American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States

American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States

American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States

American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States

Synopsis

Most in the United States likely associate the concept of the child bride with the mores and practices of the distant past. But Nicholas L. Syrett challenges this assumption in his sweeping and sometimes shocking history of youthful marriage in America. Focusing on young women and girls--the most common underage spouses--Syrett tracks the marital history of American minors from the colonial period to the present, chronicling the debates and moral panics related to these unions.

Although the frequency of child marriages has declined since the early twentieth century, Syrett reveals that the practice was historically far more widespread in the United States than is commonly thought. It also continues to this day: current estimates indicate that 9 percent of living American women were married before turning eighteen. By examining the legal and social forces that have worked to curtail early marriage in America--including the efforts of women's rights activists, advocates for children's rights, and social workers--Syrett sheds new light on the American public's perceptions of young people marrying and the ways that individuals and communities challenged the complex legalities and cultural norms brought to the fore when underage citizens, by choice or coercion, became husband and wife.

Excerpt

When Susie King Taylor published her 1902 memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp, narrating the story of her escape from slavery and subsequent service as a nurse during the Civil War, the book made little mention of her 1862 marriage. Susie Baker, as she was then called, had been fourteen when she wed Edward King, a soldier in the unit alongside which she served on Saint Simon’s Island, Georgia, then occupied by Union forces. Taylor’s age readers must intuit for themselves by reading forward from the year of her birth, provided at the beginning of the book. And perhaps it is unsurprising that Taylor does not focus on her marriage or her age at the time of that marriage; the autobiography’s chief purpose was to highlight the service of African Americans at a time when many were celebrating memories of the Civil War and erasing the history of slavery (and of black Union soldiers). Her marriage was incidental to this story. But it is also the case that marrying at the age of fourteen was not at all uncommon for a newly freed girl like Susie Baker, or indeed for many others throughout the nation in the middle of the nineteenth century. Susie King Taylor may well have glossed over her youthful marriage because it simply was not noteworthy in 1862 or in 1902.

By contrast, when country star Loretta Lynn published her autobiography, Coalminer’s Daughter, in 1976, the story of her marriage at thirteen was one of the book’s central episodes, as it was in the narrative of her life in country music. Indeed, in Lynn’s own words, her early marriage was part of what characterized her home, Butcher Holler, Kentucky, as being in “the most backward part of the United States.” The early marriage would also feature prominently in the subsequent 1980 film, for which Sissy Spacek won an Academy Award.

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