Nicholas L. Syrett gives history of "child bride" marriage in the United States; also discusses Mormon examples.

Nicholas L. Syrett

Nicholas L. Syrett, American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 1–14, 71–76

University of North Carolina Press
Nicholas L. Syrett
Reading Public

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The marriage of legal children, in fact, has been relatively common throughout U.S. history. The U.S. Census Bureau did not link age with marital status till 1880, which makes national figures unavailable before that time. But in that year 11.7 percent of fifteen-to-nineteen-year-old girls were wives (the census did not specify exact age and marital status till 1910). That number dipped in 1890 and then increased incrementally through the 1920s to 12.6 percent in 1930. Youthful marriage decreased, as did the overall marriage rate, during the Great Depression. It then rose again dramatically after World War II but has been declining since the early 1960s. That said, people below the age of eighteen continue to marry to this day. A 2011 study published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that about 9 percent of contemporary American women were married before they turned eighteen. Many of those women are now older, having married in the 1950s or 1960s, but they are not women of the distant past; they live among us today. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that the probability of marrying by age eighteen in the contemporary United States is 6 percent for women and 2 percent for men.3

If early marriage has been a part of everyday life for millions of Americans, why have we have come to think about it as a bizarre exception to the rule? The answer lies within the history of childhood itself. In order to think it strange for a child to marry, we must see “childhood” as a stage of life separate from adulthood, cordoned off from adult rights and responsibilities. Although earlier Americans did recognize this, the precise line of when childhood ended and adulthood began was much fuzzier for them, emerging in something close to its current form only by the end of the nineteenth century. In part this was because both chronological age and our own ages—the numbers we call ourselves—were far less important to early Americans. Many people in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and indeed nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not know when they were born and had only vague understandings of how old they were. For many, precise ages were not an important part of their self-understanding. Marrying at younger ages in such a world would be far less noteworthy than it would be for us. But earlier Americans also reckoned age differently than we do. They did not believe, for instance, that there were particular ages at which a person should go to school (especially if there were no schools), start working, or get married. These things happened when a person was large enough or able enough or financially prepared enough, and those moments might come at different times for different people.4

For most of American history there was no distinction between the marriage of two minors or that between one party who was older (sometimes considerably so) and one who was younger. Once contracted, marriage has been, and largely remains, a one-size-fits-all institution. Culturally and socially, however, observers may react very differently to these phenomena, understanding the former as perhaps foolhardy, whereas the latter could be dangerous or exploitative. Contemporary observers may recoil when an older man marries a girl below the age of eighteen because they suspect him of pedophilia. Marriage, in this analysis, is simply a back door to that which is illegal outside of it, especially when divorce is widely available; the man can simply divorce the underage girl when he tires of her (or when she ages). These concerns are not invalid, but they were usually not shared by Americans before the twentieth century, who were far more concerned that premarital sex led to the ruin of girls who would be unable to marry and might thus be destined for lives of prostitution. Before the 1920s, most people also did not share our understanding of pedophilia, the sexual predilection of some adults for children. Because of this, most objections to the marriage of girls (or boys) would not have been framed around the issue of sex or sexual exploitation. Instead, early critics of youthful marriage worried that it robbed girls of girlhood or that it might lead to divorce. Although I never dismiss the very real imbalance in power that characterized marriages with great age disparities, in this book I also explain why earlier Americans did not necessarily see this as a problem and offer historical context for how and when Americans came to see man-girl marriage as sexually suspect.

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The word “child” has meanings aside from those in the law; the fields of medicine and psychology have contributed to these understandings in meaningful ways. When not quoting from sources (which sometimes use the word in other ways), I employ the word “child” to speak of those who have not yet reached their teens. I reserve the words “adolescent” and “teenager” for those past age twelve when I write about the twentieth century, when the words themselves were first coined and entered the vernacular (“adolescent” in the early 1900s and “teenager” in the mid-twentieth century). Before those moments I use the words “youth” or “young people” to refer to similarly aged people. At all moments I have attempted to be as specific as possible about a young person’s age. Although I frequently reference the average age of first marriage and document statistics demonstrating marriages of those in certain ranges provided by various authorities (fifteen to nineteen, for instance), at all other times this a book about those who married below the age of eighteen.21

Nauvoo and the Great Salt Lake

Many Mormon marriages also occurred at young ages for reasons similar to those of other early white settlers in the West. . . . Although many Mormon marriages began early for the same reasons that other frontier marriages did, some girls became brides at young ages because of polygamy. Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith began speaking of plural marriage as early as 1831, and it was revealed in 1843, after his death, that he had both advocated and practiced plural marriage. Historians debate the number of wives that Smith had during his lifetime (in part because some may have been “sealed” to him posthumously). Historian Todd Compton has been able to document thirty-three actual marriages, but other historians have counted as many as forty-eight. Polygamy in its early years at Nauvoo, or later in Utah, was not a matter exclusively of marrying young girls and women. Although Smith married girls as young as fourteen, he was also married to women in their forties and fifties. Historian George D. Smith has demonstrated, similarly, that the next prophet, Brigham Young, who had 55 wives, did marry six girls below the age of eighteen, but the remaining 49 wives were above eighteen. Some were in their sixties. Smith demonstrates that of the 717 wives of 196 Nauvoo men, 65 were eighteen, 77 were seventeen, 76 were sixteen, 29 were fifteen, 21 were fourteen, 3 were thirteen, and 1 was twelve. There is certainly a pattern here of marrying young girls, yet there were also large numbers of women who were well out of childhood, some quite advanced in years.46

The avowed point of plural marriage, the religious commandment dictated by God, was to increase the size of families and the number of children, thus increasing the number of Saints on earth and leading to the “fullness of salvation” (posthumous sealing accomplished the same goal for those who had died). For this reason, younger women would be preferred, though they need not be very young. Historians have argued about the role of the youth of brides in early polygamy. It is clear that Joseph Smith, for instance, married the daughters of families with whom he had become acquainted in his journeys between upstate New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Historian D. Michael Quinn argues that this was also a way for Smith to link himself with particular families; by marrying their daughters, he gained the families as allies. As Smith’s power grew, moreover, some families may have been eager to unite with him and thus encouraged their daughters to marry him.47

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The Mormon Reformation of 1855–57 produced, among other things, a 65 percent spike in polygamous marriages, many to young girls. As historian Thomas Alexander explains, “The pressure to conform prompted unprecedented numbers of men and women to apply to Brigham Young for permission to enter plural marriages as evidence of their obedience and righteousness.” The numbers were so high that Young had to turn many away. As a sign of dedication and faithfulness Wilford Woodruff himself offered Young his fourteen year-old daughter, Phebe Amelia, in marriage. Young declined. As a result of all the extra marrying the divorce rate also climbed following the Reformation, and Woodruff jokingly wrote to a fellow leader, “All are trying to pay their tithing, and nearly all are trying to get wives, until there is hardly a girl 14 years old in Utah, but what is married, or just going to be.” Joking aside, one can see how the combination of demographics and pressures toward plural marriage as a religious obligation would lead to the marriage of young girls in the territory.48

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Because of the racial and gendered demographics in colonial frontiers of the middle nineteenth century, the marriage of young girls with older men was common. Although there were clearly cases of exploitation brokered through such marriages, especially between some white men and some Indian women, in many cases the benefits were reciprocal. Especially because their own societies did not worry about the sexual exploitation of teenage girls and marriage was not allowed to occur before a girl had reached menarche, we must recognize the marriage of some young girls not as exploitation (economic or sexual) but rather as a consequence of the demography and cultural values of a wide variety of antebellum communities.

Citations in Mormonr Qnas
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