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Age in AmericaThe Colonial Era to the Present$
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Corinne T. Field and Nicholas L. Syrett

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9781479870011

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479870011.001.0001

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Statutory Marriage Ages and the Gendered Construction of Adulthood in the Nineteenth Century

Statutory Marriage Ages and the Gendered Construction of Adulthood in the Nineteenth Century

(p.103) 5 Statutory Marriage Ages and the Gendered Construction of Adulthood in the Nineteenth Century
Age in America

Nicholas L. Syrett

NYU Press

This chapter is about the different ages at which states allowed men and women to marry. With and without parental consent, almost all states through the twentieth century allowed girls to marry before boys. Most Western and Midwestern states also lowered the age of majority for girls by three years, which made girls adults three years before boys in these states. Nicholas L. Syrett shows that many nineteenth-century women’s rights advocates decried these lower ages of marriage because they robbed girls of their childhood and that, in the aggregate, allowing girls to marry and become adults before boys was just one way to maintain gender subordination through marriage. That said, allowing girls to marry and control their property before boys also gave some individual girls the ability to escape abusive home lives, inherit property, and control their own wages in ways that must have been individually empowering for them. Overall Syrett demonstrates that even feminists disagreed about whether allowing girls the opportunity to marry was actually beneficial for them, precisely because built into the laws were contradictory outcomes: the same law that infantilized girls vis-à-vis boys also allowed girls opportunities at younger ages than boys. Age was a legal tool with contradictory outcomes.

Keywords:   marriage, age of majority, girls, boys, adults, women’s rights, childhood, gender, property, laws

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