Stray Wives: Marital Conflict in Early National New England

Stray Wives: Marital Conflict in Early National New England

Stray Wives: Marital Conflict in Early National New England

Stray Wives: Marital Conflict in Early National New England

Synopsis

Whereas my husband, Enoch Darling, has at sundry times used me in so improper and cruel a manner, as to destroy my happiness and endanger my life, and whereas he has not provided for me as a husband ought, but expended his time and money unadvisedly, at taverns . . . . I hereby notify the public that I am obliged to leave him.
Phebe Darling, January 13, 1796

Hundreds of provocative notices such as this one ran in New England newspapers between 1790 and 1830. These elopement notices--advertisements paid for by husbands and occasionally wives to announce their spouses' desertions as well as the personal details of their marital conflicts--testify to the difficulties that many couples experienced, and raise questions about the nature of the marital relationship in early national New England.

Stray Wives examines marriage, family, gender, and the law through the lens of these elopement notices. In conjunction with legal treatises, court records, and prescriptive literature, Mary Beth Sievens highlights the often tenuous relationships among marriage law, marital ideals, and lived experience in the early Republic, an era of exceptional cultural and economic change.

Elopement notices allowed couples to negotiate the meaning of these changes, through contests over issues such as gender roles, consumption, economic support, and property ownership. Sievens reveals the ambiguous, often contested nature of marital law, showing that husbands' superior status and wives' dependence were fluid and negotiable, subject to the differing interpretations of legal commentators, community members, and spouses themselves.

Excerpt

On January 13, 1796, a husband and wife each placed an advertisement in the Bennington Vermont Gazette. In one advertisement, Enoch Darling announced, “Whereas Phebe Darling my wife, hath eloped from my bed and board, and refuses to return to duty I therefore forbid all persons harboring or trusting her on my account, as I will not pay any debts of her contracting after this date.” In the other notice, Phebe Darling explained her own version of the couple’s marital difficulties:

Whereas my husband, Enoch Darling, has at sundry times used me in so
improper and cruel a manner, as to destroy my happiness and endanger
my life, and whereas he has not provided for me as a husband ought, but
expended his time and money unadvisedly, at taverns, to the detriment
of myself and his family. I hereby notify the public that I am obliged to
leave him, and shall henceforth pay no debts of his contracting on any
account whatever, as heretofore I have done.

Hundreds of these elopement notices appeared in New England newspapers between 1790 and 1830, testifying to the marital difficulties that many couples experienced and raising questions about the nature of the marriage relationship in early national New England. Ordinary men and women detailed their marital expectations and experiences in elopement notices. Their advertisements demonstrate that tensions existed within the legal framework that governed marriage and between that framework and the actual relationships that husbands and wives constructed. The law granted husbands considerable authority over their dependent, subordinate wives. However, the content of desertion notices reveals that, in reality, neither husbands’ authority nor wives’ subordination was as absolute as a strict reading of the doctrine of marital unity would indicate.

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