How Did People in the 19th Century Perceive Younger Wives?

Joseph SmithIn yesterday’s discussion on Meg’s first post I started to write a comment that (as sometimes happens) became a tangent that then became a whole post.

I’m not even sure what comment originally prompted this. But I was thinking about Joseph Smith’s younger wives, particularly Helen Mar Kimball. Meg and I also got talking and she pointed to Nancy Winchester as being about the same age when they ‘married’ Joseph Smith.

The evidence is currently against either having consummated their marriages to Joseph. In the case of Helen Mar Kimball she actually tells us in her own writing what she didn’t like about being married to Joseph and her top complaint was that she didn’t get to go dancing. And for Nancy Winchester we have a direct account from Heber C. Kimball stating that the marriage was not consummated. As with all things in history, if you want to see Joseph Smith in as bad a light as possible, certainly you can come up with reasons to interpret what’s in the historical record how you see fit. But its safe to say that there is no reason at this time to favor the view that the marriages were consummated.

In any case, that got me thinking about a question that I find far more interesting. How did our 19th century counterparts — both in and out of the Church — view age of marriage differently from us? And at what age (or circumstance) would they have seen a marriage of an older man to a teenaged girl as morally acceptable?

During my own studies into polygamy, I had noted that the women we know Emma approved Joseph to marry were, from our point of view today, girls. Emma was hardly a roaring fan of polygamy, yet to her these girls were marriageable women. I also noticed that there are several stories in the historical record of these teenaged wives being asked if they wanted to marry Joseph or not precisely because family members perceived them as capable of making such a decision on their own, whereas today we do not perceive a girl of that age as capable of making such a decision.

Interestingly we are inconsistent on this point today. I was reading a news article about a law that was changed (in a court, of course) to allow more “women” to receive abortions. The various feminist organizations talked about how this was a great victory for “women” everywhere. They used “women” over and over all through the article and about how these women were getting the access to abortions they needed and how terrible it was that previously some “women” were bared from abortions until the courts changed this law. But then I realized that the law change was to allow girls under 17 to receive abortions without parental permission.

Without starting any sort of argument over that specific issue, I did find it interesting that this was clearly a case where these organizations did see these “girls” as “women” and “capable of making their own decisions” including when to start having sex and when to get an abortion. And the news media picking it up had no problem not challenging their classification as “women” instead of “girls” so it wasn’t just the feminist organizations that saw these teenage girls as capable of making their own sexual decisions.

Further, we seem to be increasingly unsqueamish over teen girls having sex so long as the man is merely close to her age, even if the man is not a minor. (Or vice versa as well.) For example, some states do not consider it illegal for a man aged 18 or 19 to have sex with a girl aged 17. He was probably sexual active with her last year when both were in high school anyhow. How much sense does it make to decide that now that he’s had a birthday it’s illegal?

In fact, if our 19th century counterparts knew that we moderns considered a girl aged 17 years and 364 days incapable of choosing to have sex with or marry a 23-year-old man, but that we thought she was fully capable of making that decision the next day, I suspect they’d question our sanity.

In any case, we think teen girls are capable of making such sexual decisions — even with someone who is not a minor — so long as it doesn’t violate our cultural norms about what age is appropriate for that girl to be having sex with.

And maybe that isn’t so surprising given that there is a long evolutionary history for why nature matures teens for sex at those ages and with girls maturing sooner. Throughout the history of the world nature intended sexual activity to begin around that age. It’s really the existence of a modern world where extended education is such a necessity (an artificial circumstance) that makes this a particularly bad idea today. (i.e. Specifically for teens to marry, since we now expect them to become sexual active at that age.)

So maybe were not really as different from our 19th century counterparts as we first think we are and maybe the differences are far more cultural and pragmatic rather than the absolute moral fact we act like it is. Thanks to the taboo-based nature of our biological morality, it’s hard for us to really step outside our specific cultural context and try to see a different context from another time.

Based on my own readings of history, I think I’ve come to a tentative conclusion about how 19th century people looked at teen marriages to older men. It was not common, to be sure by the 19th century. I think there is enough evidence that it didn’t happen regularly and that sometimes (but not always) it was treated somewhat scandalous. But it never gets treated as actually immoral of a punishable offense.

If I might make an analogy, I think the marriage of a 19th century teenage girl to an older man was perceived the same way we view an 18-year old girl getting married to an older man today. We think it a bit weird or maybe even a bit scandalous, but we also accept that it’s her choice.

And maybe even this analogy isn’t quite right because if you look at a 19th Century story like Under the Greenwood Tree it’s hard for us to relate to the actual tension intended in the story because it just obvious to us that Fancy should marry her hunky but poor romantic suitor rather than the older but affluent vicar. But the story really suggests that the audience was supposed to consider it a closer race then we moderns see it as. I’m not sure this story could even be written in a modern setting without Fancy seeming like a gold-digger for even considering it.

Bolstering my view that a teen marriage at the time was more like how we view an 18-year old marriage today is that while such marriages were not common, they were common enough that you trip over them regularly in genealogy or any study of history. I can pretty much guarantee that even all non-Mormons have ancestors where the girl was 13 or 14 years old when she first married. If you are alive today, it probably happened in your family within the last couple of centuries. Maybe more than once.

Even in a history like Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness — where he is specifically militating against polygamy because it causes things like teen marriages — he’s forced to throw in examples of monogamous teen marriages because you can’t cover that much history without a few just showing up. (See, for example, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 372 with the marriage of Adaline and Gilbert Belnap.)

I am not suggesting that it wouldn’t have been better for teen marriages to not take place. Based on our science today I think we know that a teen girl, despite looking physically mature by a certain age, isn’t really physically mature. And, as I mentioned, we have special reason today to be against teen marriages due to our more advance public schooling system and today’s necessity for an education. A teen girl who gets pregnant and can’t continue her education is barring herself from getting out of poverty in many cases.

But our 19th century counterparts didn’t have our science or education system. So I would not expect them to see the world through our eyes.

21 thoughts on “How Did People in the 19th Century Perceive Younger Wives?

  1. Bruce N, in considering this issue, we can go to romantic literature of the 19th century, which is literally filled with older men marrying teenaged girls. You might even call this the ideal. (I hasten to add I do NOT think this is the ideal for the 21st century, and I hope my own teenaged daughters wait until their 20s to marry). It seems clear from reading the literature that an older man would have the money to maintain a household and to be a proper gentleman, whereas younger men are often portrayed as selfish, uneducated and inexperienced. (Check out “Sense and Sensibility” for one example, but there are literally thousands more).

    So, it is clear the culture of Joseph Smith’s time was very different than ours, and you are correct to point it out.

  2. Geoff, now you’ve got my mind whirring in a new tangent. If we lined up famous examples of 19th century romantic literature, what would be the normal age for a romantic fictional heroine to get married? (16 year old Marianna) And also what are the age spreads? (20 year old Emma and 37 year old Knightley)

    And also, does the age differ between countries? (US vs. Britain.)

    From my own readings in history, I am pretty convinced a 16 year old — while maybe not common – wasn’t much of a scandal. Probably even 15 wasn’t much of scandal. I gather that before 15 you start to get increasingly scandalous (though not truly considered immoral) and I’ve come across few if any stories of marriages 12 or younger.

    This is, of course, just a heuretic based on what I happen to have read. So I’m curious how it was perceived.

    I should also point out that I’m less interested in what the actual average age was. Todd Compton goes out of his way to focus on that because it supports his chosen thesis, but that tells us nothing about how an age is perceived. Romantic literature tells us precisely how marriage at that age is perceived, so even though it’s non-represenative of real life, I’m sure, it speaks volumes about the perceptions held by the people at the time.

    Again, this is all about perceptions at the time. Not about whether or not it’s a good idea.

  3. I can think of no literary examples of 12 or 13-year-olds getting married in the 19th century, although of course there is Romeo and Juliet, which was written long before that.

  4. Well, obviously if you go back far enough it gets increasingly common to pretty much not care what the age is so long as the girl can produce children. Steven Pinker pointed to studies that showed that tribal men has specific preferences for girls just past puberty.

    But then the suprising thing is that when they then took pictures of the tribal women to men in modern societies, they also perceived the exact same girls as being the most attractive. He suggests that the reason men in modern societies do not prefer teenage girls any more actually has a lot to do with modern health and cosmetic practices that cause women into their 40s to have all the hallmarks of fertility that in a non-technological society would only be available to teenaged girls. It’s not the age men are specifically wired for, it’s the features that come naturally at the age but can be produced in other ways once you know how.

    But that does mean that pretty much the whole human race prior to a certain level of technology would have had pretty much no issue with teenage marriages from about a hundred thousand years ago (or sooner if you want to go back further into our animal pasts) until a century or two ago. And the reason why is because that’s what nature intended.

    Yet somehow, it doesn’t really make me feel all that more comfortable with teen marriages today.

  5. Where did Steven Pinker write that? I’d be curious to read more of his ideas. I think men are attracted to the confidence and experience of older women. Young girls in today’s society are can hardly keep up with their MILF moms who’ve been reading Cosmo for 20 years. They are awkward and sexually unaware compared to the modern 25-45 year old woman. Virginity and innocence is a turn-on some cultures, but I don’t think it is particularly in our modern culture.

  6. Wife is 53. Her maternal grandmother married at 13 or 14, had child a year or so later, went on to have 7 kids. Wife’s mother married at 16 and 3/4’s, had first child at 19, went on to have total of 5 kids. (Both weren’t members of the church, either.) I thought I read some statistics on all of this that contradicted the notion that girls married at younger ages back in those days, but I’m not convinced. Too many stories in literature and family history that say it was somewhat common. A lot of women on my own mother’s side seemed to be into older men (8 – 12 year age difference somewhat common), though the women weren’t usually in their teens when they married. Nate – I am somewhat embarassed to acknowledge I know what MILF means.

  7. Nate, I’ve listened to several of Pinker’s books recently, but I believe I heard this on “How the Mind Works.”

    Please also note that the opinion he expresses (that I’m summarizing) is not mutually exclusive from what you express. Modern men are not more interested in younger girls for the most part.

    IDIAT, Todd Compton did research and found that in the area the Church grew up in younger teen marriages were not common. Another guys — can’t remember name — did research for other areas and found a different result.

    But keep in mind that — again — this is not mutually exclusive from your view. For a marriage to not be “common” is not the same for it to be “non-existent” or “scandalous” or “immoral.” Todd’s research strikes me as correct that 13 and 14 year old marriages are pretty rare in the 19th century. But they did happen often enough that you can’t help but hear about them whereas today I can say I’ve never really even heard of a 13 year old marriage that wasn’t on Jeraldo (and thus being specifically select as ‘completely unusual to the point of gapping in horror’. But that never seems to happen back in the 19th century to the 13 and 14 year old marriages you read about.)

  8. We don’t need to go back to the 19th century to see post-adolescent teens romanticized. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel tells us that she’s 16 years old. At the end, she gets married.

  9. I did analysis of the individuals who traveled over on the Mayflower. Where it is possible to determine age at marriage, the women who married before coming to Plymouth all married in their twenties or later. The men all married in their twenties or later, with an average age closer to 30 than 20.

    After the Mayflower arrived in Plymouth, there was a severe shortage of marriageable women for several years. Priscilla Mullins (an ancestor) was likely 17-18 when she married John Alden (who himself was unusually young, in his early 20s).

    A tangent. For the past 100+ years American women have preferred to shave the hair that typically signifies maturity (e.g., armpit hair). I understand the fashion of shaving all such body hair has gotten to the point where some men are vocal about their distaste for having sex with women who haven’t removed all hair associated with sexual maturity.

    I submit that this fashion of eliminating body hair to achieve the ideal of beauty was driven solely by the economic situation at Gillette the year after they introduced disposable razors for men (they saturated the male market so had to invent a new market to keep their workforce employed until the razor blade used by men started to wear out). Over time it means here in the US we have evolved to a version of beauty that makes children desirable sexual objects.

    Of course, modern make-up, botox, and shaving patterns have nothing to do with Joseph Smith’s marriages, except to make it clear we collectively are a pack of howling hypocrites.

  10. Meg Stout,

    Your last post was spot-on. I totally agree with everything you said. I came to the same conclusion a while ago.

  11. Someone asked about the studies on what the real averages were. “The Persistence of Polygamy” is a book that has an article by Todd Compton that goes over that.

    There is a bit of an interesting history there. Todd’s book “In Sacred Loneliness” strongly hinted at the idea that Helen Mar Kimball was intimate with Joseph Smith. But when challenged on this he seemed genuinely shocked that anyone had read it that way. This suprised me because when I read the book I felt like it was blantantly obvious that Todd was pushing that theory. But then he went on record as admitting he thinks the marriage probably wasn’t intimate. So I think this is probably just a problem with how it was positioned. He just didn’t make his true feelings clear and accidently wrote it in such a way as to cause most people to infer something he hadn’t intended to imply.

    So anyhow, in Todd’s study, he found — as we’ve been saying — that marriages to young teens was pretty rare. Another study in the same book found different results, but both did entirely different methodologies in different areas with — to be frank — Todd’s being probably the better one.

    I remember reading a comment from Todd after that that even though Joseph Smith’s marriages to young teens were probably not consummated that he still feels there are significant issues with such a marriage to young teen girls.

    One point/question that I find interesting — perhaps it’s a matter of human psychology — is “why did Todd feel the need to make sure we knew he condemned it even if it wasn’t consummated?”

    Certainly we can all see that there are no victims (if victims they be) still alive being discussed. Had this been a look at modern day polygamy, then of course the statement needs no explanation.

    And it seems unlikely that Todd feels that its important for us to understand the problems with past polygamy (if problems they be) so that we can address living polygamous sects today. I’m not even sure that would make that much sense since he’s addressing the wrong audience for that. Nor does it make much sense that Todd is secretly worried that polygamy will return to the LDS church and this is his small part in bring the moral ramifications to light so that history does not repeat itself.

    So given that, why the need to condemn the past? We all do it! Why? I think delving into this question brings out a slew of very interesting facts about human nature and about reality.

  12. A few thoughts. First, early19th century America was a by-product of earlier ages, affected by planned marriages and later the Romance era. This undoubtedly made relationships very fluid, as societies and countries moved from the old social culture to the new one. Many European planned marriages (as far as I’ve read), often include an older man and a young woman. One can think of how such a transition affected Tevye’s family in “Fiddler on the Roof”, as the world swept into Anatevka and caused his daughters to question the traditions of marriage, one at a time.
    One key reason for the change has to do with child bearing. Until better nutrition, sanitation and medical help came about, many women died in child birth. It was thought to be a safer thing for a young woman to have a child than an older one (30 years old). If an older man lost his first wife in child birth, then he would often seek a younger wife to care for his current children AND provide more children to him. One can see the tradition in Joseph accepting the pregnant Virgin Mary to care for his older children.
    More recently, my wife’s great aunt Beulah was born when her father was 65 years old and married to his 2nd or 3rd consecutive wife. He was a Confederate soldier, and she was the last surviving daughter of a Confederate soldier, when she died about 10 years ago.
    In the backwoods of Kentucky and Tennessee, it seems marriage to younger girls (14-16 years) was rather common until the second half of the 20th century. I would imagine that the frontier of Joseph Smith’s day was probably similar in many ways.
    What would NOT have been normal would be to marry a 15 year old girl and NOT have her bear children soon thereafter. That Joseph probably did not consumate his marriages to the youngest wives shows us a very different perspective in relating to marriage. It was no longer planned by a matchmaker for child bearing purposes, nor the Enlightenment’s Romance culture, but it was a Spiritual awakening. These marriages were first and foremost to build an eternal dynasty, with Joseph marrying and adopting many people to join them to his eternal legacy.

  13. Just a note about statutory rape laws: many state’s laws have two conditions that must be met in order to qualify the act as rape: (1) the victim must have been below a specific age and (2) the difference between the perpetrator’s and the victim’s ages must be less than a certain number of years. For example, in New York, there are three degrees of statutory rape:

    Third-degree rape for anyone age 21 or older to have sexual intercourse with someone under age 17

    Second-degree rape for anyone age 18 or older to engage in sexual intercourse with someone under age 15. The fact that the offender was less than four years older than the victim at the time of the act is an affirmative defense.

    First-degree rape to have sexual intercourse with someone (1) less than age 11 or (2) less than age 13 if the actor is age 18 or older

    For comparison, nobody under age 14 may marry in New York, people between 14 and 15 need consent of both parents and of a judge, and people 16 and 17 need consent of both parents. Over 18, and you’re on your own.

  14. Bruce, I listened to a podcast in which Craig Foster and Greg Smith discussed their research on this issue. (I think David Keller was also involved in this research).

    Some of the findings (which I am recounting from memory, so they may not be exact):

    –It was extremely common in frontier America in the 19th century for girls to marry at 13 and even 12 sometimes. Along the East Coast, it probably was two years older, but because of the harsh conditions and need for women to help raise families, very young girls became wives almost as soon as they reached puberty.

    –The authors have been able to find many cases in genealogical research where girls gave birth at the ages of 13 or 14.

    –Most of the states and the territories either did not have age of consent laws, or if they did the laws usually recognized 12 or 13 as the age of consent. These laws have slowly increased, but even today many states have age of consent laws of 14, 15 and 16 years of age. (I will note they are often more complex than this, as Mark B says above).

    –Missouri was certainly the frontier, as was Nauvoo (remember, Iowa, right across the river, was clearly the frontier until the late 1840s).

  15. Given that migration to a sparsely-populated frontier created the legal necessity of recognizing common law marriages, it was up to the sparse population to determine what constituted age of consent.

    I would be interested in the data describing the risk of maternal death as a function of the age of the mother. I suspect the risk of a woman dying in childbirth is higher for a mother in her early teens. Certainly that would seem to be the reason mature males of other mammal species protect immature females from predatory immature males (have I mentioned the vole experiment in this comment thread?). As voles don’t conduct scientific studies (but are rather the subjects of such studies), the protection of immature females would seem to be something that mature people understand.

    Returning the the subject of frontier marriage, however, the sparse population sometimes meant there wasn’t a mature male available in a position to protect the immature females. Or it could be that even a heightened risk of maternal death was deemed acceptable if the health of the overall community would be enhanced by an otherwise unobjectionable marriage.

  16. Found another interesting site, Advocates for Youth, discussing maternal mortality rates for adolescent girls.

    “Adolescents age 15 through 19 are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or child birth as those over age 20; girls under age 15 are five times more likely to die.”

    These data are for the modern world, so include disparities introduced by availability of contraception for older women, as well as deaths associated with botched abortions. So I would not presume that these data are directly representative of the 1800s American frontier. But a 500% increased risk of maternal death because you’re letting some hormone-charged idiot make you a wife before age 15 seems a stiff risk.

  17. Just to reiterate, even though Joseph ceremonially wed a couple of very young girls (Nancy Winchester (13-15), Helen Mar Kimball (14)), he did not get them pregnant. Helen’s dad was enamoured of creating a “welding link” between his family and the family of Joseph Smith. Nancy, to my view, appears to have been a victim of the Bennett sex ring when she was 13, and was taken under Joseph’s wing to protect her during the winter/spring of 1842.

  18. Steve Pinker points out that teenaged women are actually less fertile than women out of their teens. Yet the previously cited studies did show that men naturally are wired towards marks of being a teenager. He points out that evolution wouldn’t care about fertility of the specific age, it would care about fertility over the woman’s expected lifetime. So, say, a 17 year old girl might well be less fertile than a 21 year old woman, but since a 17 year old will one day be a 21 year old, the 17 year old is in fact more fertile than a 21 year old — i.e. because her overall fertility over a life time is higher.

    Protection of immature females would also have to be an evolutionary trait of even voles do it. So we’d expect that evolution would essentially cut off at a certain level of immaturity. So, for example, a 8 year old wife (it happens) probably is less fertile over a lifetime than a 21 year old woman precisely because the risk of death starts to climb.

    Evolution is rather heartless, and we should keep that in mind. Despite many an atheist attempt to find some way to justify morality via evolution, they really are just fooling themselves.

    But the fact is that there is going to be a breaking point and evolution would naturally create forces to optimize for it. So, for example, perhaps a 15 year old really does have 5 times a much likelyhood of dying than a 20 year old, but maybe the risk is still so low that from an evolutionary standpoint over all lifetime fertility is still higher.

    That being all said, the simple fact is that everything I just said is kind of silly when you realize that there is no way for evolution to latch on to “an age” of a female. Of course what it really does is latch on to outward signs that happen to correlate to a certain “age on average.”

    We moderns are legalistic. We have a specific age at which a girl is now a woman and not a day before. We create laws that allow the girl before that age to consent to sex long as the age difference is ‘close enough.’ We do everything with ‘ages.’

    But I highly suspect that prior to the modern age that this need to specify a specific age in which this or what is moral or okay actually existed. I suspect that if a girl happened to reach puberty sooner, society started to see her as a woman sooner, and if she happened to reach puberty later, society happned to see her as a woman later. It’s hard for me to believe anything but that could be true for a primative society.

    I am less certain where the 19th century stood. There are clear cases of girls in Utah marrying at ages 13 and 14, but with an understanding of no sex until she is older. There are also specific examples of non-Mormon women in monagomous marriages becoming sexually active in a marriage at age 13 without anyone seeming to even peep over it being immoral. This does suggest to me that they still tended to make determinations, at least partially, based on when the girl actually reached puberty.

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