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What is Marriage?

1893 — World’s Congress of Representative Women, Chicago IL


The question before us is this, “What is marriage?” Is it a mere coming together of two people who have fallen in love? Do you know that love is the only thing people ever fall into? If a man undertakes any form of business in the world he deliberates upon the business, his attainments, his preparation to manage and master it, and the possibility of his success — the whole ground is studied over carefully; but when two people undertake to enter upon the most serious business in life — that from which they can not well ever be rescued — instead of deliberating they “fall” into it. A young man sees a young woman “with marvelous bangs,” and that is the last of him. A young woman sees a young man with “a marvelous mustache,” and that is the last of her. They have fallen in love. After they are married they find that marriage means something besides bangs and mustache. My idea of marriage is of the highest and holiest kind. I believe marriage, and the home that is the result of marriage, is the holy of holies this side of the throne of God; and that any two people who enter upon this sacred relation should be those who are fitted to found in this world a home which is a type of the home which awaits us all beyond. I believe that whatever broadens and enlarges woman, whatever develops any of the capacities which God has given her, fits her to become a founder of this kind of home. Anything which makes a woman free, anything which develops her physical, mental, moral, or spiritual life makes her better fitted to be the founder of a home.

Now the whole thought upon this question is that women develop, but that during this age of development which has come to woman, men have remained stationary. As women grow broader, men are also growing broader, and I believe the man of the future will demand for his wife the woman of the future, as the man of to-day demands the woman of to-day. As our boys and girls are reared together, as they become educated in our institutions of learning together, as they go out in trades and professions together, our young men will never know any other kind of woman-hood than that with which they are reared; and so I believe a woman’s marriage prospect is equally good with a man’s marriage prospect, for if a woman loses her prospect here a man must lose his prospect also. Since men will not give up marriage, women also, you see, can not give up marriage; so the marriage prospect of one sex is equally good with the marriage prospect of the other under any condition in life. But I believe the man of to-day is beginning to demand a nobler woman for his wife; and although in the past, men considered that absolute innocence and ignorance and inability to do anything but entertain them were admirable traits in a sweetheart, it is marvelous how much good sense they expected of the woman after she became a wife. The difference between what a man demands of the woman with whom he is passing a few of his leisure hours and what he demands of her when she becomes his wife is wonderful; and I believe the man of the future will demand of the woman of the future that kind of training which will make her not only a good cook and a good housekeeper, but also his companion in all that interests and concerns him.

Why should we care for marriage unless it is the highest state into which men and women can enter? Why should one seek marriage unless it is better to her than the unmarried state? If marriage offers nothing better than the conditions out of which one goes, unless marriage has something that it can hold up as an inducement over against these conditions, we can not expect the modern woman to give up her leisure, her independence, and all that comes to a woman outside of marriage.

I am not one who believes that motherhood is the highest crown of glory which a woman can wear. I must confess I have heard that poetry all my life. It is good poetry; it sounds well, and it comforts us, but it is not true. Woman is something more and greater than a mother. Woman is something more and greater than any of the external conditions of her life. The highest crown of glory that any woman can wear is pure, strong, noble, virtuous, dignified womanhood. After a woman has attained to that fullness of perfect womanhood, then let come to her what will, motherhood or spinsterhood, either will be equally with the other a crown of glory.

I say again that marriage must have something to offer to the average woman of to-day, the woman of culture, the woman of education, the woman able to earn a good salary and make for herself a beautiful home. Marriage must have something in it worthy of that woman, and worthy of the sacrifice which she shall make of her independence. I believe that marriage has much to offer. The ideal, the marriage which I believe God has in his mind when he conceives of home, is the marriage made by two who enter into the home as equal partners. So long as in the marriage ceremony of any church there remains the command on the part of one to obey, and of the other to compel or demand obedience, the home founded can not be the highest and best place for men and women. When public sentiment has risen to that high plane which shall demand that no woman shall become subservient to her husband or commit perjury, we shall have the ideal marriage, and until we have ideal marriage we can not tell what effect any change in either business or social conditions can have upon woman’s marriage prospect.

I believe that underlying the perfect marriage must be perfect equality of the two entering upon this estate; perfect equality everywhere and perfect respect; neither to rule as head over the other, neither to be submissive and subordinate to the other, but each to be the equal, the comrade and the friend of the other.

Now concerning this whole change in woman’s life, I admit frankly that there may be some little harm, some little hurt, resulting from it. There has never been any great reformation without some harm in the transition period. In giving liberty to the slave some harm came to both slave and master. From any great movement we expect some evil to follow. There has never been a great revival of religion but some evil came in its train. So in this transition stage from subordination and dependence to self-respect and independence there will be some friction.



Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, vol. 2,  ed. May Eliza Wright Sewall, (Chicago: Rand and McNally) 1894, pp. 1-90.