For most of recorded human history, marriage was an arrangement designed to maximize financial stability. Elizabeth Abbott, the author of “A History of Marriage” explains that in ancient times, marriage was intended to unite various parts of a community, cementing beneficial economic relationships. “Because it was a financial arrangement, it was conceived of and operated as such. It was a contract between families. For example, let’s say I’m a printer and you make paper, we might want a marriage between our children because that will improve our businesses.” Even the honeymoon, often called the “bridal tour,” was a communal affair, with parents, siblings, and other close relatives traveling together to reinforce their new familial relationships.Can't Buy Me Love: How Romance Wrecked Traditional Marriage (Collector's Weekly)
By the Middle Ages, gender inequality was not only enshrined in social customs, but also common law. In most European countries, married women were forced to give up control over any personal wealth and property rights to their husbands...Under such laws, children were generally viewed as assets, in part because they were expected to work for the family business. “People saw their kids as pawns, literally,” says Abbott. “They might love them, but even if they did, their children had a function to further the family’s economic interests, which was thought to be good for the whole family.”
But during the 18th century, increased globalization and the first Industrial Revolution were changing the world in ways even that the most affluent parents couldn’t control. “With the development of wage labor, young people started making more decisions independently from their parents,” says Coontz. “If I were a young woman, I could then go out and earn my own dowry, instead of waiting for my parents to bestow it on me after I married someone they approved of. Or, if I was a young man, I didn’t have to wait to inherit the farm; I could move somewhere else if I wanted to. This was greatly accelerated by the rise of the Enlightenment with its greater sense of personal freedom and, of course, the French and American revolutions of the 18th century, with the idea that people are entitled to the ‘pursuit of happiness.’”
As this philosophical support for individual choice spread, more young people wanted some say regarding their future spouses. “Demands for consent from the people actually getting married were thought to be quite radical,” says Abbott. Even more radical was the idea that marriage might be entered into for emotional, rather than financial, reasons.
The Church of England’s resistance to divorce was so strong that the only route to a divorce was via an act of Parliament—a law voted through by both houses. Not surprisingly, few people had the means or inclination to expose their private unhappiness to the press, the public and 800-odd politicians. When a divorce law was finally enacted in 1857, and the “floodgates” were opened, the number of divorces in English history stood at a mere 324.The Heartbreaking History of Divorce (Smithsonian)
Only four of the 324 cases were brought by women. A husband needed to prove adultery to obtain a divorce. By contrast, a wife was required to prove adultery and some other especially aggravating circumstance to have the same grounds. Over the years, women learned that brutality, rape, desertion and financial chicanery did not count. In fact, Parliament seemed hard pressed to say what did, until Jane Addison launched her case in 1801. She won on the basis of Mr. Addison’s adultery and incest with her sister in the marital home.
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