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New book explores legal, historical difficulties of unmarried couples who live together

Published July 2, 2012
URBANA – Although 40 percent of children are now born to unmarried couples, law and public policy have failed to adapt to this fundamental change in American family life, said Elizabeth H. Pleck, author of Not Just Roommates: Cohabitation after the Sexual Revolution.
 “Despite growing social acceptance, couples who live together without marrying have been—and continue to be—treated as second-class citizens, subject to discriminatory laws in a culture that promotes marriage as the foundation of family life and children’s well-being,” said Pleck, a University of Illinois professor emeritus of history and human development and family studies.
Pleck has a gift for bringing social history to life, and the book is rife with the stories of persons who were targeted, shunned, and persecuted for their unconventional living arrangements.
Not Just Roommates contains enlightening news accounts and personal stories that seem incredible today, but they occurred against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement and as part of the backlash against the sexual revolution.
Many of the original laws against cohabitation were designed to keep interracial couples from living together, she said. “In the 1960s, welfare recipients were required to sign a chastity pledge indicating that they would not allow male callers into their home, and social workers conducted midnight raids to learn if there was a man living in the house so they could deduct his salary from the woman’s welfare checks.”
In that era, newspaper advertisements across the United States frequently advertised rental housing to married couples only, and even today it is not against the law to discriminate against cohabitors in housing. College students were expelled and public officials were forced to resign when their living arrangements were discovered, she said.
According to Pleck, the social issue of our time is legal marriage for gay couples—who are fighting for the right to marry as opposed to cohabitors who are seeking the right not to have to marry. Nevertheless, the gay liberation movement has been the greatest engine providing legal benefits for unmarried straight couples who are living together, she said.
 “Although gay people are organizing for themselves, they sometimes broaden their constituencies in such a way that it benefits cohabitors as well,” she noted.
 Americans have a unique way of dealing with this issue, compared with other developed countries that have moved toward figuring out what can be best be done for children given the new realities of how people are living, she said.
 “In the U.S., efforts to normalize cohabitation in law and policy have obviously encountered staunch opposition from champions of the traditional family,” she said.
One trend that has caused attitudes to shift among even the most hardened opponents of cohabitation has been a rise in this practice among the elderly. “Somehow it’s different when Grandma moves in with her gentleman friend because she doesn’t want to give up her Social Security survivor benefits,” she said.
 North Dakota lawmakers were swayed by just those sentiments when they overturned a state law against cohabitation in 2004.
 To order a copy of Not Just Roommates from University of Chicago Press, visit . Paper and e-book editions are $27.50.