Child Brides

The long, nauseating American history of older men marrying young girls.

Photo shows Edward W. Browning wealthy Manhattan realtor as he appeared with his wife, Peaches, seated in their motor launch.
Edward W. Browning as he appeares with his wife, Peaches, seated in their motor launch.

Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1926, Frances Browning, a 15-year-old high-school student and sometime–chorus girl, started dating 51-year-old multimillionaire Edward Browning. The press went wild, chronicling their every move, their shopping trips, and nicknames for each other (“Peaches” and “Daddy”). A children’s advocacy organization launched a suit to stop them from getting married, but Peaches had the parental permission required for any girl over 12 to marry in New York state. The wedding went forward, making the front of the New York Times.

The public outcry was notable because not too many decades earlier, there would have been none. The wedding of Peaches and Daddy, as chronicled in Nicholas L. Syrett’s new book American Child Bride, was a turning point because it was only in the early 20th century that the idea of childhood as a particular and protected stage of life became pervasive, as well as the idea of marriage as a love contract between something like equals. The notion that a 15-year-old might not be suited for marriage, even if she thought she was, was fairly new.

PBS recently aired a two-part series on child and forced marriages in this country, chronicling stories like the tale of a 12-year-old New Jersey girl whose father sought to marry her off in Saudi Arabia two years ago. Tracking child marriages in New Jersey between 1995 and 2012, Fraidy Reiss wrote in the New York Times last year that 163 children between the ages of 13 and 15 were granted judicial approval to marry, a necessity for kids that age. “Thousands of girls below the age of eighteen will marry legally in the United States this year,” writes Syrett in American Child Bride—this, even as the age of first marriage for most Americans has been creeping up and up. His book makes clear that such marriages are not something new, or something uniquely foreign, but a continuation of a long American story.

In his comprehensive look at the history of American child marriage, Syrett gives us many anecdotes about girls getting married, often to much older men. There are, of course, far fewer cases of what the 19th-century press liked to call “boy husbands” married to older women, though there are plenty of cases of boys and girls marrying, often of their own free (juvenile) will, and against their parents’ wishes. A good number of these lopsided bonds didn’t last long, ending in death or divorce. When, in 1762, the 73-year-old governor of the royal colony of North Carolina married a 15-year-old girl, the marriage lasted just three years before he died. Their union was criticized not because she was so young, but because he was so old. (An “Old Fellow” with “old teeth of enormous length” was how one critic skewered him.) Marrying as a teen back then was no biggie; particularly in the southern colonies, there were girls marrying as young as 8.

Syrett writes that according to English common law during the colonial era, the minimum permissible age for marriage was 12 for girls and 14 for boys, although kids as young as 7 could enter into a kind of unconsummated starter marriage that lasted until they were old enough to change their minds or transition into the real thing. Setting the minimum age so low—far lower than the 21 years required to make decisions about property—was supposed to account for the onset of puberty, so as to contain sex within marriage. And girls could marry younger than boys because, as one 1600s marriage treatise put it, women’s bodies are “more tender and moister than the Male,” ripening and decaying earlier.

The phrase “child bride” didn’t come into regular use in American newspapers until the 1870s and ’80s, Syrett writes—not because such a thing was uncommon but because it had been so common as to be beneath mention. Well into the 1850s, many states relied on the 12-for-girls and 14-for-boys minimum age rule, although such youthful marriages often required parental consent (mainly to protect parents’ rights, rather than their kids’). But a series of 19th-century forces, including a women’s movement, a campaign to lower divorce rates, and a growing recognition of the idea of childhood as a separate stage of life, combined to raise the marriage age in many states. This reform was egged on by a late 19th-century newspaper craze for chronicling May–December weddings, which had at last come to be seen as weird. Syrett quotes contemporaneous reporter accounts of a 9-year-old married off to a 50-year-old (the girl still in “short dresses”), a teenage bride playing with dolls, and an 11-year-old taking her honeymoon trip on a half-price youth ticket.

History doesn’t move in a straight line, though. Continuing concerns about child marriage prompted another reform movement in 1920s, when the press had fun with the Peaches-and-Daddy romance. (The concept of pedophilia as a psychiatric disorder was only just gaining currency, and Daddy’s reputation suffered as rumors swirled about a long-standing interest in young girls.) In the ’50s, the median marriage age plummeted as a wave of teenagers got married. This trend arose from several factors, Syrett writes, among them the culture’s “intense preoccupation with domesticity,” and a kind of untenable moral compromise—while sexual experimentation was becoming increasingly acceptable for unmarried middle-class girls, at least behind closed doors, out-of-wedlock children were not. Shotgun weddings ensued.

And, too, many teenagers in the ’50s wanted to get married; they saw it as a ticket to adulthood, Syrett says. Without dismissing the phenomenon of forced marriages, Syrett explores the agency of children and teenagers gingerly throughout his book, sensitive to the fact that our understanding of what kids are capable of has changed radically over the last 250 years. There are legitimate reasons why girls wanted to get married in past centuries: to escape abusive and controlling home lives; to escape the suitors their parents had chosen for them; because the alternative was poor-paying factory work or worse, prostitution.

And, too, if marriage at some point was seen as inevitable, particularly for women who did not have much economic opportunity aside from it, why put it off? Syrett suggests that the same reasoning informs many teenage marriages in white rural America today.

On the other hand, the book’s reprint of the 1937 Life magazine photo of Eunice Winstead Johns, age 9, standing beside her 22-year-old husband, Charlie Johns, in Hancock County, Tennessee, makes the pit of your stomach drop. Her head just clears his stomach. Syrett points to the history of men marrying younger women because youth makes them easier to dominate. He quotes Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, advising just a few years ago that when it comes to brides, the younger the better: At 15, “they’ll pick your ducks,” he said approvingly; at 20, they’ll pick “your pocket.”

American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States by Nicholas L. Syrett. University of North Carolina Press.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.