On Marriage

Harriet Martineau, How to Observe Morals and Manners (London:Charles Knight, 1838), pp. 167- 182. Probably drafted in 1834.


The Marriage compact is the most important feature of the domesticstate on which the observer can fix his attention. If he be athinker, he will not be surprised at finding much imperfectionin the marriage state wherever he goes. By no arrangements yetattempted have purity of morals, constancy of affection, and domesticpeace been secured to any extensive degree in society. Almostevery variety of method is still in use, in one part of the worldor another. The primitive custom of brothers marrying sistersstill subsists in some Eastern regions. Polygamy is very commonthere, as every one knows. In countries which are too far advancedfor this, every restraint of law, all sanction of opinion, hasbeen tried to render that natural method,--the restriction ofone husband to one wife,--successful, and therefore universaland permanent. Law and opinion have, however, never availed toanything like complete success. Even in thriving young countries,where no considerations of want, and few of ambition, can interferewith domestic peace,--where the numbers are equal, where lovehas the promise of a free and even course, and where religioussentiment is directed full upon the sanctity of the marriage state,--itis found to be far from pure. In almost all countries, the corruptionof society in this department is so deep and wide-spreading, asto vitiate both moral sentiment and practice in an almost hopelessdegree. It neutralizes almost all attempts to ameliorate and elevatethe condition of the race.--There must be something fearfullywrong where the general result is so unfortunate as this. As inmost other cases of social suffering, the wrong will be foundto lie less in the methods ordained and put in practice, thanin the prevalent sentiment of society, out of which all methodsarise.

It is necessary to make mention (however briefly) of the kindsof false sentiment from which the evil of conjugal unhappinessappears to spring.--The sentiment by which courage is made thechief ground of honour in men, and chastity in women, coupledwith the inferiority in which women have ever been sunk, was sureto induce profligacy. As long as men were brave nothing more wasrequired to make them honourable in the eyes of society: whilethe inferior condition of women has ever exposed those of themwho were not protected by birth and wealth to the profligacy ofmen. . . .

Marriage exists everywhere, to be studied by the moral observer.He must watch the character of courtships wherever he goes;--whetherthe young lady is negociated for and promised by her guardians,without having seen her intended; like the poor girl who, whenshe asked her mother to point out her future husband from amonga number of gentlemen, was silenced with the rebuke, "Whatis that to you?"--or whether they are left free to exchangetheir faith "by flowing stream, through wood, or craggy wild,"as in the United States;--or whether there is a medium betweenthese two extremes, as in England. He must observe how fate isdefied by lovers in various countries. . . . Scotch lovers agreeto come together after so many years spent in providing the "plenishing."Irish lovers conclude the business, in case of difficulty, byappearing before the priest the next morning. There is recourseto a balcony and rope-ladder in one country; a steam-boat andback-settlement in another; trust and patience in a third; andintermediate flirtations, to pass the time, in a fourth. He mustnote the degree of worldly ambition which attends marriages, andwhich may therefore be supposed to stimulate them, how much spacethe house with two rooms in humble life, and the country-seatand carriages in higher life, occupy in the mind of bride or bridegroom.--Hemust observe whether conjugal infidelity excites horror and rage,or whether it is so much a matter of course as that no jealousyinterferes to mar the arrangements of mutual convenience.--Hemust mark whether women are made absolutely the property of theirhusbands, in mind and in estate; or whether the wife is treatedmore or less professedly as an equal party in the agreement.--Hemust observe whether there is an excluded class, victims to theirown superstition or to a false social obligation, wandering aboutto disturb by their jealousy or licentiousness those whose lotis happier.--He must observe whether there are domestic arrangementsfor home enjoyments, or whether all is planned on the suppositionof pleasure lying abroad; whether the reliance is on books, gardens,and play with children, or on the opera, parties, the ale-house,or dances on the green.--He must mark whether the ladies are occupiedwith their household cares in the morning, and the society oftheir husbands in the evening, or with embroidery and lookingout of balconies; with receiving company all day, or gadding abroad;with the library or the nursery; with lovers or with children.--In each country, called civilized, he will meet with almostall these varieties: but in each there is such a prevailing characterin the aspect of domestic life, that intelligent observation willenable him to decide, without much danger of mistake, as to whethermarriage is merely an arrangement of convenience, in accordancewith low morals, or a sacred institution, commanding the reverenceand affection of a virtuous people. No high degree of this sanctitycan be looked for till that moderation is attained which, duringthe prevalence of asceticism and its opposite, is reached onlyby a few. That it yet exists nowhere as the characteristic ofany society,--that all the blessings of domestic life are notyet open to all, so as to preclude the danger of any one encroachingon his neighbour,--is but too evident to the travelled observer.He can only mark the degree of approximation to this state ofhigh morals wherever he goes.

The traveller everywhere finds woman treated as the inferior partyin a compact in which both parties have an equal interest. Anyagreement thus formed is imperfect, and is liable to disturbance;and the danger is great in proportion to the degradation of thesupposed weaker party. The degree of the degradation of womanis as good a test as the moralist can adopt for ascertaining thestate of domestic morals in any country.

The Indian squaw carries the household burdens, trudging in thedust, while her husband on horseback paces before her, unencumberedbut by his own gay trappings. She carries the wallet with food,the matting for the lodge, the merchandize (if they possess any),and her infant. There is no exemption from labour for the squawof the most vaunted chief. In other countries the wife may befound drawing the plough, hewing wood and carrying water; themen of the family standing idle to witness her toils. Here theobserver may feel pretty sure of his case. From a condition ofslavery like this, women are found rising to the highest conditionin which they are at present seen, in France, England, and theUnited States,--where they are less than half-educated, precludedfrom earning a subsistence, except in a very few ill-paid employments,and prohibited from giving or withholding their assent to lawswhich they are yet bound by penalties to obey. In France owingto the great destruction of men in the wars of Napoleon, womenare engaged, and successfully engaged, in a variety of occupationswhich have been elsewhere supposed unsuitable to the sex. Yetthere remains so large a number who cannot, by the most strenuouslabour in feminine employments, command the necessaries of life,while its luxuries may be earned by infamy, that the morals ofthe society are naturally bad. Great attention has of late beengiven to this subject in France: the social condition of womenis matter of thought and discussion to a degree which promisessome considerable amelioration. Already, women can do more inFrance than anywhere else; they can attempt more without ridiculeor arbitrary hinderance: and the women of France are probablydestined to lead the way in the advance which the sex must hereaftermake. At present, society is undergoing a transition from a feudalstate to one of mutual government; and women, gaining in someways, suffer in others during the process. They have, happilyfor themselves, lost much of the peculiar kind of observance whichwas the most remarkable feature of the chivalrous age; and ithas been impossible to prevent their sharing in the benefits ofthe improvement and diffusion of knowledge. All cultivation oftheir powers has secured to them the use of new power; so thattheir condition is far superior to what it was in any former age.But new difficulties about securing a maintenance have arisen.Marriage is less general; and the husbands of the greater numberof women are not secure of a maintenance from the lords of thesoil, any more than women are from being married. The charge oftheir own maintenance is thrown upon large numbers of women, withoutthe requisite variety of employments having been opened to them,or the needful education imparted. A natural consequence of thisis, that women are educated to consider marriage the one objectin life, and therefore to be extremely impatient to secure it.The unfavourable influence of these results upon the happinessof domestic life may be seen at a glance.

This may be considered the sum and substance of female educationin England; and the case is scarcely better in France, thoughthe independence and practical efficiency of women there are greaterthan in any other country. The women in the United States arein a lower condition than either, though there is less strivingafter marriage, from its greater frequency, and little restrictionis imposed upon the book-learning which women may obtain. Butthe old feudal notions about the sex flourish there, while theyare going out in the more advanced countries of Europe; and thesenotions, in reality, regulate the condition of women. Americanwomen generally are treated in no degree as equals, but with akind of superstitious outward observance, which, as they havedone nothing to earn it, is false and hurtful. Coexisting withthis, there is an extreme difficulty in a woman's obtaining amaintenance, except by the exercise of some rare powers. In acountry where women are brought up to be indulged wives, thereis no hope, help, or prospect for such as have not money and arenot married.

In America, women can earn a maintenance only by teaching, sewing,employment in factories, keeping boarding-houses, and domesticservice. Some governesses are tolerably well paid,--comparingtheir earnings with those of men. Employment in factories, anddomestic service, are well paid. Sewing is so wretched an occupationeverywhere, that it is to be hoped that machinery will soon supersedethe use of human fingers in a labour so unprofitable. In Boston,Massachusetts, a woman is paid ninepence (sixpence English) formaking a shirt.--In England, besides these occupations, othersare opening; and, what is of yet greater consequence, the publicmind is awakening to the necessity of enlarging the sphere offemale industry. Some of the inferior branches of the fine artshave lately offered profitable employment to many women. The commercialadversity to which the country has been exposed from time to time,has been of service to the sex, by throwing hundreds and thousandsof them upon their own resources, and thus impelling them to urgeclaims and show powers which are more respected every day.--InFrance this is yet more conspicuously the case. There, women areshopkeepers, merchants, professional accountants, editors of newspapers,and employed in many other ways, unexampled elsewhere, but naturaland respectable enough on the spot.

Domestic morals are affected in two principal respects by thesedifferences. Where feminine occupations of a profitable natureare few, and therefore overstocked, and therefore yielding a scantymaintenance with difficulty, there is the strongest temptationto prefer luxury with infamy to hardship with unrecognized honour.Hence arises much of the corruption of cities,--less in the UnitedStates than in Europe, from the prevalence of marriage,--but awfulin extent everywhere. Where vice is made to appear the interestof large classes of women, the observer may be quite sure thatdomestic morals will be found impure. If he can meet with anysociety where the objects of life are as various and as freelyopen to women as to men, there he may be sure of finding the greatestamount of domestic purity and peace; for, if women were not helpless,men would find it far less easy to be vicious.

The other way in which domestic morals are affected by the scopewhich is allowed to the powers of women, is through the viewsof marriage which are induced. Marriage is debased by being consideredthe one worldly object in life,--that on which maintenance, consequence,and power depend. Where the husband marries for connexion, fortune,or an heir to his estate, and the wife for an establishment, forconsequence, or influence, there is no foundation for high domesticmorals and lasting peace; and in a country where marriage is madethe single aim of all women, there is no security against theinfluence of some of these motives even in the simplest and purestcases of attachment. The sordidness is infused from the earliestyears; the taint is in the mind before the attachment begins,before the objects meet; and the evil effects upon the marriagestate are incalculable.

All this--the sentiment of society with regard to Woman and toMarriage, the social condition of Woman, and the consequent tendencyand aim of her education,--the traveller must carefully observe.Each civilized society claims for itself the superiority in itstreatment of woman. In one, she is indulged with religious shows,and with masquerades, or Punch, as an occasional variety. In another,she is left in honourable and undisputed possession of the housekeepingdepartment. In a third, she is allowed to meddle, behind the scenes,with the business which is confided to her husband's management.In a fourth, she is satisfied in being the cherished domesticcompanion, unaware of the injury of being doomed to the narrownessof mind which is the portion of those who are always confinedto the domestic circle. In a fifth, she is flattered at beingguarded and indulged as a being requiring incessant fostering,and too feeble to take care of herself. In a sixth society, theremay be found expanding means of independent occupation, of responsibleemployment for women; and here, other circumstances being equal,is the best promise of domestic fidelity and enjoyment.

It is a matter of course that women who are furnished with butone object,--marriage,--must be as unfit for anything when theiraim is accomplished as if they had never had any object at all.They are no more equal to the task of education than to that ofgoverning the state; and, if any unexpected turn of adversitybefals them, they have no resource but a convent, or some othercharitable provision. Where, on the other hand, women are broughtup capable of maintaining an independent existence, other objectsremain where the grand one is accomplished. Their independenceof mind places them beyond the reach of the spoiler; and theircultivated faculty of reason renders them worthy guardians ofthe rational beings whose weal or woe is lodged in their hands.There is yet, as may be seen by a mere glance over society, onlya very imperfect provision made anywhere for doing justice tothe next generation by qualifying their mothers; but the observerof morals may profit by marking the degrees in which this imperfectionapproaches to barbarism. Where he finds that girls are committedto convents for education, and have no alternative in life butmarriage, in which their will has no share, and a return to theirconvent, he may safely conclude that there a plurality of loversis a matter of course, and domestic enjoyments of the highestkind undesired and unknown. He may conclude that as are the parents,so will be the children; and that, for one more generation atleast, there will be little or no improvement. But where he findsa variety of occupations open to women; where he perceives themnot only pursuing the lighter mechanic arts, dispensing charityand organizing schools for the poor, but occupied in education,and in the study of science and the practice of the fine arts,he may conclude that here resides the highest domestic enjoymentwhich has yet been attained, and the strongest hope of a furtheradvance. . . .

From observation on these classes of facts,--the Occupation ofthe people, the respective Characters of the occupied classes,the Health of the population, the state of Marriage and of Women,and the character of Childhood,--the moralist may learn more ofthe private life of a community than from the conversation ofany number of the individuals who compose it.

From Gayle Graham Yates, (Ed.)., Harriet Martineau on Women.New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985, pp. 58 - 65.


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