How Southerners Changed Traditional Marriage
This is reprinted with permission from The News & Observer of Raleigh.
By Patrick W. O'Neil
In The News & Observer
One of the claims made by supporters of the amendment that will appear on North Carolina ballots is that marriage has followed an unbroken line from the beginning of time to today.
"The primary thing here," said state Sen. Dan Soucek in September, when the amendment made it onto the May 8 ballot, "is that marriage, the institution of marriage, has been a time-tested fundamental part of society throughout history."
And Mark Creech, of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, warns that the failure of "God's first institution of marriage" will ensure that "over time the country itself will fail."
These arguments make political sense. Legislators sound better defending a time-honored institution than denying a minority group its rights.
But to claim that marriage has not changed since Adam and Eve, or even since 1776, is simply untrue. Indeed, 19th century Southerners had no problem legislating against centuries of marital tradition. As voters contemplate the fate of "traditional" marriage, it's worth looking back to a time when lawmakers throughout the South fundamentally changed the nature of marriage.
A little history. For centuries, the definitive fact of marriage wasn't love, or even procreation. It was coverture. Coverture meant that a woman's independent legal existence was extinguished the moment she got married. All her possessions, her earnings, even her legal identity, passed to her husband.
Coverture made it easy for wealthy families to exchange property. But if a man went broke, his wife's dowry - the money and goods her parents gave her when she married - went to his creditors.
In the boom-and-bust 19th century, this was a serious problem. Families gave their daughters marriage gifts in hopes of ensuring their economic security; yet coverture meant that their gifts were useless in a financial crisis.
So, between 1839 and 1846, politicians in Mississippi, Maryland and Arkansas passed Married Women's Property Acts. (Northerners began passing similar acts in the 1840s, but Mississippi started the ball rolling.) These laws gave women ownership of the property they brought to marriage. The idea was to keep women's property away from their husbands' creditors in times of financial panic.
North Carolina passed its Married Women's Property Act in 1868. The timing is not coincidental: Former slaveholders were mired in bankruptcy, and the law was supposed to give struggling households some rainy-day insurance for when creditors came calling - not to mention protecting women from "scoundrels" and fortune-hunters.
In the North, Married Women's Property Acts were supported by women's rights advocates. But in the South, these acts followed the most conservative of impulses: Their authors wanted to help people who had property to keep it.
We can get some sense of their motives from the fact that the first man to introduce a Married Women's Property Act, Mississippi state Sen. T.B.J. Hadley, introduced only one other measure in 1839: a bill protecting him from creditors.
Such men little dreamed of altering one of marriage's central functions. Yet that was what they did. Married Women's Property Acts killed coverture, an essential fact of married life since the Middle Ages.
Historian Carole Shammas calls this "the most substantial change in women's legal status in 700 years." Ending coverture instantly lessened marriage's economic significance: Marrying a wealthy woman no longer guaranteed a man a healthy profit. It also diminished men's power over their wives: The more property a woman owned, the less she needed to stay with an abusive spouse. The divorce rate rose accordingly.
It may be surprising, given how passionately many North Carolinians today feel about keeping marriage the same, to see how willing their ancestors were to change it. But ending coverture was a practical solution to a very real problem, offering women and their families some much-needed economic protection.
Today, the debates are different. North Carolinians are debating not what marriage should be like for its participants, but who can participate in it at all. Still, this story helps contextualize the debate over gay marriage, reminding us that marriage has changed for numerous reasons through the years, not all of them radical.
The people who ended coverture fundamentally redefined marriage, paving the way for the relative equality of husbands and wives. But they were acting on conservative, not radical, impulses: Their primary objective was to save families from ruin, and they succeeded.
To the lawmakers of the 19th century, marriage was no sacred cow; it was an institution that they wanted to make work for society. They realized that marriage in its current state was hurting people they cared about, so they changed it. We might ask whether those who claim to defend marriage today would be willing to do the same.
Patrick W. O'Neil is an assistant professor of history at Methodist University in Fayetteville.
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