- American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States by Nicholas L. Syrett
In 1853, thirty-five-year-old Captain Mayne Reid married. He was a worldly man: an Irish immigrant, a war veteran, and a successful author. He had met his wife, Elizabeth Hyde, two years earlier at her family home, and was instantly taken with her. Yet while the bridegroom was already well-established, his bride was only fifteen. Their age difference clearly raised some eyebrows, but as Nicholas L. Syrett argues in American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States, Mayne Reid was not seen by his contemporaries as a sexual predator, nor did Elizabeth Hyde's family prevent the union from occurring. Once they married, Mayne and Elizabeth's relationship was considered fully acceptable, both legally and socially. Though youthful marriage, in which one party was below the formal age of majority, was certainly not the norm in antebellum America, neither was it exceptional. What makes Mayne Reid stand out was his publication of an autobiographical novel, titled The Child Wife, in which he candidly described the perks of wooing and marrying a girl who, "like soft plastic wax" receives "the impress of that which it admires" (49).
Syrett's carefully researched, wide-ranging history of child marriage from the colonial period through the present situates relationships such as that of the Reids within the broader contexts of marriage, childhood, law, and culture. He takes as given that most Americans today either think of child marriage as a phenomenon of the distant past, or associate [End Page 578] it with developing countries. Youthful marriage has, admittedly, always been practiced by a minority within the United States, but Syrett convincingly demonstrates that the numbers were never insignificant, and that they remain uncomfortably high in rural areas. Furthermore, while this is undoubtedly the history of an aberrant practice, Syrett's focus on changing attitudes toward child marriage reveals the deep-seated and highly gendered assumptions about age, autonomy, and sexual activity that have shaped legal culture since the nation's founding. Most states still allow children to marry with parental consent below the age of majority, some as young as fourteen. Syrett's project is, in large part, an explanation of how child marriage has managed to persist in the United States, and why lawmakers have long been wary of interfering with the practice.
It was, unsurprisingly, in the colonial and antebellum periods that many of the legal and cultural underpinnings of youthful marriage were established. The children in question were overwhelmingly female. Although the term "child bride" did not emerge until the 1840s, early marriage "served to move girls more smoothly as dependents between different men's households," or from a father's dominion on to a husband's (17). For men, marriage naturally came later because it meant assuming the financial and legal responsibilities of household head. These cultural practices converged with an English common-law tradition that set sex-specific ages of marital consent often two to three years earlier for females than males. Additionally, for many, precise chronological age held little relevance, and "adolescence" had yet to develop as a life stage. Age at marriage was less important than it became after the advent of a distinctive youth culture in the late 1800s. Child marriage would also not be associated with sexual exploitation and pedophilia until well into the twentieth century. Instead of men preying upon girls, such marriages were viewed as a solution to what would have otherwise constituted illegitimate, extramarital sexual activity and, often, unwed pregnancy. Further, early opposition to child marriage, when it existed, had less to do with safeguarding children than it did with upholding the integrity of marriage itself or, after the emergence of the early women's rights movement, with ensuring that middle-class girls would not be sidetracked from education.
Syrett observes that child marriage did not simply decline steadily over time...