Random Images: Pity the Child Bride

(Last Updated On May 25, 2022)

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.

24 thoughts on “Random Images: Pity the Child Bride

  1. I believe that in most jurisdictions the age at which a person can be legally married could differ from the age of consent for sexual activity. In principle, nowadays marriageable age is higher than the age of consent. If marriageable age is lower than the age of consent, those laws usually override the age of consent laws. It is interesting what Ray has noticed, that in Judaism, Islam and Hinduism children may marry, but the consummation must be postponed until after menarche. In Eastern Europe many Roma communities hold unofficial wedding ceremonies for girls as young as 13. These marriages are not officially recognized by the authorities, as brides are well below the statutory age of consent and the marriageable age. I have heard of rather bizarre court cases where, for example, a pregnant Roma girl of 13 was questioned in the courtroom on the circumstances of underage sex. When asked who was the father of the baby she was expecting, she answered simply ‘my husband’ (although they were not married according to the state law). Since court cases last for years in these countries, she was interrogated again at the age of 15, this time with two kids and a third baby on the way. Asked about the father’s identity she responded again that the kids are all with her husband.

  2. The reason for contemporary revulsion at child labour and child marriage is essentially economic: modern technology requires a skilled workforce, therefore children should spend many years at school instead of earning a living and taking care of a household.
    In the European Middle Ages, children worked as apprentices as soon as 7 or 8. In all pre-industrial societies, puberty marked the entrance into adulthood, and teenagers could marry, open a business or join the army. The Canon Law of the Catholic Church, following old Roman Law, set the minimum age for marriage at 12 years for girls, and 14 for boys.
    A well-known case of child marriage is that of Eunice Winstead, aged 9, with Charlie Johns, aged 22. As in the present case, it happened in 1937 in Tennessee. The marriage lasted, and they had 7 children. Both survived into old age. I have saved several photographs of the couple.

    • Really?! Somehow I came to expect more from Pigtails’ readers. I have heard a number of comments over the years about how much they like or dislike images and I would like to emphasize that that is beside the point. It is important to recognize the sensationalism of the period and acknowledge that there is more to a story than what is on the surface. -Ron

    • In the 30s, getting enough to eat as a child was not always possible; if she was 12 in 1937, she’d have spent the ages of 6-12 during the Great Depression and that might have contributed to her small stature. Lots of soldiers in the Second World War were relatively short and slight, due to growing up with insufficient nutrition.

  3. There is no correlation between life span and age of marriage. There are two reasons for ‘child’ marriage. The most obvious is the onset of puberty. Most cultures across most of history thought the ability to procreate marked sexual maturity. The second is poverty. In patriarchal societies girls were considered a financial burden and were married off to become the husband’s family’s responsibility. In patriarchal societies that value virginity, being an unwed mother was an issue of considerable shame and girls were married young to avoid the risk.

    • Your argument is hardly evidence of a lack of correlation. In fact it is well-documented with many species in the animal kingdom. That makes sense since species certainly would not survive if they could not weather periodic stressful conditions. Specifically, with human beings, if a girl is subjected to stress conditions at a critical age, she may experience an early onset of puberty. A case is shown in detail in an episode of TLC’s Teen Species. In this case, the girl was one of many unwanted Romanian children later adopted by prosperous Americans and Europeans unable to have children (or were highly compassionate). It was awkward for the girl because she developed womanly characteristics much earlier than her friends, most notably her body odor. She was put on hormone therapy until her friends caught up.
      Puberty is simply the immediate noticeable effect which causes others around the girl to act accordingly (which could include cruel taunting). In fact, your points rather reinforce my original statement when looked at from a long-term view (evolutionary) rather than just proximal immediate effects.
      But I suppose it is good for me to be challenged from time to time by readers and be forced to paint a clearer picture for those not familiar with the various case studies.
      I should add for the sake of all readers that whenever I make broad general statements, it is with the understanding that I am referring to a statistical majority of cases. There are always exceptions and I understand that. But given that this site deals with issues of gender, I don’t want readers to have the impression that I am needlessly sexist. The interplay of the sexes in a post-industrial information age is one that should be or critical importance to all of us.
      Thank you so much for your comment and the opportunity to clarify things. -Ron

      • You seem to have missed my point – possibly my fault.

        You said: “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.”

        This seems to be a version of ‘they married young because they died young’. But this is not the case. An example would be Lady Margaret Beaufort: married at 12 to Edmund Tudor, gave birth to the future king Henry VII at 13, died in her late 60’s – a ripe old age. She came from the aristocracy and lived a prosperous life that might have afforded her ‘some pleasures of life’.

        Any examination of the aristocracy shows an abundance of young marriage – mostly to form political alliances.

        Why 12? Because the Church accepted that as the minimum age (following both Roman and Jewish law). And because that is also the average for the onset of puberty. Yes, both late and early puberty exist – for a variety of reasons – and cultures allowed for this by making a distinction between age of marriage and age of consummation. Judaism, Islam and Hinduism may allow child marriage, but forbids consummation until after menarche (the pre-pubertal wife joins her husband’s family under the supervision of his mother).

        The US has been historically slow to undertake social reform. It was late to abolish slavery, late to allow women to vote and late to change the marriage laws. In fact some states still allow under-age marriage with parental or court permission. Largely due to conservative religious belief.

        • The fact that there are exceptions does not negate a correlation (and it is certainly not surprising that exceptions in life span should exist among the an aristocracy). Your point is well taken but I am not sure why it was necessary to bring it up. As I commented on another post, when I make a broad general statement, it is meant in a statistical sense as there are almost always exceptions to be found in populations of virtually any species I can think of. Anyone can look up the life expectancy of Tudor England and see that it is about 35 years. The specific example I was making about the United States was to illustrate the growing schism between an increasingly prosperous nation generally and certain local populations still living under harsher conditions. The existence of exceptions is not a sufficient contradiction of a correlation (a technical statistical term I wanted to avoid using for a quick post) unless there is a claim that the exceptions comprise a substantial proportion of the population in question (which would require a subjective standard). I am sure there were even exceptions among commoners of individuals with unusually long life spans. Understandably, they would be difficult to cite since there was very little interest among the literate to document the lives of such people. I don’t think I have misunderstood your point at all; you were simply framing my statement from a different perspective which was contrary to my intent. On that basis, there were no grounds to say there was “no correlation” and it might have been more constructive for you to have made your comment so that it did not come off as some kind of refutation.
          I emphasize again that this is a short post showing how some populations (ourselves included) unfairly impose their standards on another living under different conditions and I wanted to make an effort to educate and give a second thought to such knee-jerk conclusions. Likewise, your example extends this illustration. After all, should we—in 20/20 hindsight—really be critical of the English nobility over these practices? -Ron

        • Can I take a moment to point out that the general understanding of life-expectancy is actually shaky unless you have good grasp of statistics? We hear “life expectancy of 38” and interpret that to mean that’s when most people died. Not correct at all. Plenty of people lived well into their 60s, 70s, even 80, and a 40 year old was in no way considered a senior citizen. But when we factor in a much higher rate of death by disease and violence, combined with an obscenely high infant mortality rate, the numbers get skewed.

          • People are often confused about statistics and it is often used to deceive (biased samples, inappropriate methodology, undeclared standards etc.) I don’t know what the convention is, but it would make sense to use the median age so that most of the skew of the very short and very long life spans are compensated for. Despite this, periods when the plague came around (or cholera) would still skew the results. I guess the main idea is that people were much less sure and over time (after the Industrial Revolution), people began to expect to live longer despite the occasional mishap. -Ron

          • Arielle,

            You are correct. Life was precarious in earlier times with a high chance of death through violence and disease. High infant mortality also affects the data. Those individuals who were lucky enough to avoid violence and have access to a good diet lived the normal allotted life span. There are many examples. I am immediately reminded of the self-portrait of Da Vinci as an old man.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.