History of Marriage and How Marriage Has Evolved

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From its beginnings as a deal made to offer economic benefit to both sides, marriage has evolved into an institution that many feel provides the foundation of our society

Beth Bailey, author of “Marriage” in The Reader’s Companion to American History, writes that over the last 300 years, marriage has evolved in our society from an arrangement of economic convenience, where the fathers of the prospective bride and groom negotiated extensively prior to the engagement. The bride’s dowry usually included household goods, clothing, and money, while the groom was expected to provide land, a house, and tools. Under this system, through the act of marriage, a woman lost her legal identity.

From the mid-1800s on, marriage was considered less an economic arrangement, and based more on love, affection, and sexual attraction. The institution of marriage reportedly enjoyed its greatest popularity during the 1950s. In fact, according to a 1957 poll, only 9 percent of Americans thought a single person could be happy. But with the advent of the women’s movement in the mid-1960s, it’s hard to imagine that all wives in the 1950s considered themselves in an ideal situation.

Dissolving a Marriage

For almost as long as marriage has been in existence, grounds for dissolving marriage have also existed. It appears the oldest justification for divorce is adultery, followed by “cruelty” and “long absence,” according to Robert L. Griswold’s “Divorce” in The Reader’s Companion to American History. Though in principle, women of colonial times had the same rights to divorce as men, few petitioned the courts. Throughout the 1700s, “intemperance” was added to the list, and in the 1800s, the definition of cruelty was expanded to include “mental cruelty.”

On these grounds, more women were granted divorces from their husbands, but the benefit stopped there. These women were not granted alimony or child support, despite the fact that most Americans at that time believed children should be raised by their mothers. As a result, while women were released from their marital contract, they found themselves in the very difficult position of raising their children on their own, with only the financial and emotional support, if any, their own families could afford.

Reasons for DivorceThe divorce rate rose steadily through the early decades of the 20th century, reaching its peak in the mid-1940s. Along with this trend was an abundance of explanations. Some psychologists of the day said those who sought divorce were “neurotic, abnormal, infantile.” Others pronounced them “immature and psychologically unstable.” Still others blamed “female selfishness,” according to Griswold.

In the late 1900s, most states embraced the concept of “no-fault” divorce. Initially, this seemed like a positive reformation of an age-old alternative to a bad marriage. But the consequence of this “progressive” idea was that many women were left with no means of support for themselves or their children. Alimony and child support were not automatic, but had to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Statistically, the economic picture for men following divorce was and remains much better than for women and their children.

Inequality in Earnings

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2007, the median income for males 15 and older was $33,196, while for women 15 and older, income was $20,922. Additionally, men 25 and older who work full-time year-round and have a Bachelor’s Degree have 2001 median annual earnings of $53,108. The comparable figure for women is $39,818.