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 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 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 from the marriages to the involvement of the wider community. She traces the ways in which community involvement influenced marriage relations, both before and after ads appeared. Newspaper ads could be used to rally support or to counter accusations already leveled orally within the community. Some spouses also used ads to denounce others for their interference in marital disputes. The public nature of these personal disputes is made exceptionally clear. Chapter 5 usefully follows the outcomes of all of these cases, noting that about one-third resulted in reconciliation, another third in separation without divorce, and a final third in divorce. These different outcomes depended not only on personal proclivities, but also on property access and family and community support (especially for estranged wives). The final chapter offers fuller coverage of divorce proceedings, and those claims by wives (including desertion, intolerable severity, and adultery) most likely to win a legal divorce in courts. An afterword details the decrease in ads (and especially detailed ones) from both husbands and wives throughout this period, a shift Sievens attributes to the rise of a stronger sense of a nineteenth-century "private sphere."
Much of this picture of marital conflict is persuasive and impressive. Criticisms of this rather brief book rest more on what isn't there, than on what is. For instance, a number of connections across times and places might have deepened the analysis. These ads had been circulating in American newspapers throughout the colonial and Revolutionary period, as recent work by Kirsten D. Sword has shown. (1) Similarly, such ads also appeared in other states as well as in contemporaneous English newspapers, as scholars such as Merril D. Smith and Joanne Bailey have pointed out. (2) A fuller sense of these comparisons might have allowed for more forceful arguments about what was unique, and what typical, in these early national New England situations (though Smith, Sword, and others are cited in the footnotes). Similarly, the analysis might have been strengthened by a willingness to take on accepted historiographical narratives, since the arguments depend at times on rather glib understandings of highly vexed issues such as the rise of companionate marriage ideals and "separate spheres." There are also occasional discordant notes: "The forcefulness with which these women presented their marital disputes belies stereotypes of early American women as docile subordinates, trapped in a psychology of dependence that social custom and common law traditions of coverture reinforced" (55). Surely, scholars of the last three decades have already demolished these stereotypes. (3) Such claims do not play well with scholars, although perhaps they are useful for students. Indeed, this book, in its brevity, clarity, and inherent drama, may be of particular use in the classroom. A fine book on an important topic, it will certainly be of use to many working in this field.
Sarah M. S. Pearsall
1. Kirsten D. Sword, "Wayward Wives, Runaway Slaves and the Limits of Patriarchal Authority in Early America", (Ph.D., Harvard, 2002).
2. Merril D. Smith, Breaking the Bonds: Marital Discord in Pennsylvania, 1730-1830 (New York, 1992) and Joanne Bailey, Unquiet Lives: Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in England, 1660-1800. eds. Anthony Fletcher, et al., Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History (Cambridge, 2003).
3. Work that has contributed to the demise of such stereotypes of New England women includes: Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: 'Woman's Sphere' in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven, 1977); Mary Beth Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Boston, 1980) and her Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (New York, 1996); Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (New York, 1980); her A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York, 1990) and her The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York, 2001); Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York, 1987); Susan Juster, Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics & Evangelism in Revolutionary New England (Ithaca, New York, 1994); Cornelia Hughes Dayton, Women before the Bar: Gender, Law, & Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789 (Chapel Hill, 1995); and Alfred F. Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (New York, 2004).
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|Author:||Pearsall, Sarah M.S.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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