Marriage - Historical US Perspective

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Marriage - Historical US Perspective

This report provides an overview of the historical perspective of marriage in the US, and how views on marriage have changed over time especially for women. We found that early marriages were mostly obligatory and making strategic alliances. The feminist movement played a big role in changing women's views and behavior on marriage over time.

In our pursuit for historical facts, we had to use several sources containing relevant facts that are older than 2 years. Below is a deep dive of the topic.

Early marriage in America

The marriage institution has evolved over time in America. Marriage was mainly for property and reproduction in colonial times. Women in that era gave up al their legal rights and were bound to obey their husbands just as they obeyed God. Early marriages in the US were not about the relationship between the couple, but more on having strategic alliances and increasing the labor force. The couple getting married would rarely have a say in the matter.

Most marriages were also between relatives like cousins in order to keep family ties. In the early days, many men could take other wives if there was infertility, although the practice was later discouraged by the early church. However, by the 19th Century, monogamy had become the standard norm in western marriages. Historically, marriage was a business arrangement by men and for men. Many fathers married off their daughters to gain wealth.

Women could also not own any property after marriage since they became their husband's property. In addition, married women were dependent on their husbands both financially and legally. The state started getting involved in marriages several hundred years ago by for example requiring couples to have marriage licenses. Marriage licenses were common in the US by the 19th century.

Slaves were forbidden from marrying and African-Americans could only marry within their own race. This continued into the 20th century. Romantic love in marriage only became popular in the Victorian era.

Some changes that affected the marriage institution in the 20th century included courtship before marriage, coeducation, and cars which brought couples closer to each other. The Second World War era led to many quick marriages and higher divorce rates.

Changing social rules and their effects on marriage

Marriage historically did not involve equality of the two partners "until about 50 years ago." Before that, both men and women had unique responsibilities and rights in the marriage with men having most rights in a marriage. About 50 years ago, the idea that both partners had equal obligations in a marriage started to get established. Many partners started talking about companionship, the division of labor and reciprocal sexual attraction instead of gender-based roles in marriage. Most Americans today view marriage as a union between two equal people, which involves love and companionship.

As the years have moved, so has the notion of marriage in the US continued to evolve as seen below:

-The 1920sDating became the new craze. Couples would meet in restaurants and other places where the family had no oversight over them. Sex was embraced by popular culture, and the fear of marriage being in trouble began to emerge.

-The 1950s — Marriage is mandatory and universal with the nuclear family being the ideal outcome. Most people surveyed believed that remaining single was neurotic and immoral.

-The 1970s — Era of the self-sufficient woman. There was a belief that all that people needed was love and marriage was no longer obligatory.
-Today — Marriage has become the ultimate expression of love with gays and lesbians seeking the right to get married. Couples are encouraged to cohabit before marriage to be sure if the person is the right one. Marriage rates have fallen drastically in the US.

Women's rights movement

Marriage has dramatically changed in the 20th century. For many years, women were considered subordinate to their husbands and this idea was enforced in the customs and laws. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the women's rights movement started gaining strength. As a result, many wives started insisting on being considered equal to their husbands instead of being regarded as their property.

By the year 1970, "marriage law had become gender-neutral in Western democracy," according to Marilyn Yalom. Additionally, the use of effective contraception transformed marriage since the couple could now choose the number of children they could or could not have. Divorce also became an option if couples were unhappy in the marriage. Almost half of all married couples divorced. Marriage started becoming a contract joining two people who were equal, and who were only seeking love and happiness.

The feminist movement in the 1970s also contributed to higher divorce rates in the US due to several of their activities, as indicated below:

-The movement fought to have abortion legalized. The debate led to other discussions like reproduction, gender roles, and equality in marriage.

-The fight for equal pay and women's access to jobs that were high paying. This resulted in women becoming economically independent. As a result, many women started getting the realization that they would rather be independent, instead of being housewives.

-The fight for workplace equality resulted in women also seeking equality at home and in their marriages. If they failed to get this equality, they just left the marriage.

Women's approach to marriage over time

Historically, marriage was an economic arrangement that hardly prioritized emotional support and love. In the US, the
marriage institution has evolved from the days when women got married for survival. Today, women get married for love and emotional and not for financial support.

Today, women make almost half of America's labor force, in addition to getting good paying jobs. Many women currently hold leadership positions, in addition to having "equal rights to men in most things." As a result, many women are able to have financially independent lives even outside of marriage. Many women, therefore, do not feel the pressing need to marry. As a result, there has been a steady decline in marriage in America since 1970.

Research has also shown that American women still "do twice as much of the housework and child care, even when they are also working full time outside the home." As couples are now often working full-time, there is a need to communicate expectations and share responsibilities to sustain a marriage. Many women in the US no longer take marriage as an obligation.


This report gave a historical deep dive of marriage in the US. We found that the institution of marriage has evolved over time in America from an unequal, contractual relationship to a more equal and loving partnership. The women's views and behaviors in marriage have been greatly shaped by the women's rights and feminist movements. Today, marriage rates continue to decline in the US.