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  • Stray Wives: Marital Conflict in Early National New England
  • Lucia McMahon (bio)
Stray Wives: Marital Conflict in Early National New England By Mary Beth Sievens. (New York: New York University Press, 2005. Pp. 184. Cloth, $42.00.)

Stray Wives examines the hundreds of elopement notices that were published in New England newspapers between 1790 and 1830. Mary Beth [End Page 188] Sievens's analysis of these documents provides fascinating insight on how early national men and women negotiated marital difficulties. Sievens carefully situates her study of marital conflict within legal, economic, and cultural transitions that emerged in the early Republic. Stray Wives focuses on Connecticut and Vermont, two New England states that had relatively similar and "fairly lenient" divorce statutes by late eighteenth-century standards (8). Yet only a fraction of New England couples chose divorce as a permanent solution to their marital problems. Between 1790 and 1830, the Vermont and Connecticut state courts heard 148 and 251 divorce petitions, respectively, yet during these same years, many hundreds of elopement notices were printed (317 and 461 in two sample counties). Sievens's sampling of these desertion notices indicates that only one-third of the couples who published notices actually went on to divorce. Instead, couples employed a variety of strategies to deal with marital problems. Printed elopement notices served as one strategy or one part of the negotiation process, typically on the part of men, to try and convince their spouses to return to unhappy or unsatisfying marriages.

One of the most notable characteristics of these elopement petitions is that the vast majority were published by men. Sievens notes that no more than 4 percent of the petitions were written by women, and most of these were submitted as responses to their husbands' petitions. Only in a dozen or so instances did a woman initiate a petition—that is, a petition that was not a direct response to one previously submitted by her husband. Sievens interprets this overwhelming gender disproportion as evidence of a husband's position of power and privilege in marriage. In essence, the petitions allowed men to punish wives for their transgressions, to withhold economic support as a consequence of desertion. Typically, women did not enjoy this same type of economic leverage over their husbands, and thus their use of petitions served mainly to defend their reputations and honor against their husbands' charges. Familial, social, and community ties, rather than published desertion notices, were the more common strategies employed by women who sought to justify their desertions.

Sievens argues that men used their elopement notices as "patriarchal tools that emphasized married women's economic dependence" (3). While she interprets these notices as male efforts to assert power and control in marriages, one could also read these petitions as evidence of a crisis in patriarchical authority. These petitions contained the published, [End Page 189] admitted complaints of early national men who could not coerce their wives to perform household chores; men who could not curb their wives' consumer spending habits; men who could not even stop their wives from deserting them. One wonders how their Puritan forefathers would have reacted to these numerous and dramatic failures of male household authority. While early national men certainly continued to hold legal and economic advantages in marriage, increasingly such privileged positions were no guarantee that husbands could count on obedient, submissive wives.

Culturally and emotionally, the dominant position of the male patriarch was under attack. The ideal of companionate marriage recast marriage as an egalitarian, affectionate union between equal partners. This new emotional standard softened the notion of patriarchy in marriage, stressing companionship and cooperation, rather than uncontested male authority and control. Wives were still expected to defer to their husbands' authority; but they also expected to exert a great deal of shared decision making, influence, and status within their marriages. Inevitably, tensions emerged between the new ideal of companionate marriage and older patriarchal ideas. Ultimately, Sievens interprets marital tensions primarily through an economic, rather than emotional, lens. Women, she argues, wanted to be viewed as more equal economic partners in their marriages. Wives wanted to have their contributions to the household economy recognized in ways that, as Jeanne...


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