June has arrived and with it the promise of more weddings as today’s couples decide to commit themselves to the semi-permanence of marriage. Not as many Americans are getting married as they did fifty years ago. In 1950, only 22% of
Americans had never been married now the percentage has just past the halfway mark—50.3%. The reason for this change has often been discussed by social scientists and the media. Women now are better educated than ever before and more of them can earn a living without a husband, but this doesn’t seem to be the reason for the decline. College educated people are more likely than high school graduates, or high school dropouts, to get married. Marriages aren’t only about economics.
Does anyone remember the idea that people ought to be married before they become sexually active? Very few young people adhere to that idea now. The idea of being a virgin upon marriage has died away. According to an article in Atlantic Magazine, cohabitation has increased 900% during the last fifty years. It is now the norm for most couples to live together for a period of time before they marry. Perhaps that’s the reason why weddings have become increasingly elaborate and expensive in recent years. If a wedding does not signal a change in lifestyle, it has to become an event in itself to mark a legal change of status.
One curious thing is that even back in the days when marriage was almost the only source of economic security as well as sexual and romantic love available, some women rejected the very idea of marriage. It’s easy to forget how one-sided the rights of marriage used to be. The Founding Fathers who wrote the United States Constitution wanted to give freedom and power to citizens, but only to male citizens. Women who married in the early 19th century gave up rights to their property, their earnings, their inheritances, and their children. A husband became the head of the family and he was legally entitled to make all the decisions about where the family should live, how they spent their money, and what should happen to their children. Of course, many women were able to actually make the decisions, but they could do that only as long as they could persuade their husbands to do as they wished. It didn’t take long for women to decide they wanted some legal rights to back up their powers of persuasion. One of the foremost fighters for this freedom was Lucy Stone, although today she is almost forgotten.
Born in 1818 in Massachusetts, Lucy Stone spent most of her life as a crusader for freedom. Her life was a series of firsts. She became the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree and she did it at Oberlin, the first college to
admit both women and men. She fought for the abolition of slavery and became a public speaker at a time when women were seldom allowed to speak in public. She also crusaded for the rights of women, especially their freedom to vote.
Because of the inequalities of the rights of husbands and wives, Stone was opposed to marriage, but when she met Henry Blackwell, he persuaded her that the two of them could devise and live as equals. When they were married in 1855, they read a protest against marriage during the ceremony—a protest that was later published in newspapers across the country.
We protest especially against the laws which give the husband:
- The custody of the wife’s person.
- The exclusive control and guardianship of their children.
- The sole ownership of her personal and use of her real estate, unless previously settled upon her or placed in the hands of trustees, as in the case of minors, idiots, and lunatics.
- The absolute right to the product of her industry.
- Also against laws which give to the widower so much larger and more permanent interest in the property of the deceased wife than they give to the widow in that of the deceased husband.
- Finally, against the whole system by which the legal existence of the wife is suspended during marriage, so that, in most States, she neither has a legal part in the choice of her residence, nor can she make a will, nor sue or be sued in her own name, nor inherit property.
The most startling decision of their marriage was for Lucy Stone to keep her own name rather than becoming Mrs. Henry Blackwell. She was praised by a few, but denounced by many for this decision In the years since, her choice has become far more acceptable to many women. Despite the unconventionality of their marriage, the two of them succeeded in building a life together. Their daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell, worked with them for many years and wrote the first biography of her mother.
Now that brides and grooms have so many more choices in in how their married life will function, it is a shame that Lucy Stone has been forgotten. Without the work that she and other leaders of the suffrage movement did, women planning their weddings this year might be giving up far more than they are. If you want to learn more about Stone and her work, I recommend a thoughtful new biography, Lucy Stone: A Life by Sally G. McMillen. Perhaps that’s a book you should think of when you are choosing a wedding present for young couples.