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But What is Marriage?

May 10, 1860 — Tenth National Woman’s Rights Convention, Cooper Institute, New York City


Mrs. President, —

The question of a Divorce law seems to me one of the greatest importance to all parties, but I presume that the very advocacy of divorce will be called “Free Love.” For my part (and I wish distinctly to define my position), I do not know what others understand by that term; to me, in its truest significance, love must be free, or it ceases to be love. In its low and degrading sense, it is not love at all, and I have as little to do with its name as its reality.

The Rev. Mrs. Blackwell gave us quite a sermon on what woman ought to be, what she ought to do, and what marriage ought to be; an excellent sermon in its proper place, but not when the important question of a Divorce law is under consideration. She treats woman as some ethereal being. It is very well to be ethereal to some extent, but I tell you, my friends, it is quite requisite to be a little material, also. At all events, we are so, and, being so, it proves a law of our nature.

It were indeed well if woman could be what she ought to be, man what he ought to be, and marriage what it ought to be; and it is to be hoped that through the Woman’s Rights movement — the equalizing of the laws, making them more just, and making woman more independent — we will hasten the coming of the millennium, when marriage shall indeed be a bond of union and affection. But, alas! it is not yet; and I fear that sermons, however well meant, will not produce that desirable end; and as long as the evil is here, we must look it in the face without shrinking, grapple with it manfully, and the more complicated it is, the more courageously must it be analyzed, combated, and destroyed.

Mrs. Blackwell told us that, marriage being based on the perfect equality of husband and wife, it can not be destroyed. But is it so? Where? Where and when have the sexes yet been equal in physical or mental education, in position, or in law? When and where have they yet been recognized by society, or by themselves, as equals? “Equal in rights,” says Mrs. B. But are they equal in rights? If they were, we would need no conventions to claim our rights. “She can assert her equality.” Yes, she can assert it, but does that assertion constitute a true marriage? And when the husband holds the iron heel of legal oppression on the subjugated neck of the wife until every spark of womanhood is crushed out, will it heal the wounded heart, the lacerated spirit, the destroyed hope, to assert her equality? And shall she still continue the wife? Is that a marriage which must not be dissolved?

According to Mr. Greeley’s definition, viz., that there is no marriage unless the ceremony is performed by a minister and in a church, the tens of thousands married according to the laws of this and most of the other States, by a lawyer or justice of the peace, a mayor or an alderman, are not married at all. According to the definition of our reverend sister, no one has ever yet been married, as woman has never yet been perfectly equal with man. I say to both, take your position, and abide by the consequences. If the few only, or no one, is really married, why do you object to a law that shall acknowledge the fact? You certainly ought not to force people to live together who are not married.

Mr. Greeley tells us, that, marriage being a Divine institution, nothing but death should ever separate the parties; but when he was asked, “Would you have a being who, innocent and inexperienced, in the youth and ardor of affection, in the fond hope that the sentiment was reciprocated, united herself to one she loved and cherished, and then found (no matter from what cause) that his profession was false, his heart hollow, his acts cruel, that she was degraded by his vice, despised for his crimes, cursed by his very presence, and treated with every conceivable ignominy — would you have her drag out a miserable existence as his wife?” “No, no,” says he; “in that case, they ought to separate.” Separate? But what becomes of the union divinely instituted, which death only should part?

The papers have of late been filled with the heart-sickening accounts of wife-poisoning. Whence come these terrible crimes? From the want of a Divorce law. Could the Hardings be legally separated, they would not be driven to the commission of murder to be free from each other; and which is preferable, a Divorce law, to dissolve an unholy union, which all parties agree is no true marriage, or a murder of one, and an execution (legal murder) of the other party? But had the unfortunate woman, just before the poisoned cup was presented to her lips, pleaded for a divorce, Mrs. Blackwell would have read her a sermon equal to St. Paul’s “Wives, be obedient to your husbands,” only she would have added, “You must assert your equality,” but “you must keep with your husband and work for his redemption, as I would do for my husband”; and Mr. Greeley would say, “As you chose to marry him, it is your own fault; you must abide the consequences, for it is a ‘divine institution, a union for life, which nothing but death can end.'” The Tribune had recently a long sermon, almost equal to the one we had this morning from our reverend sister, on “Fast Women.” The evils it spoke of were terrible indeed, but, like all other sermons, it was one-sided. Not one single word was said about fast men, except that the “poor victim had to spend so much money.” The writer forgot that it is the demand which calls the supply into existence. But what was the primary cause of that tragic end? Echo answers, “what?” Ask the lifeless form of the murdered woman, and she may disclose the terrible secret, and show you that, could she have been legally divorced, she might not have been driven to the watery grave of a “fast woman.”

But what is marriage? A human institution, called out by the needs of social, affectional human nature, for human purposes, its objects are, first, the happiness of the parties immediately concerned, and, secondly, the welfare of society. Define it as you please, these are only its objects; and therefore if, from well-ascertained facts, it is demonstrated that the real objects are frustrated, that instead of union and happiness, there are only discord and misery to themselves, and vice and crime to society, I ask, in the name of individual happiness and social morality and well-being, why such a marriage should be binding for life? — why one human being should be chained for life to the dead body of another? “But they may separate and still remain married.” What a perversion of the very term! Is that the union which “death only should part”? It may be according to the definition of the Rev. Mrs. Blackwell’s theology and Mr. Greeley’s dictionary, but it certainly is not according to common-sense or the dictates of morality. No, no! “It is not well for man to be alone,” before nor after marriage.

I therefore ask for a Divorce law. Divorce is now granted for some crimes; I ask it for others also. It is granted for a State’s prison offense. I ask that personal cruelty to a wife, whom he swore to “love, cherish, and protect,” may be made a heinous crime — a perjury and a State’s prison offense, for which divorce shall be granted. Willful desertion for one year should be a sufficient cause for divorce, for the willful deserter forfeits the sacred title of husband or wife. Habitual intemperance, or any other vice which makes the husband or wife intolerable and abhorrent to the other, ought to be sufficient cause for divorce. I ask for a law of Divorce, so as to secure the real objects and blessings of married life, to prevent the crimes and immoralities now practiced, to prevent “Free Love,” in its most hideous form, such as is now carried on but too often under the very name of marriage, where hypocrisy is added to the crime of legalized prostitution. “Free Love,” in its degraded sense, asks for no Divorce law. It acknowledges no marriage, and therefore requires no divorce. I believe in true marriages, and therefore I ask for a law to free men and women from false ones.

But it is said that if divorce were easily granted, “men and women would marry to-day and unmarry to-morrow.” Those who say that, only prove that they have no confidence in themselves, and therefore can have no confidence in others. But the assertion is false; it is a libel on human nature. It is the indissoluble chain that corrodes the flesh. Remove the indissolubility, and there would be less separation than now, for it would place the parties on their good behavior, the same as during courtship. Human nature is not quite so changeable; give it more freedom, and it will be less so. We are a good deal the creatures of habit, but we will not be forced. We live (I speak from experience) in uncomfortable houses for years, rather than move, though we have the privilege to do so every year; but force any one to live for life in one house, and he would run away from it, though it were a palace.

But Mr. Greeley asks, “How could the mother look the child in the face, if she married a second time?” With infinitely better grace and better conscience than to live as some do now, and show their children the degrading example, how utterly father and mother despise and hate each other, and still live together as husband and wife. She could say to her child, “As, unfortunately, your father proved himself unworthy, your mother could not be so unworthy as to continue to live with him. As he failed to be a true father to you, I have endeavored to supply his place with one, who, though not entitled to the name, will, I hope, prove himself one in the performance of a father’s duties.”

Finally, educate woman, to enable her to promote her independence, and she will not be obliged to marry for a home and a subsistence. Give the wife an equal right with the husband in the property acquired after marriage, and it will be a bond of union between them. Diamond cement, applied on both sides of a fractured vase, re-unites the parts, and prevents them from falling asunder. A gold band is more efficacious than an iron law. Until now, the gold has all been on one side, and the iron law on the other. Remove it; place the golden band of justice and mutual interest around both husband and wife, and it will hide the little fractures which may have occurred, even from their own perception, and allow them effectually to re-unite. A union of interest helps to preserve a union of hearts.



Source: Proceedings of the Tenth National Woman’s Rights Convention, May 10-11, 1860, (Boston: Yerrinton & Garrison, 1860), pp. 81-84.