Like other areas of personal life and sexuality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see Section 1.4), marriage was emerging as a more explicit area of social policy and state regulation, and parenthood and sexuality were being re-examined and reshaped within marriage. In Section 3 we explore changes in the legal framework for marriage and the gender divisions within it. We will begin by looking at one person's story about married life just before these changes began to be felt.
Extract 3 is from The Life of a Farm Worker, an unfinished autobiography by James Bowd about his life in rural Cambridgeshire. Born in 1823, Bowd was married in 1849 and lived a generation before the fertility decline. In this extract he describes the early years of his marriage and his entry into parenthood. Look carefully at the language he uses and the ways he describes these experiences. What does he say, or imply, about sexuality, fertility and parenthood in his life?
Extract 3: ‘The life of a farm worker’
But hear his one thing I must not I cannot forbear to Mention and that is when this Mr Kimpton Came to Swavesey [where he lived] he Brought with him a very handsome present and do you know that present proved to be for me and I was very very Fond of it, and now as I had become a Man and what must I do now been about twenty four years of age, what did I do but followed the advice that is given to us in the Second Chapter of Genesis Verse twenty four Therefore shall a Man Leave his Father and Mother and Cleave unto His Wife and they shall be one flesh and now I Began to Make known Myself to this person and in Corse of time She became my Lawful wife … While we were Living with with them [his father and mother] Our Family Incresed and very fond of it we was for it was a Little Girl but my wife had a very hard time of it we had to Call the Docter in he said he would not give a farthing for her Life if it had Been an hour Later but by the Blessing of the Almighty she began to get Better and you may be sure that I was very pleased for I was as fond of my wife Has a Cat is of New Milk I felt as if I Dare not tell her how much I Loved her because I thought she Would be trespising on were I should be and that would be the Head of the house.
Bowd talks about his marriage using words from the Bible, which at the time offered a rich language to express both personal feelings and social expectations. The church was also central in the rituals of marriage and christening of children. In the extract, he hints that sexual attraction was an important element in his relationship with his wife, but he felt constrained in expressing this both to her and in this written account. He shows us that his marriage involved unequal power relations, which might have been more precarious in his case because he had not yet managed to ‘leave his father and mother’. He tells us about becoming a parent in a rather impersonal way – ‘our family increased’ – almost as if it happened by chance. This may just be a turn of phrase, but we might speculate that he did not feel much sense of agency in the arrival of parenthood. He also talks about the mixed feelings of love for his daughter and concern for his wife's health, which parenthood engendered at a time when many women died in childbirth and babies died in infancy. In fact only two of James Bowd's four children survived beyond infancy.
In Extract 3 we can see some evidence of the norms of procreative sexuality within marriage, the difficulties many people found in expressing sexual desire and the profound effects of marriage and parenthood on shaping personal lives. By the 1860s all of these were changing. The publication in 1859 of Darwin's ideas about evolution began to undermine the deep-seated Christian idea that life and death were determined by God's will, and that family structures were bound by fixed religious and moral precepts. The place of the church in regulating family and sexual life was also changing since both marriage and divorce had been moved from canon law administered by the Church of England to civil law through the civil registration of marriage in 1837 and the Divorce Act of 1857. Marriage was increasingly becoming a concern of the state and civil society and less a matter for God and individual conscience, and its role in British society began to be debated as an explicit element of social policy.
From the early nineteenth century to the 1930s there was a continuing shift towards legally recognised marriage as the institution within which ‘normal’ parenthood was overwhelmingly located. Although ‘living tally’, or cohabitation, did not disappear it became largely confined to the poorest or remotest communities (Gillis, 1985). One result of this trend was that illegitimate children were increasingly stigmatised. As charity and the Poor Law became bureaucratised in more anonymous and mobile urban communities, it was obligatory to show a marriage certificate to apply for poor relief and during wartime, to claim military allowances. Both charitable and state support for the poor was becoming tightly mapped onto the model of a family consisting of a breadwinner husband and his dependent wife and children, suggesting that social policies were increasingly becoming linked to the promotion and regulation of certain kinds of sexual practices and relationships. However, such formations were not simply imposed on working-class communities; they also reflected the growing importance of respectability in working-class identities. Respectability came to sum up a cluster of behaviours that included the curtailment of public excess, especially drunkenness, saving resources for future contingencies, cleanliness as a mark of control over dirt and contamination, avoidance of public displays of sexuality, and disapproval of sexual relationships outside marriage.
At the beginning of the 1860s, husbands were invested with considerable authority and control over their wives, who in turn were expected to defer and to submit to the demands of their husbands (Shanley, 1989). A husband's authority over his wife was reinforced through marriage vows of obedience and by constant advice from clergy, doctors and popular literature directed at women. Under the common law doctrine of coverture dating back to medieval times, a husband controlled all property and legal contracts of the marriage. This included property a wife earned or brought with her, although various legal devices had been developed to protect the property of wealthy wives from the actions of irresponsible husbands. Husbands also had ‘conjugal rights’; that is they could demand sexual access to their wives who could not legally refuse them. As we saw in Extract 1 by Mrs SE, wives were very clear that their duties included the sexual servicing of their husbands, whatever their own wishes may have been. Thus, there was no recognition of rape within marriage, despite widespread feminist demands for change at the time and in the late twentieth century, when the law was finally changed.
However, there is a great deal of evidence that wives contested their subordination at both personal and political levels. For example, histories of the ‘first wave’ feminist movement of the late 1800s show how critiques of the inequalities within marriage led to key reforms such as the Married Women's Property Acts of 1872 and 1882, which allowed wives to retain their own earnings and property as if they were single (Holcombe, 1983). Such reforms were of most benefit to middle-class and wealthy women, enabling some to lead more independent lives. For working-class wives, the problem of unequal family resources was much more about how to pay the rent and put food on the table. Many wives managed at least some of their husband's and children's earnings but disputes were endemic, with wives resorting to a range of tactics to maximise household resources. This music hall song performed by James Fawn in the late 1880s sums up some of these sexual, marital and material exchanges:
By who up the stairs are we carefully led
And when we're asleep and our senses have fled
Runs through our pockets, when we are in bed?
Woman, lovely woman
These lyrics point to the subversion of husbands' authority by wives who lead them on sexually and then take advantage of their weakest moments to steal their wages. Wives on the other hand often felt that husbands did not contribute enough towards the care of their children, and therefore that such means of redressing the balance were fully justified.