- Stray Wives: Marital Conflict in Early National New England
Enoch and Phebe Darling called each other anything but "darling" in ads appearing in the Vermont Gazette in 1796. Enoch accused Phebe of being undutiful in [End Page 779] eloping from his bed and board; Phebe justified her conduct by accusing Enoch of using her "in so improper and cruel a manner, as to destroy my happiness" (1). Their compelling, troubling story opens Stray Wives, and thus highlights the messy, well-publicized dynamics of at least some marriages in Connecticut and Vermont in the period from 1790 to 1830. In Stray Wives, Mary Beth Sievens focuses on a rich and under-used source: the ads that appeared in early American newspapers alerting readers not to extend credit to run-away wives, as well as the occasional replies (about 2.5-6% at any given time, as Sievens traces) made by wives themselves. This is a terrific source that illuminates marriage, gender, law, print culture, and community in early America. Sievens has shown considerable sensitivity and acuity, as well as diligence in the pre-digitized days, in her approach to these fascinating sources. This is an impressively lucid coverage resting on persuasive claims. The basic argument of the book will be unlikely to surprise many of its readers, but it's a believable one: "An analysis of the strategies that couples pursued and the outcomes of their conflicts demonstrates that while husbands continued to hold legal and economic power over their estranged wives, some married women were able to maneuver around their legal disabilities to construct lives that offered them a measure of independence." (p 87) The book takes as a given that the early republic was a time in which ideals of companionate marriage were novel, and it echoes much existing literature, cited throughout the book, on the delicate balance early American women struck between legal, economic, and cultural constraints and their own agency in navigating those.
The introduction of the book lays out the context for the study and provides key definitions (such as the legal definition of "elopement"). Sievens maintains that "in the early republic, a new companionate ideal highlighting affection, mutuality, and greater equality between husbands and wives was replacing more traditional, hierarchical marriage norms... At the same time, notions of a separate 'woman's sphere' elevated female influence and prestige within the home" (4). Sievens is most interested in how ordinary people made sense of marriage in this time of change, a wonderful project.
The first chapter traces the issue of "wifely submission" in a variety of legal, religious, and other contexts. It looks at prescriptive literature such as sermons and treatises to determine the ways in which submission and other marital values were discussed. Even wives seeking divorces, Sievens argues, did not claim to be seeking independence, but instead underscored their own submission, in the face of questionable treatment from husbands. They claimed that the problem lay not in their lack of obedience, but in the unreasonable treatment of their husbands, upon whom they were dependent. These strategies allowed wives in some cases to obtain divorces, or at least the sympathy of the community. The next two chapters turn to economics and credit, as well as clashes between spouses about spending in a time of a "consumer revolution." As might be expected, financial conflicts generated many marital tensions, as did concerns over women's productive labor, especially in terms of food and clothing, within marriage. There is some useful discussion here of the divergences between assumed property allocations and economic input within marriages, and the lack of legal standing [End Page 780] for some of these arrangements. There is also a comparison of the legal climate of Vermont and Connecticut; unsurprisingly, Vermont had more liberal divorce laws and alimony provisions for wives (alimony for wives in Connecticut was exceedingly rare). Sievens contends that this difference underscores "the unsettled nature of married women's economic status" (66).
In the next, most intriguing, chapter, Sievens turns attention outward...