the son's labor was still needed. Conjugal (but not romantic) love was thought to be the sine qua non of marriage, and couples came to know and trust one another during often lengthy courtships. In the South, a custom of chivalry developed, closely guarding the purity of (at least upper-class) women, but condoning promiscuity among men. Parental consent was required for the beginning of courtship and for marriage and open bargaining about property arrangements was commonplace. Unlike the colonial North, where marriage was considered a civil ceremony, in most parts of the South, Anglican church ministers were required to officiate at weddings. In both regions, banns were published prior to weddings.
During the 1800s, mate choice became more autonomous with the growth of cities and the spread of industrial employment. Choices were affected less by considerations of wealth than by personal qualities—especially morality, spirituality, and "character." Wooing was rather formal, with each participant carefully evaluating the qualities of the other. Courtship tended to be exclusive and directed toward marriage.
Then, from about 1900 to World War II, a system evolved in which there was much "playing the field" (casual dating), gradually more exclusive dating ("going steady"), engagement, and finally, wedding—a relatively fixed sequence. Following the war, stages of courtship were typically marked by symbols (e.g., wearing a fraternity pin, then an engagement ring), each stage implying increased commitment between the partners. By the 1950s, a separate youth culture had developed. Ages at first marriage declined dramatically, and dating started earlier than ever before. The sexual exploration that had previously been a part of the last stage of courtship now occurred earlier, even in very young couples.
During the 1960s, a time of "sexual revolution," nonmarital cohabitation increased—not substituting for marriage but delaying it. In the post World War II. period and since, among the young especially, demands for both freedom and dependence (i.e., the right to sexual freedom without assuming responsibility for its multifaceted consequences) have been relatively widespread. Concurrently, rates of nonmarital pregnancy rose dramatically.
In general, every society attempts to control sexual activity among unmarried (and married) persons, but the forms of control (e.g., chaperonage) and the degree of enforcement have varied. Virginity, especially in women, is highly prized and guarded in some cultures but has no special value in others. Similarly, all societies attempt to limit the pool of those eligible to marry, but the precise constraints have differences across societies and from time to time. Typically, blood kin and relatives by marriage (and in some cases, baptismal relatives such as godparents) are delimited to greater or lesser degrees from the eligibility pool.
Where male elders have arranged marriages for their offspring (generally in ascription-based societies), the accumulation of family power and prestige has been of primary concern, with dowrys, bride prices, or both figuring prominently in prenuptial arrangements. In participant-run mate selection (generally in achievement-based societies), the power and prestige of a dating partner (although defined in terms other than land, cattle, and the like) is still valuable. Good looks (however defined) in women, for instance, are a status symbol for men, and conspicuous consumption in men (cars, clothing, spending habits) provides status for women. Thus, within the field of eligibles is a smaller field of desirables. Unfortunately, the qualities that are valued in dates (from among whom a mate may be chosen) are not necessarily those one would want in a spouse.
Even in participant-run "free choice" systems, there is a tendency toward homogamy in the selection of partners, whether conscious or not. As a society becomes more varied in its mix of persons within residential, educational, religious, or work-related settings, the tendency toward heterogamy increases. That is, the field of eligibles and desirables broadens. Heterogeneity leads to a prediction of "universal availability" (Farber 1964) as the salience of social categories (such as race, age, religion and class) declines. For example, interracial relationships, once unthinkable (e.g., in the colonial American South), increased with urbanization, industrialization, and a general movement toward educational and income equality. Social class endogamy, however, is the general preference, although women are encouraged with varying degrees of subtlety to "marry up," and a dating differential exists such that men tend to court women who are slightly younger, physically smaller, and somewhat less well educated or affluent than themselves.
Contemporary courtship, marked as it is by freedom of choice, has been likened to a market in which the buyer must be wary and in which there is no necessary truth in advertising. Persons compete, given their own assets, for the best marital "catch" or the most status-conferring date. Waller and Hill (1951) warned about the potential for exploitation in both casual and serious courtship and indeed, critics of conventional dating have decried it as a sexist bargaining arrangement in which men are exploited for money and women for sexual favors. The superficiality of dating, its commercialization, the deceit involved (given contradictory motives), and the high levels of anxiety provoked by fears of rejection (especially in men), are additional drawbacks. Since status differentials still characterize the sexes, dating may also be seen as a contest in which a struggle for power and control between partners is part of the game. Thus, courtship's emphasis on individualism, freedom, commercialism, competitive spirit, and success reflects the larger social system within which it functions. One may well ask whether such a system can prepare participants for marriage which, unlike courtship, requires cooperation and compromise for its successful survival.
Efforts to predict who marries whom and why, to delineate the courtship process itself, or both, have interested a number of scholars. Based on a large body of theoretical and empirical work, Adams (1979) developed a propositional theory to explain how courtship moves from initial acquaintance toward (or away from) marriage in an achievement-oriented society. The propositions, in slightly modified language, are as follows:
- Proximity, which facilitates contact, is a precondition for courtship and marriage.
- As time passes, marriage is increasingly more likely to be with a currently propinquitous than with a formerly propinquitous partner.
- Propinquity increases the likelihood that one will meet, be attracted to, and marry someone of the same social categories as oneself.
- Early attraction is a result of immediate stimuli such as physical attractiveness, valued surface behaviors, and similar interests.
- The more favorable the reactions of significant others to an early relationship, the more likely the relationship will progress beyond the early attraction stage.
- The more positive the reaction of the partners to self-disclosures, the better the rapport between them.
- The better the rapport between the partners, the more likely the relationship will be perpetuated beyond the early attraction stage.
- The greater the value compatibility—consensus between partners, the more likely that the relationship will progress to a deeper level of attraction.
- The greater the similarity in physical attractiveness between the partners, the more likely that the relationship will progress to a deeper level of attraction.
- The more the partners' personalities are similar, the more likely that the relationship will progress to a deeper level of attraction.
- The more salient the categorical homogeneity of the partners, the more likely that the relationship will progress to a deeper level of attraction.
- The more salient the categorial heterogeneity of the partners, the more likely that the relationship will terminate either before or after reaching a deeper level of attraction.
- The greater the unfavorable parental intrusion, the more likely that the relationship will terminate either before or after reaching a deeper level of attraction.
- An alternative attraction to the current partner may arise at any stage of a couple's relationship. The stronger that alternative attraction to either partner, the more likely that the original couple's relationship will terminate.
- The greater the role compatibility of the partners, the more likely that the relationship will be perpetuated.
- The greater the empathy between the partners, the more likely that the relationship will be perpetuated.
- The more each partner defines the other as "right" or as "the best I can get," the less likely that the relationship will terminate short of marriage.
- The more a relationship moves to the level of pair communality, the less likely it is that the relationship will terminate short of marriage.
- The more a relationship moves through a series of formal and informal escalators, the less likely it is to terminate short of marriage (Adams 1979, pp. 260–267).
Adams (1979) also provides some warnings about these propositions. First, some factors (such as partner's good looks) have greater salience for men than for women, while some (such as partner's empathic capacity) have greater salience for women than for men. Second, some factors such as parental interference may have different outcomes in the long run compared to the short run. Third, the timing of courtship may bring different considerations into play, e.g., courtship in later life such as following divorce or widowhood, or when children from previous marriages must be considered (see Bulcroft and O'Connor 1986). Finally, social class factors may affect the predictive value of the propositions. There is also a difference between traditional (male-dominated) and egalitarian relationships—the former more often found in the working class and among certain ethnic groups, the latter more likely to characterize the middle class. Thus, the kind of marriage one anticipates (traditional/egalitarian) may influence the mate-selection process. (See also Aronson 1972 for specifications of the conditions under which various interpersonal attraction predictors such as propinquity and similar interests operate).
Further, as courtship has moved away from the fixed-stage sequence of development, it may be viewed best from a circular-causal perspective (Stephen 1985) in which progress is strongly influenced by communication within the couple, leading to increased or decreased movement toward marriage.
The timing of marriage may be influenced by such factors as meaningful employment opportunities for women (which may diminish their motivation to marry), the increasing acceptability of nonmarital cohabitation and adult singlehood (see Stein 1981), and the effects of nonmarital pregnancy or of various intolerable conditions (such as violence) in the family of origin. Currently, a number of scholars are studying each of these topics. They affect not only the timing of marriage but also how we define courtship.
Regarding premarital factors that contribute to later marital adjustment, no scholar has presented evidence to refute Kirkpatrick's ( 1963) conclusions: The happiness of parents' marriage; adequate length of courtship; adequate sex information in childhood; a happy childhood including a harmonious relationship with parents; approval of the courtship relationship by significant others; good premarital adjustment of the couple and strong motivation to marry; homogamy along age, racial-ethnic, and religious lines; and, later age at marriage.
Murstein (1980) reviewed mate-selection scholarship from the 1970s and predicted that researchers would focus less on the "old standby" variables such as race, class, and religion and more on the dynamic aspects of courtship. He was correct. Some of the major themes that have interested scholars in recent years are identified below.
Studies of cohabitation included early efforts to identify its several types (both structural and motivational). Later studies focused on the effects of cohabitation on subsequent marital happiness, satisfaction, and stability. The general finding across such research is that living with someone prior to marriage has little or no positive effect. Instead, most studies show negative effects in terms of happiness, satisfaction, and stability. This research has been carried out in the United States, Canada, and other countries, and although the rates vary, they are quite uniform in showing that there is a greater tendency to divorce among those who have lived with someone (i.e., the future spouse or any other partner) prior to marriage than among those who did not previously cohabit. Most scholars point out that either or both of two factors are probably at work here; first, the less-than-full acceptance of cohabitation as a lifestyle (implying less or no social support for those who cohabit), and second, the kind of persons who choose a "deviant" lifestyle—persons who are risk-takers, and who are less commitment-oriented. (However, see Popenoe 1987 for a different view of cohabitation in a setting where it is more normative.)
As rates of sexual activity outside of marriage rose, and as sex was to some extent disengaged from procreation (since the arrival of the birth control pill in the 1960s), research and theoretical interest focused on changes in sexual behavior and values in courtship. (See Schur 1988 for a highly negative view of the "Americanization of sex.") It should be noted that cohabitation appears to be a "sexier" arrangement than marriage (Call, Sprecher, and Schwartz 1955), which may account for why prior cohabitants' marriages do not meet their expectations and thus, may be more divorce-prone.
Also on the negative side of the ledger, there is concern about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, and on factors related to the use or nonuse of "safe" sexual practices. Research continues to examine variations in premarital sexual activity rates and their effects. Frazier (1994) points out that the AIDS epidemic has not sidetracked the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s. This is because the forces that fueled the revolution are still in place, and some are intensifying—"mobility, democratization, urbanization, women in the workplace, birth control and other reproductive interventions, and media proliferation of sexual images, ideas, and variation" (p. 32). Moreover, cohabitation is increasing as are the single-person household and single parenthood. The pursuit of individuality and freedom continues. Many studies show that women are more sexual today than at any previous time in this century, says Frazier. On the positive side, a greater openness about sexuality-related information has occurred. The trend, as Frazier sees it, is away from the illusions of traditional ideas about romance and toward a more reality-based understanding between men and women. Also positive, and part of the same revolution, are expanded definitions of masculinity and femininity as the trend toward egalitarianism continues.
Unmarried households (i.e., single parenthood) have lost much of their past stigma, and increased numbers of women are choosing to remain single over the (potentially illusory) financial security of marriage, notes Frazier. This is largely a function of women's increased earning capacities in an expanded set of labor market opportunities.
Along with the strong trend toward later marriages has come declining family size. The U. S. Department of Commerce (1992) tells us that the median age at marriage has been rising and in the 1990s was higher than it had been a century earlier. One outcome of this is, as noted earlier, a rise in nonmarital births. Related to this is a rise in the now considerable rate of child poverty, since women's (i.e., single mothers) earnings are not as high as single fathers or of men in general.
Frazier, Arikian, Benson, Losoff, and Maurer (1996) report that, among unmarried singles over age thirty, reasons for remaining single have to do with barriers as well as choices and that men would like to marry more than would women. (This situation is reversed among younger adults, where women are more interested in marriage than are men.) Never-married adults want to marry more than do divorced adults, and divorced women have the least desire for marriage. Again, this may have to do with the greater options (if not economic parity with men) open to women in recent years. Both men and women state their primary reasons for wanting to marry as love, the desire for a family, what they see as the "romantic" nature of marriage, a desire for economic security (which, as noted, may be illusory), and the opportunity for regular sexual activity. However, the desire to remain single—for both men and women—is linked to having unrestricted career opportunities, to the desire for an "exciting" lifestyle, and to having the freedom to change and experiment. Men also identify the restrictive nature of marriage and the limits on mobility and experiences as reasons to remain single, but women mention the desire to be self-sufficient and the possibility of poor communication in marriage as among their top reasons for choosing singlehood over marriage.
Around the world, childbearing by unwed women has increased, accounting for about one-third of all births in America and northern Europe in the mid-1990s. Despite the fact that there has been a recent decline in teen births in the United States, teen pregnancies are much higher in America than in other industrialized nations, for which our poor (or absent) sexuality education is often blamed (Ventura, Matthews, and Curtin 1998).
The rising age at marriage and its effects have interested scholars not only in developed countries (e.g., East Germany) but also in developing countries such as Sri Lanka, Java, and sub-Saharan Africa. One effect is the relatively large numbers of young adults still living in the parental home. Living arrangements and other family influences such as parental divorce or having had alcoholic parents have been studied for their effects on dating behavior, premarital pregnancy, violence in courtship, and on drinking behaviors of young adults.
Research shows that expectations of marriage among those of courting age are inflated, when compared to the expectations of persons with marital experience. Inflated expectations may be another of the causes of subsequent divorce. Moreover, scholars who study conduct on dates have uncovered the seeming paradox of egalitarian daters who behave traditionally during the earliest stages of courtship. Behavior that does not reflect beliefs gives false impressions, and has obvious implications for the spontenaiety and honesty (or lack of them) of the conditions under which courting partners get to know one another. In this era when dating/courtship has lost much of its coherence, we find advice books for young adults with names such as Dating for Dummies (1996) and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dating (1996). The titles alone tell a story. Still other writers attempt to capitalize on the old notion of a war between the sexes, implying that in addition to knowing little about how to date/court, we know very little about one another since "men are from Mars and women are from Venus"—unless we study such guides as Mars and Venus on a Date (Gray 1988). Under the guise of assisting daters to communicate with one another, they present half-traditional, half-egalitarian versions of how to get along with persons who are seen as each others' "opposites." These popular books rest on the idea that by following their prescriptions, as in The Rules (Fein and Schneider 1996), our courtships will be successful and their outcomes happy. (The Rules, interestingly, is highly traditionalistic, and reads like a guide for 1950s "dating success.")
In contrast to these for-profit offerings, scholars continue to study "close" or "intimate" premarital relationships as these have changed from stylized conventional dating to the more informal "hanging out" and "hooking up," the latter an almost only just-for-sexual-purposes arrangement. These shifts follow in part from a weakened normative imperative to marry (Thorton 1989) and in part from the trend toward more egalitarian relationships between the sexes. However, in almost all research, male/female similarities and differences continue to form part of the data analysis. Recent studies have examined attraction in an effort to identify its bases, and, less broadly, have investigated "opening lines" used for meeting potential partners. Which lines work, which do not, and why are unsuccessful lines still in use? These are among the kinds of questions that are asked and answered by such investigations. Scholars working in criminal justice-related areas have provided information about the use of Rohypnol, a central nervous system depressant that is "abused throughout the United States by high school and college students, rave and nightclub attendees, and drug addicts and alcohol abusers." Its use facilitates sexual assaults (Office of National Drug Control Policy 1998). Other investigations examine dating among herpes- and HIV-infected persons. On the more positive and more conventional side, some of the standard variables such as age and education have been reexamined for their impact on mate choice patterns (Qian 1998).
Earlier, the trend toward expanded gender roles was noted. Considerable research interest has been devoted to identifying the components of conventional (traditional) masculinity and femininity and their effects, and on resistance to change in these stereotypes—for example, because of ongoing conventional socialization practices and, as communications experts have documented, because of the effects of various media portrayals supporting the status quo ante. Scholars have also noted the greater likelihood of relational success among androgynous than among conventionally masculine men and feminine women.
Research on courtship has extended to the study of "taboo" conversational topics, degrees and forms of honesty and deception, communication style differences between the sexes (one result of differential socialization), and methods of conflict resolution that enhance relationship survival or that presage relationship dissolution. Interest in failed relationships has attempted to identify factors at both individual and dyadic levels that might have predicted which pairings would last and which would not. In ongoing relationships, scholars have investigated the positive and negative effects of outside influences such as parental or peer pressure, and the parts played by same- and cross-sex friends. Other topics of interest have included barriers to the development of trust and the effect of its loss, the meanings of commitment, and the effects of self-disclosure, self-esteem, self-awareness, and jealousy on close relationships.
We have witnessed a virtual explosion in the study of love—attempts to identify its forms, its properties, and its distribution of types across women and men as well as the effects of all of these, especially in terms of romantic love. On the negative side, a number of studies of violence in courtship have shown relatively high rates of this kind of activity, especially between cohabitors—and also reveal that a sizable minority of those who have experienced violence in close relationships identify it with a loving motive. This seemingly odd justification is explained by the practices of parents who, when using violence against their children, often indicate that they hit or spank "out of love." Thus, the lesson (i.e., the rationalization) is learned early. Other negative aspects of courtship include the study of "mind games" and other facets of competition between partners, sexual aggression including date/acquaintance rape, and the effects of contrasts between idealized images and courtship realities.
As courtship itself has expanded, researchers have taken a interest in an expanded range of relationship types. For example, the romantic involvements between lesbian women and between gay men have been studied in their own right, and also for comparative purposes with heterosexual partnerships. A predictable area for future study is the legalization of marital relationships between same-sex partners.
Other innovations such as video- and computer-matching and personal advertisements in print media have also captured researchers' attention, as has using the internet to make romantic contacts (sometimes called "cyberdating"). Scholars can be expected to pursue the study of the impact of prenuptial agreements on relationships. To a lesser extent, older lines of research have continued to probe the purported decline of, or changes in, the double standard, the "principle of least interest" (Waller 1938) as related to changes in gender roles, the dimensions of intimacy, and on desired traits in dating partners as these may differ between premarital partners and permanent mates.
As society grows more complex and the rate of change is increasingly rapid, confusion over the mate-selection process in all of its dimensions appears to be rife. A study of college student dating shows that these young adults have questions about virtually every aspect of the process and about the choices they make (Laner 1995). High divorce rates have produced a backlash of insecurity as the marriage decision approaches. This is reflected in the frequently asked question, "How can I be sure of making the right choice in a partner?" Sociologists and scholars in related disciplines continue to study a growing set of factors that shed light on the answer.
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Mary Reige Laner
In traditional courtship stories, hero and heroine meet, fall in love, overcome misunderstandings or other obstacles, and, just as the curtain falls, marry each other. A courtship plot is predictable, but that does not mean it has no deeper significance. Quite the contrary: courtship stories are windows through which we can examine key values of a society and discover ways that those values are changing or being challenged. On the surface, courtship is intimately personal, but each story of individual desire and fulfillment is enacted within a particular social context, and every society is deeply invested in who marries whom. In nineteenth-century American literature, novels with courtship plots come most often from the established societies of the South and the Northeast. Courtship is defined and practiced by the privileged classes within a given society, and it is those groups that are most deeply concerned with what happens to property and family identity as people marry. Central to all courtships, whether the issue is confronted directly or not, is the value of women's chastity. The connotations of the term "courtship" are significant: they are linked to "courtly" behavior ("courts" are complex mixes of people maneuvering for favor), to genteel class traditions, and to a pattern of specific rituals followed to bring about a desired result.
Marginalized groups do not possess the leisure, property, and social standing required to participate fully in genteel courtship as defined by the privileged classes. Slaves, by law, could not enter into binding marriage contracts. Laborers, immigrants, and paupers, who could and almost always did marry, are nevertheless not included in the groups that define courtship. Precisely because courtship is a marker of "civilized" society and individual class standing, however, authors writing from the margins frequently adopt the privileged language of courtship as they work to "class up" the group they represent. African American authors of antebellum slave narratives and of novels before and after the war often portray their characters' love stories with the traditional language of courtship, and writers who depict the westward movement sometimes show the struggle of characters to maintain the genteel ideals and behavior associated with courtship in the "civilized" regions of the country.
Courtship is an intense period of unstable and volatile transition during which individuals move from one family formation to another. When authors write courtship stories, they dramatize the transitional space between single and married life and identify how various family and community groups are invested in the outcome of the courtship. By looking at both the courting couple and other characters who have a stake in the courtship, we can discover the secret strategies of the most obvious plot in the world.
COURTSHIP WITHIN THE PLANTATION ARISTOCRACY
In the antebellum South, the small planter class's control of everything from aristocratic manners to slave labor was predicated on a strict patriarchal model. For a southern girl, courtship practices governed her passage from belle to matron. For her family, this passage was critical to assuring the smooth transfer of property (especially land and slaves) from one privileged family to another and within the planter class as a whole, to perpetuating and reinforcing the strict system of race, gender, and class hierarchy. Antebellum novels about the South, then, give their authors' perspectives on how these hierarchical values could be reinforced, renegotiated, or challenged within the drama of courtship.
Caroline Lee Hentz (1800–1856) is best known for The Planter's Northern Bride (1854), a novel she wrote as a proslavery response to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Hentz's story is one of many written throughout the nineteenth century in which a character representing the northern perspective courts and marries a character with a southern outlook, thereby dramatizing the victory of one or another point of view, or, especially after the Civil War, the possibility of a reconciliation of the divided portions of the country. Hentz's Eoline; or, Magnolia Vale (1852) is set entirely in the South, and while it romanticizes many aspects of southern life, it also depicts realistic elements of courtship. Slave-holding families kept strict watch over their daughters, and all encounters with suitors were to be chaperoned; the plantation patriarch exerted authority over whom and when his children married. Eoline's father demands her obedience to him, expecting her to marry the neighbor's son Horace, as the families have planned for years, in order to cement friendship and consolidate property. But Eoline refuses to be a wholly submissive daughter, insisting on her right to marry only someone she loves. Her father believes that "in a struggle for power, for a father to yield to a child was monstrous, unnatural; it was an outrage upon social regulations, an infringement of the Divine law" (p. 32). Eoline leaves home to teach rather than submit to the arranged marriage, shocking her father because of the damage to the family name caused by her choice. She rejects the courtship plan laid out for her by her family and by the planter society, but her rebellion is limited. While on her own, she fortuitously falls in love with Horace all by herself. Their second courtship is patterned more along the lines of northern courtships, as the couple's romance grows away from the close watch of their families. But since Eoline chooses to marry the man her father had selected for her in the first place, Hentz suggests, allowing daughters an increased degree of freedom in courtship will not in the end damage the planter class's control.
The Hidden Hand (1859), by E. D. E. N. Southworth (1819–1899), includes several courtship plots, all set in the antebellum South. As in Hentz's novel, these plots turn on patriarchal efforts to maintain control of courtship and marriage. But because Southworth was not protective of the slaveholding class and in fact held strong antislavery views, her plots are far more daring than Hentz's. The two heroines, Capitola and Clara, enjoy a double wedding at the end of the novel, but their paths through courtship are quite different. Capitola, who is far more interested in adventure than in romance, marries a childhood friend almost as an afterthought. Their courtship, perfunctory though it seems next to Clara's dramatic romance, is carried out in socially approved ways, with letters and visits. Since Herbert Grayson is the nephew of Capitola's guardian, Capitola, like Eoline, marries a man who has the full approval of her male guardian. Capitola's detachment from her own love story is the primary challenge to courtship tradition, which holds that a woman is naturally and deeply invested in her romantic life. The gentler heroine Clara bears out this expectation, as throughout the novel she focuses on maintaining her betrothal to Traverse in the face of ominous obstacles. Her courtship with Traverse is approved of by her father, and after her father's death she carries with her the banner of his endorsement. This banner enables her to stand up in a public courtroom to claim her engagement, to withstand efforts of the evil LeNoirs to force her into marriage and thus seize her property, and to flee from her legal guardian. Southworth's courtships follow accepted patterns of romantic interaction, but the heroines appropriate patriarchal authority for themselves, taking charge of their courtships, protecting their own sexual purity, and finally bestowing their property as they choose. The marriages partly cross class lines, with the suitors playing the Cinderella role: Capitola is an heiress and Clara is quite wealthy, while Herbert and Traverse both work their way up into the respected professional ranks, Herbert in the military and Traverse as a physician. Seen against the conservatism of Hentz's fiction, Southworth's courtship stories appear progressive: she gives her energetic heroines much more freedom of movement and authority over their own lives and demands that the heroes work for a living.
SLAVERY AND THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF HAPPY ENDINGS
Slave narratives and abolitionist texts written by contemporaries of Hentz and Southworth provide painful testimony of what it meant to be denied the rights to protect one's chastity, to work, to court, and to marry. Antislavery literature often draws on the language of romantic love both to assert the humanity of black Americans and to draw out the sympathy of readers who were well trained to react empathetically to courtship plots and to expect happy endings to follow hardship. In his novel Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853), William Wells Brown (c. 1814–1884) blends realistic depictions of the brutality of slavery, especially the sexual oppression of women, with complex courtship plots, most of which end in disaster. Brown does offer readers a happy ending when one couple is reunited and married in Europe. This happy ending emphasizes that no such marriage is possible in the United States because both characters are slaves under the laws of their native land. In her autobiographical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897) depicts a young slave, Linda Brent, who futilely falls in love with a free black man: "Why does the slave ever love? Why allow the tendrils of the heart to twine around objects that may at any moment be wrenched away by the hand of violence? . . . Youth will be youth. I loved, and I indulged the hope that the dark clouds around me would turn out a bright lining" (p. 41). Instead of being rewarded with a "bright lining," Linda must fight off her predatory master, who crushes her hopes of marrying her loved one. Linda eventually chooses to become the mistress of a white man who is not her master because that relationship allows her a small amount of self-determination. Under the laws of slavery, this is the closest she can come to courting and marrying; happy endings are illegal for slaves.
CHRISTIAN COURTSHIP IN THE NORTH
Courtship stories set in the northern sections of the country reveal a different complex of concerns and values. Northern communities were concerned with the rapid changes brought by waves of immigrants, by the growth of cities, and by the boom-and-bust economy that could suddenly create or destroy wealth. Young people had far more mobility than in the South, both in terms of location and in terms of socioeconomic status. These cultural characteristics were seen as coming into conflict with the core values of evangelical Christianity: a personal experience of religion, long-suffering, self-sacrifice, and faithfulness. In secular terms, these values play out in a strong work ethic and a scorn for, or even fear of, "fashionable society." The transitional space of courtship was almost always entangled with questions of faith, work, and duty to God.
Maria Susanna Cummins (1827–1866) provides an excellent example of such a courtship in The Lamplighter (1854). While the first half of the novel focuses on the heroine Gertrude's development from unruly child to ideal young woman, the second half dwells on the superiority of her Christian life to the fashionable, materialistic, selfish world that looks down on her because of her (apparently) humble origins. Like that of Capitola in The Hidden Hand, her courtship grows from a childhood friendship and is carried out largely through letter writing because the suitor is making his way in the world. By the time Willie returns home, having established himself in business, Gertrude has become a beautiful young woman, and each fears the other has been lured away by the glittering fashionable world. The series of misunderstandings is resolved, and the narrator brings them together at last with a summary of how an ideal courtship should work: "With heart pressed to heart, they pour in each other's ear the tale of a mutual affection, planted in infancy, nourished in youth, fostered and strengthened amid separation and absence, and perfected through trial, to bless and sanctify every year of their after life" (p. 409). The Christian values they hold dear have protected their love for one another and have also ensured their material well-being. Capitola is catapulted into fabulous wealth, but Cummins's northern story values solid middle-class status instead.
In Barriers Burned Away (1872), set in Chicago, Edward Payson Roe (1838–1888) emphasizes the same set of northern values we see in Cummins but introduces a new element into courtship that became increasingly prominent after the Civil War: the conflict of a woman's personal ambition with her desire for love and marriage. In Roe's story, Dennis Fleet, a hard-working Christian hero, courts the daughter of wealthy German immigrants. Christine is absorbed in high society, scornful of Dennis, and in quest of personal fame as an artist. But a series of events, culminating in the fire of 1871, humbles her, and she embraces the Christian faith, gives up fashion and ambition, and accepts Dennis's proposal.
COURTSHIP AND WOMEN'S CAREERS
Other authors are less eager to sacrifice women's ambition on the altar of marriage. For Augusta Jane Evans (1835–1909), a deeply prosouthern writer, ambitious heroines with northern values of work and evangelical Christianity struggle mightily throughout their courtships to reconcile their desire for fame with their investment in the conservative ideal of women's subservient role in marriage. The heroines of her novels Beulah (1859) and St. Elmo (1866) finally accept marriages defined much like Christine's, but their "happy endings" are intertwined with grief over the sacrifice of their career ambitions. St. Elmo's beloved Edna faints during the wedding, and her husband then announces: "To-day I snap the fetters of your literary bondage. There shall be no more books written! No more study, no more toil, no more anxiety, no more heart-aches! . . . You belong solely to me now, and I will take care of the life you have nearly destroyed in your inordinate ambition" (p. 65).
Inevitably, courtships began to raise the possibility of women combining marriage and career instead of being forced to choose between them. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911) tests out such a courtship in The Story of Avis (1877). Avis has sworn not to marry in order to develop her talent for painting, but she is won over by Philip when he promises that she will be able to continue practicing her art after their marriage: "I do not want your work, or your individuality. I refuse to accept any such sacrifice from the woman I love." Avis responds, "I have wondered sometimes if there were such a man in the world" (pp. 107–108). But this "happy ending" is the beginning of unhappiness. Between Philip's inability to live up to his promises and the daily grind of keeping house and caring for children, Avis fails as an artist and the marriage itself barely survives.
THE ENDURING VALUE OF COURTSHIP PLOTS
The conventional courtship plot, because of its predictable elements, provides an excellent glimpse into competing cultural values of a given time period and region. The problem of dual-career marriage, treated so pessimistically by Phelps, remains significant, even though such marriages are now the norm rather than the radical exception. In the nineteenth century, miscegenation was taboo and could rarely lead to a happy ending. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, by Harriet E. Wilson (1825–1900), opens with such a story. Frado's mother, Mag, seduced and abandoned by a white man, is rejected by her community. Her only choice for survival is to marry the black man Jim. She is shocked at first, but "he prevailed; they married. You can philosophize, gentle reader, upon the impropriety of such unions, and preach dozens of sermons on the evils of amalgamation. Want is a more powerful philosopher and preacher" (p. 13). As time went on, interracial dating and marriage became a central issue in courtship plots and eventually led to happy endings.
Again, only slowly did writers begin to question a central assumption of the conventional courtship plot: the sexual purity of the heroine. Various negotiations of the sexual double standard began to emerge at the end of the nineteenth century and continued for decades afterward. Romance plots in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries began to challenge the cultural authority of heterosexual courtship, paralleling the contemporary debate about gay marriage. A careful reading of nineteenth-century novels will uncover the beginnings of this conflict, as same-sex friendships are sacrificed to marriage, often to the grief of the abandoned friend. For example, in The Undiscovered Country (1880), by William Dean Howells (1837–1920), the social butterfly Phillips is strongly attracted to the hero Ford and is dismayed when Ford's marriage puts an end to the (mostly one-sided) friendship.
Over time, some conflicts become anachronistic while others become more central, and with each succeeding generation of writers, new value conflicts come to the center. Through courtship and marriage, we learn whether something ought to be sacrificed or rejected and whether apparently irreconcilable differences might be settled by a happy ending.
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Evans, Augusta Jane. Beulah. 1859. Edited by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Evans, Augusta Jane. St. Elmo. 1866. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992.
Hentz, Caroline. Eoline; or, Magnolia Vale. Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson, 1852.
Howells, William Dean. The Undiscovered Country. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1880.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 1861. New York: Penguin, 2000.
Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. The Story of Avis. 1877. Edited by Carol Farley Kessler. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985.
Roe, Edward Payson. Barriers Burned Away. 1872. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Literature House, 1970.
Southworth, E. D. E. N. The Hidden Hand: or, Capitola theMadcap. 1859. Edited by Joanne Dobson. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.
Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of aFree Black. 1859. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage, 1983.
Boone, Joseph Allen. Tradition Counter Tradition: Love and the Form of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Diedrich, Maria. "'My Love Is Black as Yours Is Fair': Premarital Love and Sexuality in the Antebellum Slave Narrative." Phylon 47, no. 3 (1986): 238–247.
duCille, Ann. The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, andTradition in Black Women's Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Leach, William. True Love and Perfect Union: The FeministReform of Sex and Society. New York: Basic Books, 1980.
Lystra, Karen. Searching the Heart: Women, Men, andRomantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Rothman, Ellen K. Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America. New York: Basic Books, 1984.
Tracey, Karen. Plots and Proposals: American Women'sFiction, 1850–1890. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Courtship is a complex set of behaviors in animals that leads to mating. Courtship behavior communicates to each of the potential mates that the other is not a threat. It also reveals information to each animal that the species, gender, and physical condition of the other are suitable for mating. Premating activities are for the most part ritualistic. They consist of a series of fixed action patterns that are species-specific. Each fixed action triggers an appropriate fixed reaction by the partner, with one action stimulating the next. Courtship allows one or both sexes to select a mate from several candidates. Usually the females do the choosing. In some species of birds, males display in a lek, a small communal area, where females select a mate from the displaying males. Males generally compete with each other for mates, and females pick the best quality male available. The danger of courtship is that it can attract predators instead of mates.
Several basic factors influence a female’s choice of mate. First, if a female provides parental care, she chooses as competent a male as possible. For example, in birds such as the common tern, the female selects a good fish catcher. As part of courtship, the male birds display fish to the female, and may even feed them to her. This demonstrates his ability to feed the young. In addition, females tend to select males with resources such as food or shelter, which help a mating pair to produce more offspring that survive. In the long-jawed longhorned beetle that lives in the Arizona desert, males battle each other for saguaro cactus fruit. The females mate in exchange for access to the fruit. A male endowed with large mandibles can defeat other males, take over the fruit, and thus attract females. Genetic fitness is another important factor in mate selection. In species that lack parental care, offspring rely for survival on qualities that they inherit from their parents. During courtship, energetic displays and striking appearance indicate good health. Vigorous, attractive parents generally pass immunities to their offspring. Attractiveness may depend on the intensity of secondary sex characteristics, which in birds, for example, include colorful plumage and long tails. Another advantage is that inherited attractive features make offspring desirable to mates.
Insect courtship is ritualistic and has evolved over time. Male balloon flies of the family Empididae spin oval balloons of silk. Then they fly in a swarm, carrying their courtship objects aloft. Females approach the swarm and select their mates. As a female pairs off with a male, she accepts his balloon. In some species of balloon flies, the male brings the female a dead insect to eat during copulation. This may prevent her from eating him. In other species, the male carries a dead insect inside a silk balloon. Apparently, in the course of evolution, the suitor’s gift-giving began with “candy,” then a “box of candy,” and finally just the empty “box.”
Other courtship strategies in insects include female moths that release a scent signal (or pheromone) that males of the same species recognize. When a male detects the signal, he flies upstream to the female. In queen butterflies, courtship is complex and requires steps that must occur in the proper order. First, the female flaps her wings to draw the male’s attention and make him pursue her. As he hovers nearby his hairpencils (brushlike organs) release a pheromone. Then the receptive female lands on a nearby plant. Next, the male brushes his hairpencils on her antennae. She responds by closing her wings. This signals the male to land on her and begin mating. In other courtship behavior, male crickets rub their forewings together and produce a pulsed courtship song. In fireflies, the male’s flashing light and the female’s flashing answer is another type of courtship behavior. In fireflies, both sexes respond to a specific set of intervals between flashes.
In 1973 Niko Tinbergen won a Nobel Prize for his work on animal behavior. One of the topics he studied was courting in the stickleback, a small freshwater fish. At breeding time, the male stickleback changes color from dull brown to black and blue above and red underneath. At this time, he builds a tunnel-shaped nest of sand. Females swollen with unfertilized eggs cruise in schools through the male territory. The male performs his zigzag courtship dance toward and away from the female fish. Attracted to the red color on the male’s belly, a female ready to lay eggs displays her swollen abdomen. The male leads her to the nest. He pokes the base of her tail with his snout, and the female lays her eggs and then swims away. The male enters the nest and fertilizes the eggs. In this manner, he may lead three or four females to his nest to lay eggs. Tinbergen showed in his studies that seeing the color red caused increased aggressiveness in males and attraction in females.
Adult birds generally return to their nesting grounds each mating season. A male claims a territory by singing a distinctive song. He then sings a song that attracts a female. Birds have different courtship rituals. Some use song, while others display colorful plumage. Woodcocks fly upward in a spiral, and birds of paradise do somersaults. Male frigatebirds— large birds with wings that spread wider than 6.6 ft (2 m)—breed in late winter on the coast of tropical islands in the western Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The male perches in a low tree or brush and his red throat pouch inflates like a balloon. Its red color attracts females hovering overhead. Then the male spreads his wings, shakes them, and makes a whinnying sound. Finally, the pair come together, mate, and build a nest.
Mammals use various strategies in courtship. Pheromones act as sexual lures that bring members of the opposite sex together. These attractants are so powerful that a male dog can smell a female in estrus more than half a mile (1 km) away. The fact that at puberty humans begin to produce odorous sweat suggests the role of pheromones in primate courtship. Sex selection also exists in primates. Females usually choose their male partners, but sometimes the reverse occurs. Recent research reveals that male lion-tailed macaques remain aloof during the day. At night, however, they seek out sleeping estrous females for mating. Until this study, biologists thought that it was the females who initiated mating. In humans, various cultures determine the customs of courtship. For example, in some societies, marriages are arranged by relatives. In these cases, a woman is matched to a man with the appropriate resources. Just as other female animals select mates with resources, humans tend to select mates with wealth and status. Further, even if a woman has no say in the selection of her husband, she may help arrange the marriage of her offspring.
See also Sexual reproduction.
Batten, Mary. Sexual Strategies. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1992.
Display— Showy exhibition by an animal that reveals information to others.
Lek— Communal area used by birds and insects for courtship and mate selection.
Pheromone— Chemical odorant that provides communication between animals.
Ritual— Species-specific behavior pattern or ceremony used for communication between animals.
Chinery, Michael. Partners and Parents. Crabtree Publishing, 2000.
Otte, Jean Pierre. Marjolijn De Jager, trans. The Courtship of Sea Creatures. New York: George Braziller, 2001.
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Films for the Humanities and Sciences. The Rituals of Courtship. Princeton, 1994-5. Films for the Humanities and Sciences. Mating Signals. Princeton, 1994-1995.
Courtship is a collection of instinctive behaviors that result in mating and eventual reproduction. Courtship is important because it helps to ensure that breeding will occur. Organisms within a species must reproduce successfully in order for the species to survive. Courtship has many other functions, including mate selection, regulation of sexual readiness so that the reproductive physiology of a pair may be synchronized, the reduction of hostility between potential sex partners in territorial animals, and species recognition. Courtship may be rather simple, involving a small number of visual, chemical, or auditory stimuli, or it may be a highly complex series of acts involving several types of communication. Some of the most complex courtship behaviors are found in birds.
In addition to complex courtship patterns, birds also have interesting and varied breeding or mating systems. The most common type of mating system is monogamy, which resembles a traditional human marriage. Ninety percent of birds are monogamous. In this type of mating system, two birds come together or form a pair bond for the procreation of young. The length of the pair bond varies greatly between species and between individuals. A mated pair may remain together for life, as in the case of albatrosses, petrels, swans, geese, eagles, and some owls and parrots. They may remain together for several years, as in the case of American robins, tree swallows, and mourning doves. They may remain together for one year, which is the case with most birds; just for one brood, as is the case with house wrens; or for even shorter periods.
The two birds in a pair are usually faithful to each other during the time that they are together. Pair faithfulness appears to depend on the outward appearance of a bird's mate. This might be a simple matter of recognition. Ringed plovers, for example, establish enduring bonds. In one known instance involving two couples, however, one of the mates in each pair had lost a foot and was rejected by its former mate. Fortunately, the two rejected birds were opposite sexes. They met, paired, and successfully raised normal offspring.
It is difficult to determine, however, the exact nature of the physiological bond that holds a pair together. Other factors may be territory, familiarity with one another, or even something similar to human affection. In fact, it is thought that affectionate bonds actually exist between birds. On two separate occasions, it was observed that the partner of a black duck refused to leave its dying mate when the rest of the flock fled from hunters.
Less common than monogamous pair bonding is polygamy, or the practice of having more than one mate at a time. Polygamy occurs in a wide variety of birds, including peacocks, ostriches, and rheas. Polygamy is usually observed as either polygyny or polyandry. In polygyny, one male mates with two or more females, but the females mate with only one male. The inseminated females incubate their eggs in separate nests and rear their young unassisted by the male. This mating system is most likely to happen when males hold territories that vary greatly in the quality of resources. Important resources may include food, water, and shelter. Females will tend to choose superior males, or those with high-quality territories. If a male in a high-quality territory already has a mate, the new female will usually make a choice to either become his second mate or select a male that holds an inferior territory. If she selects a superior male, both will benefit from increased reproduction. Female marsh wrens sometimes mate with already-mated males, even when bachelor males are available. The number of females mated to each male is related to the amount of growing vegetation in the males' territories, which, in turn, appears to be an indicator of the availability of insect food. Studies of red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds and indigo and lark buntings also show relationships between territory quality and the likelihood that a male holding a given territory will have more than one mate.
In polyandry, one female mates with two or more males. The word polyandry actually means "many males." This mating system is rare and occurs in less than 1 percent of all bird species—mostly in shorebirds. Polyandry is often accompanied by a reversal of sex roles in which males perform all or almost all of the parental duties. Females in this mating system also compete for mates, such as in the case of the northern jacana, Harris' hawk, acorn woodpecker, and spotted sandpiper.
Other unusual mating systems that birds exhibit are promiscuity, cooperative mating, and lekking. In promiscuous pair bonding, males and females mate indiscriminately. In cooperative pair bonding, two females usually rear broods in the same nest simultaneously, or nonbreeding birds serve as helpers in the nest of one or more breeding pairs. The male is usually not involved in caring for the eggs or the young. A remarkable exception is the American rhea, in which several females lay their eggs—on occasion as many as fifty—in one nest, where the male incubates them by himself. He is also responsible for the care of the young.
In lekking, males engage in communal displays at a traditional site known as a lek. In North America, males of certain members of the grouse family, including prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse, and sage grouse, compete for mates at leks.
During these elaborate courtship displays, male birds transmit information by special social signals. They call and inflate brightly colored air sacs on their necks while repeatedly carrying out ritualized dances. Females approach the lek, choose and mate with a male from the display group, and then leave to nest and rear the young alone. Male grouse have a hierarchy and often subdivide territories at a lek, with a dominant male usually holding the most central position and mating with the most females. Lekking species of grouse tend to live in open habitats. Not all lekking bird species live in open areas, however. In the tropics, many forest-dwelling birds such as cotingas, manakins, and hermit hummingbirds display at leks on forest floors.
While birds have a wide variety of mating systems, they have an equally vast array of courtship behaviors or displays including dancing, singing, sparring with bills, kissing, caressing, entwining necks, nibbling at each other's feathers, and side-by-side body contact. Some male birds even take on a completely different physical appearance during breeding season, when unique features such as specialized combs, wattles, and pouches appear.
Some aspects of nest building have been incorporated into the displays of some birds. Male and female penguins physically look the same—same size, coloration, and feathers, for example. Male penguins, which are unable to determine sex visually, have adopted a trial-and-error method to solve this problem. In a typical courtship, a male may place a pebble at the feet of another bird. If it is a male, it will start a fight. Females typically ignore the gesture or form a pair bond. The stones may be used later in nest building.
The bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea (relatives of crows and birds of paradise) provide an example of a special category of courtship display. The males construct special display mounds known as bowers. In an attempt to gain the favor of females, less attractive male bowerbirds build the most elaborate bowers while the more attractive males seem to build less elaborate bowers. One common type of bower architecture consists of two parallel hedges of interlaced grasses or twigs stuck in the ground. In the space between the hedges and interlaced grass or twigs is an area where the male may do some of his displaying.
Another type of bower, called the maypole bower because of its height, is formed from a stack of twigs erected around a vertical sapling or arranged in the form of an open-sided, teepee-like hut whose roof center is supported by a sapling. These bowers are often very large, as many as 3 meters (10 feet) high. The floor under or in front of this type of bower is often cleared of all litter and decorated with colorful objects such as leaves, flowers, fruits, sun-bleached bones, snail shells, parrot feathers, seeds, bits of colored glass, paper, and even jewelry. Some bowerbirds incorporate living orchids into the inner walls of the bower, while others paint the inner walls with mixtures of saliva, grass, or charcoal. One species, the satin bowerbird, paints the mixture onto the walls with a brush of fibers—a rare example of a tool-using animal. This type of bowerbird also has bright blue eyes and favors blue objects. His bower is frequently decorated with blue flowers, blue leaves, and blue-tinted mushrooms. Mating may occur inside the elaborate bowers.
After fertilization, the female builds a nest at a distance and incubates and raises young there. After the young have fledged, she may bring them to the bower where the family engages in a communal display. This may be an imprinting behavior to educate the young in the intricacies of this species' display etiquette.
see also Behavior; Reproduction, Asexual and Sexual.
Stephanie A. Lanoue
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Welty, J. C., and L. Baptista. The Life of Birds, 4th ed. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1990.
Courtship is a complex set of behaviors in animals that leads to mating. Courtship behavior communicates to each of the potential mates that the other is not a threat. It also reveals information to each animal that the species , gender, and physical condition of the other are suitable for mating. Pre-mating activities are for the most part ritualistic. They consist of a series of fixed action patterns that are species-specific. Each fixed action triggers an appropriate fixed reaction by the partner, with one action stimulating the next. Courtship allows one or both sexes to select a mate from several candidates. Usually, the females do the choosing. In some species of birds , males display in a lek, a small communal area, where females select a mate from the displaying males. Males, generally, compete with each other for mates, and females pick the best quality male available. The danger of courtship is that it can attract predators instead of mates.
Several basic factors influence a female's choice of mate. First, if a female provides parental care, she chooses as competent a male as possible. For example, in birds such as the common tern, the female selects a good fish catcher. As part of courtship, the male birds display fish to the female, and may even feed them to her. This demonstrates his ability to feed the young. In addition, females tend to select males with resources such as food or shelter which help a mating pair to produce more offspring that survive. In the long-jawed longhorned beetle that lives in the Arizona desert , males battle each other for saguaro cactus fruit. The females mate in exchange for access to the fruit. A male endowed with large mandibles can defeat other males, take over the fruit, and thus attract females. Genetic fitness is another important factor in mate selection . In species that lack parental care, offspring rely for survival on qualities that they inherit from their parents. During courtship, energetic displays and striking appearance indicate good health. Vigorous, attractive parents generally pass immunities to their offspring. Attractiveness may depend on the intensity of secondary sex characteristics, which in birds, for example, include colorful plumage and long tails. Another advantage is that inherited attractive features make offspring desirable to mates.
Courtship in insects
Insect courtship is ritualistic and has evolved over time . Male balloon flies of the family Empididae spin oval balloons of silk. Then they fly in a swarm, carrying their courtship objects aloft. Females approach the swarm and select their mates. As a female pairs off with a male, she accepts his balloon. In some species of balloon flies, the male brings the female a dead insect to eat during copulation. This may prevent her from eating him. In other species, the male carries a dead insect inside a silk balloon. Apparently, in the course of evolution , the suitor's gift-giving began with "candy," then a "box of candy," and finally just the empty "box." Other courtship strategies in insects include female moths that release a scent signal (or pheromone) that males of the same species recognize. When a male detects the signal, he flies upstream to the female. In queen butterflies , courtship is complex and requires steps that must occur in the proper order. First, the female flaps her wings and draws the male's attention and pursues her. As he hovers nearby his hairpencils (brushlike organs) release a pheromone. Then the receptive female lands on a nearby plant . Next, the male brushes his hairpencils on her antennae. She responds by closing her wings. This signals the male to land on her and begin mating. In other courtship behavior, male crickets rub their forewings together and produce a pulsed courtship song. In fireflies, the male's flashing light and the female's flashing answer is another type of courtship behavior. In fireflies, both sexes respond to a specific set of intervals between flashes.
Courtship in fish
In 1973, Niko Tinbergen won a Nobel Prize for his work on animal behavior. One of the topics he studied was courting in stickleback, small freshwater fish. At breeding time, the male stickleback changes color from dull brown, to black and blue above and red underneath. At this time, he builds a tunnel-shaped nest of sand . Females swollen with unfertilized eggs cruise in schools through the male territory. The male performs his zigzag courtship dance toward and away from the female fish. Attracted to the red color on the male's belly, a female ready to lay eggs displays her swollen abdomen. The male leads her to the nest. He pokes the base of her tail with his snout, and the female lays her eggs and then swims away. The male enters the nest and fertilizes the eggs. In this manner, he may lead three or four females to his nest to lay eggs. Tinbergen showed in his studies that seeing the color red caused increased aggressiveness in males and attraction in females.
Courtship in birds
Adult birds generally return to their nesting grounds each mating season. A male claims a territory by singing a distinctive song. He then sings a song that attracts a female. Birds have different courtship rituals. Some use song, while others display colorful plumage. Woodcocks fly upward in a spiral , and birds of paradise do somersaults. Male frigatebirds—large birds with wings that spread wider than 6.6 ft (2 m)—breed in late winter on the coast of tropical islands in the western Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The male perches in a low tree or brush and his red throat pouch inflates like a balloon. Its red color attracts females hovering overhead. Then the male spreads his wings, shakes them, and makes a whinnying sound. Finally, the pair come together, mate, and build a nest.
Courtship in mammals
Mammals use various strategies in courtship. Pheromones act as sexual lures that bring members of the opposite sex together. These attractants are so powerful that a male dog can smell a female in estrus more than half a mile (1 km) away. The fact that at puberty humans begin to produce odorous sweat suggests the role of pheromones in primate courtship. Sex selection also exists in primates . Females usually choose their male partners, but sometimes the reverse occurs. Recent research reveals that male lion-tailed macaques remain aloof during the day. At night, however, they seek out sleeping estrous females for mating. Until this study, biologists thought that it was the females who initiated mating. In humans, various cultures determine the customs of courtship. For example, in some societies, marriages are arranged by relatives. In these cases, a woman is matched to a man with the appropriate resources. Just as other female animals select mates with resources, humans tend to select mates with wealth and status. Further, even if a woman has no say in the selection of her husband, she will help arrange the marriage of her offspring. This merely delays female mate choice by a generation.
See also Sexual reproduction.
Batten, Mary. Sexual Strategies. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1992.
Chinery, Michael. Partners and Parents. Crabtree Publishing, 2000.
Otte, Jean Pierre. Marjolijn De Jager, trans. The Courtship ofSea Creatures. New York: George Braziller, 2001.
Davies, Nicholas B. "Backyard Battle of the Sexes." NaturalHistory (April 1995).
Dennis, Jerry. "Mates for Life." Wildlife Conservation (May-June 1993).
Fernald, Russell D. "Cichlids in Love." Sciences (July-August 1993).
Hancock, Leah. "Whose Funny Valentine?" Natural Wildlife (February-March 1995).
Jackson, Robert. "Arachnomania." Natural History (March 1995).
Robert, Daniel, and Ronald R. Hoy. "Overhearing Cricket Love Songs." Natural History (June 1994).
Wilson, J. F., et al. "Genetic Evidence for Different Male and Female Roles During Cultural Transitions in the British Isles." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 98 (2001): 5078-5083.
Films for the Humanities and Sciences. Mating Signals. Princeton, 1994-5.
Films for the Humanities and Sciences. The Rituals ofCourtship. Princeton, 1994-5.
KEY TERMS. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
—Showy exhibition by an animal that reveals information to others.
—Communal area used by birds and insects for courtship and mate selection.
—Chemical odorant that provides communication between animals.
—Species-specific behavior pattern or ceremony used for communication between animals.
The process of finding a marriage partner increasingly became the province of young adults alone during the Revolutionary and early Republic eras. Mutual love was to be nurtured during courtship rather than spring from a union in marriage. Such changes were an important departure from colonial patterns, where elders and youth jointly negotiated courtship and couples were to cultivate warmth once wed.
In colonial America, parents and village communities exerted significant influence over the courtship process. Particularly in northern subsistence farm communities, fathers were likely to use their control of available land to sway the courtship process. Children who spurned the wishes of their parents risked losing access to the land they needed for establishing their own families. In addition, village institutions, such as the church and court, checked the sexual behavior of young adults during courtship. Fornication, sex outside of marriage, was likely to earn both young men and women fines or whippings. Such surveillance mechanisms were weaker in the South, but planter patriarchs with large property holdings certainly could exert influence over the young. Family and community did not merely check the behavior of the young; they also promoted the courtship process. At social gatherings such as corn huskings, young men and women met and began to talk. Parents and friends also acted as marriage brokers, initiating and carrying on correspondence on behalf of courting couples. Still, deep bonds between partners were expected to await matrimony.
During the late eighteenth century a number of forces conspired to tilt control of courtship increasingly towards the young. As land supplies were depleted through successive divisions, parents lost leverage, especially after the West was opened up following American independence. In addition, courts and churches decreasingly regulated the sexual behavior of youth. Young men, in particular, were no longer punished for the sin of fornication. Simultaneously, as Americans approached the Revolution they grew weary of stern patriarchs, eagerly buying books penned by the English writer Samuel Richardson (1689–1761), who denounced parents who stood in the way of love and meddled in courtship. While most courting still happened in large social gatherings, young couples were afforded more privacy. An interesting compromise developed between parents and children in the practice of bundling. Young men and women were permitted to sleep together in one bed but had to be fully clothed. In addition, social gatherings were increasingly age-specific, with groups of young men and women interacting in various settings without the presence of adults. Not surprisingly, loosened surveillance allowed more illicit sex. By the late eighteenth century, close to one in three women was already pregnant by the time she was married.
Such a departure from past patterns produced cultural backlash. In the final years of the eighteenth century and early years of the nineteenth century, American authors such as Susanna Rowson and Hannah Foster earnestly took up the theme of seduction. In novels and short stories, these writers warned young women against the danger of male suitors who might steal their chastity and dash their marriage prospects. Seduction tales became a critical cultural site where new ideas about masculinity and femininity were forged. The mobile young man appeared as a lecherous villain whose wiles innocent young women were warned to avoid. In addition, women were advised to seek parental guidance in courtship. Such stories also carried important political overtones, with women's innocence seemingly embodying the virtue upon which the early nation depended. Such literature seems to have prefigured and directed changes in courting behavior. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, parents did not reassume control of the courtship process, yet sexual experimentation among the young did become more restrained. Coitus was increasingly reserved for married life as courting couples merely engaged in intimate petting.
Sexual and social fulfillment during courtship may also have been less necessary as new options appeared in urban America in the early nineteenth century. A young man could find a brothel with greater ease so that he might pursue sex with fewer emotional commitments. Some young women saw plying this illicit trade as a way to escape overbearing parents and enjoy sexual freedom. More conventionally, young men and women alike entertained one another in parlors and gathered in dance halls and theaters to meet prospective partners. In the South, young men and women of affluence had fewer options, except when young men took advantage of slave women. Not only did young people live at greater distances from peers, but in addition, property considerations were more likely to constrict the range of eligible partners. Young elite women were marrying at considerably younger ages than their female northern peers. As they married older men, they also were likely to be entering more unequal relationships. Nevertheless, these were not to be loveless matches. Among southerners, as with northerners, young adults increasingly expected love to develop during courtship. Without it, a couple was unsuited to go forward into marriage.
courtship under slavery
Courtship among African American slaves also underwent important transitions between the mid-eighteenth century and the Age of Jackson. By the time of the American Revolution, courtship was becoming a more realistic prospect for southern slaves. While state authorities never officially sanctioned the terminus of courtship, that is, marriage, slaves managed both to court and to marry one another. When slavery first became a significant presence in the late seventeenth century, the relatively small size of plantations and imbalanced sex ratios left few opportunities for young suitors. As plantations expanded and the sex ratio evened, however, young men and women could find more potential companions. And yet courtship was always more tenuous for blacks than for whites. As they paired off, African American couples always stood in danger of losing one another through forced sales, especially as cotton boomed in the Southwest in the early nineteenth century. In addition, some masters were quite willing to enforce matches on young slaves, thereby eliminating the courtship process. Still, many masters recognized the dangers of coercion when it came to matters of the heart. Some were even willing to allow young male slaves to court women on neighboring plantations, recognizing that denying such a privilege would create too much costly struggle with their bondsmen. Nonetheless, true courting freedom for African Americans would have to wait until the end of slavery in the Civil War era.
Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974.
Hessinger, Rodney. Seduced, Abandoned, and Reborn: Visions of Youth in Bourgeois America, 1780–1850. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
Rothman, Ellen K. Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America. New York: Basic Books, 1984.
As well as ensuring that the prospective mate is of the same species, the male's courtship performance allows females to choose between different males. The later stages of courtship may involve both partners in an alternating series of displays that inhibit aggression and fear responses and ensure synchrony of sexual arousal.
court·ship / ˈkôrtˌship/ • n. a period during which a couple develop a romantic relationship, esp. with a view to marriage. ∎ behavior designed to persuade someone to marry one. ∎ the behavior of male birds and other animals aimed at attracting a mate. ∎ the process of attempting to win a person's favor or support: the country's courtship of foreign investors.
Courtship ★★★ 1987
From renowned playwright Horton Foote comes this touching story about a sheltered, upper-crust young girl who shocks her family and friends by eloping with a traveling salesman. 84m/C VHS, DVD . Hallie Foote, William Converse-Roberts, Amanda Plummer, Rochelle Oliver, Michael Higgins; D: Howard Cummings. TV