Nicholas L. Syrett

It will come as no surprise to many that marriage itself does not make sex safe, pleasurable, or even consensual. Historians of sexuality have shown that marriage—especially in the American context, with its tradition of coverture inherited from English common law—legally granted husbands sexual access to their wives and largely protected marital sex from the prying eyes of the state. Marriage has also traditionally sanctified what could have been considered illegal or dangerous outside its bounds, what one legal historian has called “the marriage cure.” One would think, however, that the marriage of legal minors would disrupt even this marital fortress. But, as I learned in researching my new book, American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States, it really hasn’t. Minors are still able to marry in all states and many thousands do so every year. Marriage is often still seen as the “solution” to teen sex and pregnancy.

There were, however, moments in which reformers and lawmakers questioned the powers of marriage to protect the girls who entered it, one of which occurred in the early twentieth century. These reformers did not wholly abandon their faith in marriage, but they had come to realize that not all marriages were created equally. By the 1910s and ‘20s, a number of factors (the sacralization of childhood, greater sexual experimentation by teens before marriage, the rising divorce rate) combined to make reformers and lawmakers break ranks with earlier generations and question the safety of girls within marriage.

They had increasingly come to doubt “the marriage cure,” in Ariela Dubler’s memorable phrasing. Looking back at these debates is instructive because all states continue to allow at least some minors to marry. In some states, pregnancy is written into the law as an exception to a marriageable minimum age—the marriage “solving” the problem of the teenage pregnancy—and in many states, district attorneys will drop statutory rape charges if an older man agrees to marry his victim. As a number of states are debating amending the exceptions to their marriageable minimums, it is worth revisiting an earlier generation of reformers who came to understand that marriage, in and of itself, was not a magical cure-all.

Let’s begin with debates about statutory rape laws, which regulate sex outside of marriage. In 1895 Carrie Clyde Holly, a suffrage activist and one of the first women elected to the Colorado House of Representatives, sponsored an age-of-consent bill in Colorado, explaining: “the consent for marriage is not at all like the consent mentioned in this bill. Marriage protects, and does not destroy. A man seeking her [a girl or woman] in marriage needs no law to induce him to protect her, even from himself. Marriage, if not a sacrament, is not a crime.” Like other reformers of her ilk, Holly believed that marital sex was, by definition, safe for girls and women, even when they were young, because husbands served as protectors of their wives.

Many reformers like Holly were devout Christians who were used to thinking about marriage as a religious duty. This view of marriage also coincided with their firm belief that sex—for both men and women—belonged within marriage alone. While they decried the double standard that countenanced sexual experimentation by single and married men, they placed a much higher premium on women’s chastity and saw sex outside of marriage for women and girls as sinful. As many historians have demonstrated, female reformers derived their power and authority—both in and outside the family—from the morality they claimed was rooted in wife- and motherhood. With rare exceptions, this meant that purity activists’ public discussion of marriage, including its sexual component, was of necessity framed as safe and protective.

This was why the statutory rape bills, urged by purity activists and passed by states between 1885 and 1920, implicitly and sometimes explicitly exempted marital sex from their purview, even when wives might be under the age of consent to sex. New York State’s 1895 law, for instance, begins: “A person who perpetrates an act of sexual intercourse with a female, not his wife, under the age of eighteen years….”. In an era before the legal recognition of marital rape and in states that allowed girls to marry below the age of consent to sex (many of them), no legislature was about to circumscribe a man’s right to sexual access to his wife.

Today, we are used to thinking about statutory rape law as a means of protecting underage girls and boys from predatory men (or, more recently, women). Those below a certain age are presumed incapable of making the decision to have sex, and many believe that sex below the age of consent could involve physical harm. But the original statutory rape laws were rarely framed this way. Instead, following the trumped-up exposé of a supposed white slavery ring in England, reformers in the United States set about criminalizing sex with minor girls because they believed that girls who lost their virginity outside of marriage would be unable to marry and be destined for lives of prostitution. They also wanted to punish men whom they believed preyed on young girls.

The most radical of these reformers actually opposed the naming of any age at all because implicitly the law would countenance sex outside of marriage, which they believed should be illegal. The president of the Wisconsin chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Vie Campbell, explained that “We might, with greater propriety, have an age at which murder, arson, or any of the high crimes and misdemeanors could be committed, than to have an age recognized by law for this great crime.” I have identified only one state—New Hampshire—that linked the ages of consent to sex and marriage, raising both in 1887, though only to thirteen. For many of these reformers, the real issue was sex outside of marriage, not harm to pubescent and prepubescent bodies; it was the fact of having had sex that worried them, not the act of having sex.

There were a few exceptions to this rule. Some doctors and women’s rights advocates (members of the Blackwell family and Elizabeth Oakes Smith) of an earlier moment in the mid-nineteenth century did speak obliquely of the physical consequences of early marriage, but even some of them (Henry Browne Blackwell, especially) couched their remarks less in the potential harm to young wives’ bodies than in the sickly children that underage wives might produce if they married too young. Smith was the most vehement of the early marriage critics, and she skirted around the issue, condemning men who married minor girls largely because she believed they should be legally incapable of consenting to a lifelong contract. As she pointed out, hundreds of thousands of girls married every year, many of them with their parents’ consent, believing that whatever sex they had within marriage would, ipso facto, be safe because it was marital.

Fast-forward to the second and third decades of the twentieth century and at least three things had changed that made a different generation of reformers question whether marriage necessarily protected the girls who entered it. First, childhood had emerged as a protected stage of life among the middle classes. Progressive Era reformers had done much to coerce working-class people into the same belief via child labor laws, mandatory schooling, and juvenile justice programs. Youthful marriage seemed incompatible with a version of childhood that emphasized its difference from adulthood; sexual activity had become one of the dividing lines, at least in theory, between childhood and adulthood.

Second, conversations around sexuality had fundamentally shifted. According to experts, sexual fulfillment was now a cornerstone of a happy marriage. And teenage girls and boys, especially among the working classes, were increasingly experimenting with sex before marriage (and reformers were punishing them for it, especially the girls). Paradoxically, recognizing girls’ sexual agency outside of marriage led many reformers to worry about their sexual exploitation inside marriage.

Third and finally, marriage itself was in trouble. As the divorce rate increased steadily, reformers and social workers were forced to recognize that men and women did not transform themselves into idealized husbands and wives via marriage. And the impermanence of marriage was one way for a man to gain access to that which he could not gain outside its bounds: underage girls. Especially if he could divorce or desert his child bride soon after marriage, marital sex turned into exploitation.

All of this led some to question whether marriage really was in the best interests of teenage girls, whether or not they had already had sex. As reformer Jane Deeter Rippin put it in 1918 of girls who married after it was found that they had had sex, “Some [reformers] believe that marriage will settle any situation and that after marriage the child is a woman and a different factor to be dealt with. Personally I do not agree with this opinion.” Rippin and others like her were questioning just what marriage was actually capable of doing for the parties who entered it, just how transformative it really was. Judges and working-class families had long advocated marriage as the solution to premarital sex, some of which was statutory or forcible rape, as Stephen Robertson has shown, but now social workers were coming to question this solution.

In 1926, Russell Sage social worker Joanna Colcord minced no words in her evaluation of this custom: “To hear marriage being proffered to a man who has raped a young girl, as an alternative to a prison sentence, makes one feel as if this world we live in were as topsy-turvey as a madman’s dream.” Fred Hall and Mary Ellen Richmond, who also worked for Russell Sage, published Child Marriages in 1925. They noted the “physical and mental immaturity of these [married] children,” and recounted a variety of reasons that children should not be able to wed. Among them were connections to “immorality,” both the sex that girls had with their husbands and their links to exploitation, prostitution, and disorderly houses. They emphasized the abbreviated length of many of the marriages: “we were not prepared for the temporary character of this group of marriages,” some lasting as little as only a few days. This was clearly enough time for the spouses to have sex. If marriage were not a lifelong commitment, entered into by ideal husbands and wives, but it did come with the expectation of sex, then girls might suffer and their new husbands evade punishment.

These few examples are meant simply as a provocation to think about the function of marriage itself and the faith that societies place in it to transform actions that, outside of it, are seen as immoral, harmful, or shameful, but within it are moral, safe, and dignified. Looking at two earlier generations of reformers gives us a chance to see the way they grappled with marriage’s power. And the later generation, particularly, encourages us to see the ways that placing faith in marriage as social policy is particularly foolhardy.

syrettphotoNicholas L. Syrett is associate professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado and a co-chair of the Committee on LGBT History. He is a co-editor of Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present and author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities and American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States. He has also published articles on queer history in American Studies, Genders, GLQ, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, and the Pacific Historical Review.

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One Comment

  1. Hi Nicholas, thank you so much for that history – I knew very very little about child marriage in industrialised nations like the States. Marriage is special to many but should never be used as a tool to quiet women, well I guess betrothal to a woman meant that she was his ‘property’…so perhaps this way of thinking influenced this notion. Cant wait to see more of your articles 🙂

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