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American Child BrideA History of Minors and Marriage in the United States$
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Nicholas L. Syrett

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781469629537

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469629537.001.0001

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date: 02 July 2022

The Great Life-Long Mistake

The Great Life-Long Mistake

Women’s Rights Advocates and the Feminist Critique of Early Marriage

(p.98) Four The Great Life-Long Mistake
American Child Bride

Nicholas L. Syrett

University of North Carolina Press

Focusing on the writings of antebellum women’s rights activist Elizabeth Oakes Smith, this chapter demonstrates that many objected to early marriage for girls, but for a variety of reasons. Some believed that it was physiologically unsound, others that it would be detrimental to “the race,” and others like Smith believed that early marriage curtailed girls’ chances for a meaningful girldhood. Smith and other activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton also pointed out that legally early marriage was flawed because girls were permitted to contract marriage—which itself was disadvantageous for all women because of coverture—when they were not yet legally adults. While Smith and her contemporaries were astute in all these critiques, they rarely paused to consider the ways that early marriage was mostly detrimental for middle-class girls who really did have the opportunity of a protected childhood, unlike working-class children, who were laboring from early ages.

Keywords:   Women’s rights activists, Physiology, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Coverture, Protected childhood, Marriage law

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