The Marriage Age in the 19th Century

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marriage, 19th century, gilded age, Waxwood Series, women, men

Young married couples in the 19th century knew marriage wasn’t all hearts and flowers. They were practical as well. I’m guessing this is probably an advertisement for Domestic sewing machines.

Photo Credit: Bride & Groom: Karen Arnold/PublicDomainPictures/CC0 1.0

Not long ago, I wrote this blog post about marriage advice in the Gilded Age era. Not surprisingly, age was an important factor, for both men and women, and it’s emphasized in my upcoming book, Pathfinding Women.

Today, we’re used to women (and men) marrying at any age they like. It’s significant that many women and men choose to marry at a later age. My research revealed that the average marriage age today is 35 years old for women and 38 years old for men. I can see several very good reasons for this. Both men and women are generally established in their careers and their lives by their 30’s, so choosing to marry and have a family is a commitment that can richen their lives. Many women prefer to have a career before they take on marriage and motherhood. There is also a level of emotional maturity and intelligence that comes with age that (we hope) makes relationships and child-rearing more painless and fulfilling at later time in our lives.

This is in stark contrast to the marriage age in the 19th century. The average age for women to marry was, roughly, 20 to 22, while for men, it was 26. Why were women marrying at such a young age, nearly 15 years younger than they do today? We want to remember women were not as autonomous as they are today, especially not in the first three-quarters of the century. Due to the separate spheres, many women were dependent on others for their livelihood, and marriage was the primary way they could survive when they came of age. There was also the “cult of True Womanhood” mentality where women’s destinies were to be wives and mothers, so marriage was seen as their goal in life.

Surprisingly, upper class women took the marriage age as more crucial than middle and lower class women. You would think women with social and economic privileges would be more independent than their less privileged sisters, but, in reality, family and social expectations lay heavily upon them (a theme that comes back again and again in the Waxwood Series). Women who expected to marry into high society and/or maintain their position among the blue bloods had to marry young. In her book What Would Mrs. Astor Do? author Cecelia Tichi describes actress and model Evelyn Nesbitt, whose decision to marry the rich but abusive Harry Kendall Thaw came largely from the fact that she was “now over twenty years old, a perilous age for a Gilded Age starlet harboring hopes of matrimony” (Tichi, location 3210). How much over? According to Tichi’s book, when Nesbit married Thaw, she was 21 years old.

In Pathfinding Women, the social standing of both Vivian and her mother Larissa hinge on Vivian marrying again. Vivian and her mother and, in fact, the Washington Street blue bloods that make up their social set are hyper aware of this fact:

Vivian thought with irony of the past few days. “Yes, it would certainly be peaceful for us both if I were to become Mrs. Monte Leblanc.”

“And just what you need at this particular time in your life.”

A pain shot through Vivian. “What do you mean, Mother?”

“You always accuse me of ignoring the truth,” said Larissa. “But you don’t like it when someone else shows you the truth you’ve been ignoring.”

Vivian turned up the gas lamp on the night table and observed her mother’s face illuminated by a yellow halo. “You’ve always been shrewd, haven’t you, Mother?”

“I’m trying to make you see!”

“See what? That I’m not getting any younger?” Vivian’s eyebrows arched. “That’s what you meant, isn’t it? You think I ought to grab the first man that asks me like Cousin Emma did.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as that.” Her mother’s voice was reasonable. “But twenty-six is an age where a woman can begin to expect little out of life if she’s not married.”

You make twenty-six sound like ninety-six,” said Vivian, realizing she was starting to sulk.

Vivian is considered, by the standards of the 19th century, to be well above the marriage age, though she is still young, and this puts her in an awkward position matrimonially, and one that her love interest, Monte, who is considerably older than she is, doesn’t fail to grasp and try to use to his advantage.

Pathfinding Women is the third book of the Waxwood Series and will be out on September 13. But you can grab a preorder copy now at a special price here. To find out more about the series, please go here.      

Want more fascinating information about history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Want in on exclusive sneak peaks, giveaways, and polls? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

Works Cited:

Tichi, Cecelia. What Would Mrs. Astor Do? The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age. Washington Mews Books, New York University Press, 2018. Kindle digital file.

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Marriage Advice From the Turn of the Century

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Photo Credit: Portrait of a man and woman, possibly wedding photo of husband and wife, probably from around the 1890s, photographer unknown, Wakefield 1 High Street, Ealing: whatsthatpicture/Flickr/Public Domain Mark 1.0

If you’re a fan of my work, you know I’m not a romance writer, per se. I have nothing against historical romance, and I love classic romances like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Austin’s novels, but I’m just not in that vein.

However, my upcoming book, Pathfinding Women, does have a romantic subplot. And for this, I went searching for information on marriage and love in the Gilded Age. A very interesting article on the Click Americana website cropped up in my research titled “Tips for a happy marriage: Advice for newlyweds, from the 1900s“. It’s actually a series of articles published in the early 20th century by the San Francisco Examiner, so the advice given is actual “real time” suggestions for newlyweds. 

Needless to say, the marriage advice is about what I expected. Although the first few decades of the 20th century were somewhat more progressive than the prior century, there was still a lot of Victorian baggage left from the separate spheres when it came to relationships. The passage that interested me (there are a few included in the article) was written in 1901, just at the beginning of the new century. The advice begins with the obvious: “‘First select a MAN’” (Wheeler Wilcox, par 2). At first glance, this might seem like a “well, DUH” kind of thing. But I think it’s interesting to note Wheeler Wilcox uses the word “select”. Sadly, many women in the 19th century didn’t really chose a marriage partner — their circumstances often made marriage imperative, and they sometimes had to go with whatever was available. But the Gilded Age was the era of the New Woman, so women had choices, even in marriage partners. 

Also interestingly, Wheeler Wilcox was no fool when it came to the personality of the Gilded Age man. She warns women, “[o]f course, he will be more or less selfish. That is the way parents rear their sons to be” (par 3). Her solution to this problem is for the wife to show patience and tolerance, and teach him to be a considerate, kind human being by modeling that behavior.

Some of the advice is actually quite sound, though. For example, Wheeler Wilcox suggests that, when a husband chides a wife about one of her faults, she ought to remind him he has faults as well and enter into an agreement with him so that they can both work on themselves (“‘Let us enter into a Mutual Improvement Society. I want to be everything you admire — you want to be everything I admire. I will try and do my part and you must do yours’” (Wheeler Wilcox, par 6)). There is the assumption here that men and women are equal partners in a marriage and therefore, must compromise and work together to make the marriage a happy one. This wasn’t exactly the attitude the Victorians had toward marriage (as you’ll see later).

Unfortunately, Wheeler Wilcox’s advice sort of goes downhill from there. Wives are told to be prepared to make sacrifices, stroke the husband’s ego, and please him as much as she can. She should create a happy, harmonious home, always having the house clean and looking her best. Wheeler Wilcox even suggests bad behavior (including alcoholism and adultery) should be accepted as a given for some men:

“Of course, we must make allowances for the occasional lawless and drunken mariner who sends his ship on the rocks and the worthless husband who does not appreciate life’s best gifts. There are men whom no woman on God’s earth could keep loyal or honest; but they are exceptions” (par 15)

Nevertheless, the attitude toward marriage and especially a woman’s role in it has clearly shifted from the Victorian period. Although the woman is still expected to play her role as the angel in the house, she is also advised to voice her displeasures in the marriage and expect more of her husband in terms of love, affection, and respect. Such, sadly, was less the case a century before. In another article by Click Americana, we get a taste of pre-Civil War marriage advice. There is no assumption that the woman is equal to the man in marriage. She is the subservient and should always remain so, abiding by her husband’s law in the home, never contradicting him (heaven forbid!), and centering her world around him.

In Pathfinding Women, Vivian is in a thankfully more progressive state of mind than that. Though she’s not quite a New Woman, she has her own ideas about what she wants in marriage, some of which she expresses in a scene with Monte Leblanc, the love interest in the book, and in the company of a Miss Sowberry, who is quite young but has been taught all the virtues of Victorian womanhood by a rather domineering mother:

“There are times when women are a burden to men.” Vivian cast her eyes across a table with the silver-gilled carp. “Just as sometimes men are a burden to women.”

“You have modern opinions about marriage, then?” [Mr. Leblanc] asked.

“Some,” Vivian admitted. “I believe, like Mrs. [Lucy] Stone, that women should keep their maiden names after marriage, if they wish. That’s one reason why I went back to being Miss Alderdice when my husband died.”

“A girl ought to make a home for her husband, wherever it is,” said Miss Sowberry but she sounded as if her opinion were being dictated by someone else.

To read more about Pathfinding Women, which will be out on September 13, check out this webpage. And to learn more about the series, you can go here.     

Want more fascinating information about history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

Works Cited:

Wheeler Wilcox, Ella. “Love, sense, & patience: The 3 most important things for a happy marriage (1901).” From “Tips for a happy marriage: Advice for newlyweds, from the 1900s.” Click Americana. Synchronista, LLC, 2011-2020. Web. 29 July 2020.

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Classic Corner: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905)

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Photo Credit: Book cover for the Dover Thrift Edition of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, 2002, uploaded 6 July 2008 by Wolf Gang: Wolf Gang/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

~~~Classic Corner is a new blog post series where I talk about classic literature that I’ve read.~~~

I’m happy to announce I have a new blog series. Every now and then, I’ll be posting about a classic book I’ve read. I read a lot of classic fiction and, unlike contemporary fiction, it takes a different mindset to enjoy classic books (which will be the subject of a future blog post). I try to bring out a little of why I enjoy classic literature so much in these blog posts, and I hope readers who might be a little wary of those “old books” will see we can enjoy these books as much as readers did at the time they were published.

When I thought about how I wanted to start this series, there was no question in my mind — I had to begin with Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Wharton is one of my favorite authors, both because I love Gilded Age and Progressive Era literature, and because she is one of the godmothers of psychological fiction. Not only that, Wharton had a reputation for having been sympathetic to women’s plight and the limitations women endured in these eras, making her an early feminist writer.

The first time I read the book, I adored it. I loved the protagonist Lily Bart and saw her as a feminist character in the way she wouldn’t settle for any man, defying the Victorian ideal of the separate spheres. I also loved the descriptions of the elegant world Wharton knew, the New York elite at the turn of the century. Wharton’s novel was one of the first classic stories I read after I rejected potboiler romances in my teen years. I credit the book for beginning my love affair with classic literature.

The second time I read this book was years later while in graduate school. While my passion for the book hadn’t cooled (I still find it a page-turner), my affection for Lily Bart was a different story. By that time, I had studied quite a lot of women’s fiction and women’s history. I recognized Lily Bart as not the feminist heroine I had envisioned her the first time. I saw her as rather vain and selfish, the Victorian version of the entitlement generation. I had little patience for the ease with which she criticizes others and the snobbish airs she takes of the well-to-do New York society in which she circulates but, in terms of money and position, doesn’t really belong (the old saying, “beggars can’t be choosers” comes to mind). I was especially affected by the way she constantly puts down the one real friend she has, a working class reformer named Gerty Farish. In Lily’s eyes, Gerty is shabby, poor, and sanctimonious because she doesn’t live on Fifth Avenue, doesn’t attend afternoon teas, and works hard to help young women worse off than herself.

Photo Credit: Illustration from The House of Mirth, 1905 by A. B. Wenzell. From a scene where Lily Bart is leaving Lawrence Selden’s apartment house and passes by a woman cleaning the stairs. Note Bart’s haughty pose, as if to say “How dare this lowlife get in my way of passing on the stairs?”: Sherurcij/Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923 

My third reading of the book happened a few years ago. By then, I was a published author and working on my own Gilded Age novels depicting the upper class (though mine takes place in the West Coast rather than the East Coast). I can’t say I’ve changed my views much about what kind of character Lily Bart is. I still see her, for the most part, as self-centered and shallow, though not without other redeeming qualities (like her feminine charm and self-awareness). However, since experiencing my own characters caught up in the power of wealth and social status that identified the Gilded Age in America, I realized I had been making what is probably the biggest mistake readers make when approaching classic literature: I was reading the book from the point of view of my own time and not from the perspective of the time in which it was written. Armed with some background on the era, I now understand why she behaves the way she does, what motivates her socially and psychologically. 

Wharton was anxious to show the waste “old moneyed” New York put upon young women like Bart in order to be accepted into that society. Bart is a product not just of her time but of her social and psychological circumstances. She does what young women who wanted to belong to the exclusive circle of New York high society had to do. Beautiful, young women in Gilded Age New York were taught that their only asset was their looks and their willingness to comply and they had better make the most of these qualities while they could by snagging a rich husband. So Bart’s obsession with finding a rich husband may seem artificial by contemporary standards, but she was taught nothing else by her mother and the society in which she aspired to belong.

My interest in The House of Mirth isn’t just as a reader but also as a writer. In my upcoming book, Pathfinding Women, which is Book 3 of my Waxwood Series, the subject of marriage is very much on the minds of both Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series, and her mother, Larissa. Vivian doesn’t have the problem that Lily Bart has (no money). Her problem is more one of age. In this book, Vivian is twenty-six, and in Gilded Age high society, any young woman who wasn’t married by the age of twenty had a problem. There are also other, more personal reasons why both Vivian and Larissa are anxious to see her married.

Want to know more about this upcoming book? You can read about Pathfinding Women, which will be out in August 2020, here. If you’d like more information about the series, take a look at this page.

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Women Progressives in the Late 19th Century

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Photo Credit: Children gathered in Hull House for kindergarten, 1902, Allen B. Pond, James Addams Hull House Museum: JethroBT/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Last year, I wrote this blog post about the Progressive Era. But progressive reforms didn’t just begin the 20th century. The Gilded Age laid the groundwork in the last quarter of the 19th century, and especially its last decade when its dazzle of its excessiveness, idleness, and glitter were beginning to wear off, and Americans were becoming more aware of the political wrongs in the country that needed to be made right.

Women, mainly from the upper class social stratum (that is, wealthy and middle-class women) put themselves front and center as reformers during this time for several reasons. They took up issues they felt were of particular concern to, and in the domain of, women, such as sanitation, health and safety, and child labor. They saw reform as more about social problems than political problems (so they were not necessary suffragists, though the suffragists were certainly concerned about these issues as well). These women were social reformers who preferred to work within the woman’s sphere — that is, unlike the suffragists, who could rub the public the wrong way with their demand for a voice in public arenas such as politics, business, and law, women progressives preferred to work in areas that were more private. 

A myriad of social changes were happening in America during the last decade of the 19th century. One of them was the economic criss brought on by the Panic of 1893. In the wake of this panic, slums in big cities like New York and Chicago grew, as well as the population of the poor elsewhere in America. Added to this, immigration increased during this time (with the opening of Ellis Island), and conflicts between laborers and employers signaled a growing concern for the rights and conditions of working women and children.

Much of this social reform took place in the settlement houses largely run by middle-class women that offered a host of services for poor and working class people in urban communities. Probably the most famous of these was Hull House in Chicago, run by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. But there were others all over the country.

Photo Credit: Telegraph Hill from Sacramento and Powell Streets, 1858-1900, Thomas Houseworth & Co., Publishers: New York Public Library/Public Domain

Since I deal with San Francisco and the Bay Area in my books, I went seeking information about settlement houses in the city in the late 19th century and found that the first one that operated was very similar to Hull House. Located on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill (one of the most picturesque areas of the city), the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center opened its doors in 1890 in response to the area’s growing immigrant population and its neighborhood children being pulled out of school and play for work, Elizabeth Ashe and Alice Griffith, like Addams and Gates, were educated New Women who responded to the growing needs of the neighborhood after they got to know some of its children through their teaching of Sunday school. Like Hull House, their objective was to offer residents a myriad of social improvements, from education to physical activity. The center offered classes for children and adults and also a library, as well as a playground and gymnasium, encouraging nurture of the mind and body, as well as the soul.

In Book 3 of the Waxwood Series, women progressives make an appearance in two ways. First, there is a group called the Bay Area Women’s Social and Political Rights League made up primarily of wealthy women to which Vivian Alderdice, the main character of the series, was introduced in Book 2 by one of the Washington Street blue bloods, Marvina Moore. Vivian also meets some New Women in the book through Annette Grace, a Waxwood native who owns a pharmacy/drug store in town. Though from different classes, both these groups are concerned with women laborers and their situation in the late 19th century, and both are looking to implement social changes as the nation moves into a new century.

Book 3 of the series, Pathfinding Women, will be out this summer, and you can find out more about it here. And to find out more about the series, go here.      

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Feminist Consciousness-Raising in the 1960s and 1970s

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Photo Credit: Image of civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama with quote “Remember that consciousness is power”, uploaded 18 October 2016 by dignidadrebelde: dignidadrebelde/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

When we think of the 1960s and 1970s, some of the images that come to mind might be tie-dye t-shirts, LSD, civil rights, and The Brady Bunch. Second-wave feminism is also high on the list (like the one of feminists burning their bras which, incidentally, never happened). And additional cliche associated with this movement is the feminist consciousness-raising group.

Consciousness raising (or C-R) is closely linked to the argument “the personal is political”. It was a way for women to connect to one another and to the issues they were facing in the mid-20th century. These groups created a safe space for women to discuss problems that were personal to them, many of them for the very first time. Bear in mind that in the previous era, the Occupation “Housewife” era of the 1950s, women were supposed to have been happy just being housewife and mothers, living in the suburbs, having enough money for luxuries, and focus on serving those around them — they were not supposed to be gathering to talk about what frustrated, angered, and annoyed them. They were not supposed to talk about taboo subjects like sexual satisfaction, abortion, rape, and infertility. But a decade and two decades later, the women’s movement was encouraging them to do just that, and in doing so, pointed toward a bigger picture of oppression for women on a political, social and psychological scale that was much greater than they realized (and, in the 1980s and 1990s, the third-wave feminist movement would realize even greater issues by going global). 

As British feminist Jalna Hamner points out in a short interview here, the C-R groups were really the crux of the women’s movement. In fact, if a woman wanted to be involved in the movement, it was imperative that she be a part of one of these groups. In addition, many groups required that all women speak for a reason. Many women felt isolated and confused about how they felt and what was troubling them, and it was only hearing other women speak of the same problems that they realized their issues were valid and, in fact, stemmed from a much larger framework of oppression. Once women were aware, they could then work toward solutions to these problems.

There was backlash against these groups as well. Hamner mentions the idea of exposing her personal problems to a group of women did not appeal to her, and this was true for some women who preferred their private world remain private. Others pointed out that talking about personal problems was not going to make any political headway. One way of thinking about it is by using the analogy of psychology. I remember when I was in a master’s program at an alternative school in California where the approach to therapy was psychoanalysis (think: Freud), or, “talk therapy”. At the time (the early 2000s), CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) was huge and many CBT psychologists jeered at psychoanalysis because of the same reason people criticized the C-R groups: It was talking, not taking action. A great illustration of this is a scene from the 1975 dark comedy The Stepford Wives. Joanna (Katharine Ross) is anxious to get a C-R group started among the suburban housewives of her new community. But when she arranges for a meeting, the results are hardly what she expects because these women are so embedded in the feminine mystique that their “consciousness raising” turns out the exact opposite of what second-wave feminists would have wished!

The protagonists of the stories in my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life are sort of in between the Stepford wives and the consciousness-raised feminists. They are on the apex of discovering the lives that were supposed to be perfect and fulfilling for them aren’t and are looking toward the future when the women’s movement and C-R groups could free them from the loneliness of having to deal with their issues by themselves. The stories begin with women caught in the net of the feminine mystique and end with their own revelations about where they want to go with their lives and who they want to be. While the stories take place before second-wave feminism got off the ground, they are already looking toward a brighter horizon and a way to consolidate their “something isn’t quite right” feelings.       

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