Random Images: Pity the Child Bride

(Last Updated On May 13, 2020)

An important movement in the effort to stop the sexual exploitation of children was in the Unites States in the 1930s. In rural areas, it was not uncommon for girls to marry at very young ages, much earlier than what we would consider the age of consent. The moral crusades to stop such practices were exemplified in films like Child Bride (1938) starring Shirley Mills (which will be reviewed here at some point). Besides having a controversial plot to get people into the theaters, it was also a form of propaganda showing how backward and ignorant these people were.

What is often forgotten is how marriageable age and life span tend to be linked. In an age of prosperity and creature comforts, people lived longer, and marriage could be put off to allow some enjoyment of the pleasures of life. But life in the Appalachian “hollers” was a rough one and the priority of marriage was not so much to validate the love between a man and a woman, but a household arrangement that would allow the couple and their family to survive. Any man capable of making a good living was quite desirable and families with daughters would hedge their bets—and save money—by marrying off their girls to such men early. I suppose there are many who would speculate about the sexual standards of these arrangements, but even more important was the ability and willingness of girls to manage the household while the husband was working on the family farm, ranch or other business—it was a popular stereotype to regard them all as moonshiners.

With all that being said, I present a news item discovered by an associate. It includes a photo of a man kissing his 12-year-old wife but tells the story of how they were married when she was 10 and the man’s efforts to have the girl adopted properly through the system bureaucracy. Given the circumstances, the courts actually upheld the legitimacy of this marriage. So what is the real cause for our pity: that a girl should marry at such a young age or that in such a prosperous nation, so many people must live these hard lives?

The Pittsburgh Press – ‘Homer Peel, 34, Kisses His 12-Year-Old Bride Geneva On The Steps Of A Tennessee Courthouse’ (April 19, 1937)

This item was found on a historical website called Flashbak that documents interesting and unusual news stories.

22 thoughts on “Random Images: Pity the Child Bride

  1. What we in modern societies call “child marriage” is simply the normal practice in primitive societies and is the natural human mating system. The anthropologist Kenneth Good lived with the Yanomamo tribe for some time and ended up getting married to a girl about 9, which was completely normal for these people.

    The evolutionary reason for these practices is about trying to get as many offspring from a girl as possible. By claiming a girl before she reaches reproductive age a man can monopolize her reproductive lifespan.

      • I fully agree with Ron. It is not difficult to find expert sources on this topic. R. Brian Ferguson, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University in his paper on Yanomami (https://doi.org/10.1177/1463499615595166) challenges and debunks earlier views by controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, author Of ‘Noble Savages’. To illustrate this point, let me cite just one passage: “One of the most striking aspects of Chagnon’s descriptions is the abused condition of women, which markedly contrasts with descriptions from elsewhere. Yanomami in general are very patriarchal, though Chagnon’s own emphases certainly amplify that. Comparing Orinoco-Mavaca Yanomamo to other lowland South American peoples, their strong fraternal interest groups and reliance on plantains (which in contrast to bitter manioc does not encourage female cooperative labor) are consistent with stronger patriarchy. However, contact made it worse for women. Drastically increased sedentism and curtailed trekking eliminated their more traditional and vital food-gathering role, making them specialists in the drudge labor of finding firewood and hauling water. The unusual number of in-married women in pursuit of trade relations left them without the protection of resident male relatives; and the intensity of war put women at risk and dependent on aggressive men.”

        Therefore, it appears that Yamonami had been already a strongly patriarchal tribe, which exacerbated after contact with white people. I would be very skeptical about generalizing about them and other isolated societies, especially because there are many examples of different habits, also among other Amazon rainforest people. In particular, the hypothesis about ‘normal practice in primitive societies’ and ‘natural human mating system’ justified by ‘evolutionary reason’ does not sound convincing at all.

        • We see the same thing in most primitive societies. Girls are typically married off a bit before they reach reproductive age.

      • Early sexual activity is also found in matriarchal systems. The most famous case is the Trobriand Islands, but one can also cite examples in the Himalayas. The Musuo practice walking marriage. When a girl turns 14 she is allocated a room with an external door and may take as many lovers as she wishes. Trobriand culture allows a period of free sexual activity from late childhood through adolescence – with the girls being as assertive as the boys.

        The majority of cultures over the majority of history take the onset of puberty as the beginning of sexual maturity. The idea that they should wait until early adulthood (18) is a product of late 19th century ‘western’ thinking.

        • I fully agree with Ray that people have been having sex from the onset of puberty for millions of years. But that does not mean that the same thing applies to marrying habits, and in particular “marrying off” girls or “monopolizing” women’s reproductive lifespan.

          A University of Missouri study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 10 years ago (https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002598107) has found that up to 70% of Amazonian cultures may have believed in the principle of multiple paternity. As Robert Walker, assistant professor of Anthropology says “Sexual promiscuity was normal and acceptable in many traditional South American societies. Married couples typically lived with the wife’s family, which increased their sexual freedom. In some Amazonian cultures, it was bad manners for a husband to be jealous of his wife’s extramarital partners. It was also considered strange if you did not have multiple sexual partners. Cousins were often preferred partners, so it was especially rude to shun their advances. Women believed that by having multiple sexual partners they gained the benefit of larger gene pools for their children. Women benefited from the system because secondary fathers gave gifts and helped support the child, which has been shown to increase child survival rates.”

          Besides, some ancient or pre-agrarian practices did not have marriage or monogamous relationships, but the women were free to have sex with any of the men within their group or tribe and the children never knew who their fathers were. This often resulted in the nurture of a child being shared by multiple fathers, or, in general, the whole tribe.

          • >Besides, some ancient or pre-agrarian practices did not have marriage or monogamous relationships, but the women were free to have sex with any of the men within their group or tribe and the children never knew who their fathers were.

            Please, this is nonsense. Have you been reading “Sex at Dawn”?

  2. Here in Mexico underage marriage was so common during the years of Mexican Revolution and even about half the last century.
    Once a friend of mine (a mature lady in her last fifties) told me that her late mother had got married at 13 with a 23 yo young man because of leaving some terrrible home conditions of poverty and home violence.
    She came to live at a worst place with alcoholism of both her father-in-law and her new husband. At 15 she had got already two children- one of them the lady that told me this story. Her husband used to tie her to a horse saddle and then let the horse run to take her fallen in the streets till he wanted to stop it.
    Her home violence and abuse marriage finished only till her death.
    And nowadays some prepubescent girls here go to live with a much older boyfriend -five or even ten years older- and even the guy goes to live at her home with them (usually with her parent’s consent even the girl is at school yet!)) And the girls allege that love does not know about age differences…..
    I do not understand this.

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