Recently the New York Times ran a story about how "51% of women are now living without a spouse," and copped some criticism for including 15 year olds in that total of women. Some of the criticism revolved round the mathematical confusion between ≥ and >. Around such weighty matters does our public discourse revolve! Is the inequality strict or not?
But the better—more amusing—part of the debate was witnessing the outrage that 15 year olds were counted as women. It may shock modern morals to know that back in the late nineteenth century girls could marry as young as twelve, and sometimes earlier. The common law rule was that
If a child below the legal age should marry, the marriage is not necessarily invalid, provided he or she be above the age of seven years. If the parties continue to live together after both have attained legal age, the marriage is thus ratified, but either party may disaffirm it by ceasing to live with the other before that time arrives.
(From Leila Robinson, The Law of Husband and Wife, 1890 [PDF])
Above seven years old ... Good thing the New York Times didn't include eight year olds in its definition of women, or we would never have heard the end of it! The careful reader will note how apparently easy it was for nine year olds to escape their premature marriages, they "just" had to leave their spouse. Except that provisions in the common law for child marriage were not to allow play dates to turn into wedding ceremonies, but to unite families through marriage as a largely economic transaction. So, any children so united at an early age would likely have had little volition to leave their new spouse. It was this residual provision for the elite to marry their children young that survived into the nineteenth century. But with better means for families to combine their economic interests the rationale for child marriage was lost, yet the legal grounding for it survived. Few laws are passed with an expiration date. Provisions like this can hang around on the books for years without much use, only to be rediscovered as an "outrage" to modern sensibilities that must be corrected.
But the thing is, or was ... that by the late nineteenth century few early-to-mid-teenage "women" took advantage of their freedom to marry. In 1880 a scant 0.07% of 12 year old girls were married. Even at 15 just 1.4% were married, 4.2% at 16 and then 9.3% at 17, 14.5% at 18, and 25.6% at 19. 15 year olds were not rushing to the altar in the late nineteenth century, but 19 year olds were. In other words, the upward revision in the minimum age to legally marry has not been the cause of declining early-teenage marriage. For historical comparability it's completely appropriate to include 15 year olds with other women. But I wouldn't advise any girl to get married at that age. Unless he's really rich ...Posted by eroberts at February 21, 2007 9:14 AM