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To Marry or Not to Marry at 27? A Look at Marriage Through the Eyes of Harriet Martineau

I recently spoke with a friend of about 27 years who, after years of hard work earning her degree, holds a successful career in medicine and is almost finished repaying her loans. She recently broke up with her boyfriend; she has no desire to settle down in her stage of life. Yet she represents the brighter side of many American women who have an aversion to marrying young. Research from Knot Yet, a project aimed at observing the current phenomenon of the age of marriage in our society, shows the current age when Americans marry is at a historical high—men tend to marry around 29, women around 27.[1] There are both potential benefits and dangers emerge from this choice: for the upper class, marrying after graduate school may have benefits regarding a woman’s income and overall happiness in her 30’s; for the middle or lower class, women still tend to have children at around age 25, before marriage, and a child born out of wedlock or a stable family structure has a difficult road ahead regarding mobility. Harriet Martineau, an early British sociologist writing in the mid-1800s, wrote about the phenomenon of marriage, particularly connecting a woman’s career opportunities to overall happiness and fidelity in domestic life. Martineau was known in her private life as hesitant regarding marriage, and her observation of the social institution is now almost 200 years outdated; yet her insight at the start of the feminist movement lends timeless wisdom to the choice today’s American women must make—to marry young or to wait?[2]

     For Martineau, social laws govern society’s associations and institutions towards the grand end of human happiness.[3] Martineau measures human happiness as what “allows individuals to realize their basic human nature as autonomous moral and practical agents.” In her essay On Marriage, Martineau writes, “Marriage exists everywhere, to be studied by the moral observer.”[4] For Martineau, marriage provides the perfect place of study regarding a woman’s role in society, but more vitally an ideal place of study regarding community life as a whole: through observing simple conversations, we are able to see hidden actions, characters, and relationships involved in the household as a window to the true private life of a community.[5]

     In her analysis of marriage, Martineau begins that we will first see how corrupted, in a variety of ways, the institution of marriage tends to be—including polygamy, marriage of siblings, etc. Despite this variety, however, there are enough similarities running through the institution of marriage that “intelligent observation will enable [the observer] to decide, without much danger of mistake, as to whether marriage is merely an arrangement of convenience, in accordance with low morals, or a sacred institution, commanding the reverence and affection of a virtuous people.”[6] Martineau leaves the question open, suggesting the observer might find an answer by looking at the treatment of women in the society at large. She writes, “The degree of the degradation of woman is as good a test as the moralist can adopt for ascertaining the state of domestic morals in any country.”[7] Observing societies like France, women are charged to be self-sufficient without the tools to properly be so, namely education and employment.[8] Thus, women feel the urgent need to marry, and are taught to see marriage as “the one object in life, and therefore [are] extremely impatient to secure it.”[9] Martineau continues, “The unfavourable influence of these results upon the happiness of domestic life may be seen at a glance.”[10] Thus, there is a relationship between a woman’s career opportunities and the overall happiness of domestic life—a relationship many see as evident today, and reason to push women to finish school before marriage.

     The happiness of domestic life, and the quality of domestic morals, are affected in two ways by a woman’s access to education and jobs. First, in places where there are few options for feminine occupations, “there is the strongest temptation to prefer luxury with infamy to hardship with unrecognized honor.”[11] In other words, women might choose careers in prostitution or other degrading work over traditionally masculine occupations. Prostitution affects domestic morals, for when vice is made appealing to large groups of women, the domestic morals will also be found impure. If the observer could find a society where “the objects of life are as various and as freely open to women as to men, there he may be sure of finding the greatest amount of domestic purity and peace; for, if women were not helpless, men would find it far less easy to be vicious.”[12] Interestingly, Martineau notes that this vice is less a problem in America because of the prevalence of marrying young.[13]

     Yet it is not simply marriage as an institution that correlates to domestic morality, but society’s understanding of marriage. In a society with few occupational opportunities for women, marriage becomes a false end in itself; it “is debased by being considered the one worldly object in life.”[14] Ideally, in a society where women have ready access to education and jobs, marriage would be the sacred institution it is meant to be—a place of fullest fidelity and charity. Women who hold marriage as the grand goal among many still have remaining goals after attaining it—they are not left empty and unfulfilled. For these women, “[their] independence of mind places them beyond the reach of the spoiler; and their cultivated faculty of reason renders them worthy guardians of the rational beings whose weal or woe is lodged in their hands.”[15] Researchers at Knot Yet show that, when looking at finances, this is true of about one-third of our population; women of the middle and upper class who obtain college degrees and marry after age 30 earn on average $18,152 more than their counterparts who marry under 20.[16]

     Yet Martineau’s proposal is that the society that values its women values its next generation. Seeing marriage as directly tied to procreation and the raising of a family, income is only one measurement of the good of women who wait to marry. Martineau gives a compelling case for the benefits of waiting to marry; however, she also contributes to the other side of the argument. Educated women are successful not simply based on income, but as “worthy guardians” of the beings whose futures lie in their hands. One of the most pressing concerns about our society’s aversion to marrying young is that, while waiting to marry, women still have children. The researchers at Knot Yet write that while upper class women may have multiple goals where marriage is simply one among many, for women of middle and lower class the issue is more complicated:

     For a woman whose nine-to-five is spent filling out insurance forms in a doctor’s office or even overseeing a sales staff at Staples, a baby might seem more enriching than a dollar-an-hour raise. If marriage is now only attainable for those who are financially set—a goal they’re not sure of ever reaching—they often choose or drift “unintentionally” into parenthood before they are ready to marry.[17]

     In 2010, 58% of first births were to unmarried mothers, and the average age of childbearing lagged two years behind the average age of marriage.[18] While waiting to marry may benefit some upper class women, many others drift into having families while cohabiting or while in insecure relationships, raising the possibility of union dissolution of the couple by 26% more than the couple who is married when the first child is born.[19] Following Martineau’s argument, we may ask what effects this will have for these future generations of children born outside of stable marriages and relationships.

     In a society without opportunities for its women, there is “only a very imperfect provision made . . . for doing justice to the next generation by qualifying their mothers.”[20] In the society that limits education and opportunities for women, we may find that “a plurality of lovers is a matter of course, and domestic enjoyments of the highest kind undesired and unknown . . . [and] as are the parents, so will be the children.”[21] In a society where women have opportunities and education, rather, we find them “not only pursuing the lighter mechanic arts, dispensing charity and organizing schools for the poor, but occupied in education, and in the study of science and the practice of the fine arts, [we] may conclude that here resides the highest domestic enjoyment which has yet been attained and the strongest hope of a further advance.”[22] Martineau reminds us not only of the need to educate and provide opportunities for women, but also of the power that women have, as caregivers, over the future of each child.

     In the end, Martineau provides a compelling case for seeing the good of women as deeply tied to the moral good of the household, and thus the rest of society, now and in the future. Her perspective may push us to observe not only the different opportunities available for upper verses lower class women, but also how lagging marriage may negatively affect lower class women and the rest of society. In an age where two incomes are necessary for the lower class, single mothers face unprecedented challenges and strains. Our understanding of marriage as the capstone or pinnacle of life may benefit upper class women, but for the lower class, it seems an unreachable goal, harming women and children in the process. Martineau’s analysis helps us remember that to understand the morals of society we must not simply look at empirical data about marriage, but also look inside the households, where women, the creators and perpetuators of culture, raise the next generation.

     In answering whether being a woman made her research for Society in America difficult, Martineau replied, “I have seen much more of domestic life than could possibly have been exhibited to any gentleman traveling through the country. The nursery, the boudoir, the kitchen are all excellent schools in which to learn the morals and manners of a people.”[23] In culture of rapid decline in domestic stability and morals harming the lower class, we must ask about the larger morals and manners of our society, and examine why we wait to marry, and whether, at large, it is a good thing after all.


[1] Hymowitz, Kay, Jason S. Carroll, W. Bradford Wilcox, and Kelleen Kaye. 2013. “The Knot Yet Report–Summary.” The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, and The Relate Institute. Retrieved April 19, 2015 (http://twentysomethingmarriage.org/summary/).

[2] Martineau, Harriet. “On Marriage.” In Harriet Martineau On Women, Ed. Gayle Graham Yates. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1985), 56. Originally printed in How to Observe Morals and Manners, 1838.

[3] Ritzer, George. Classical Sociological Theory. 6th Ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 296.

[4] Martineau, “On Marriage,” 59.

[5] Ibid., 65.

[6] Ibid., 60.

[7] Ibid., 61.

[8] Ibid., 61.

[9] Ibid., 61.

[10] Martineau, “On Marriage,” 61.

[11] Ibid., 63.

[12] Ibid., 63.

[13] Ibid., 63.

[14] Ibid., 63.

[15] Martineau, “On Marriage,” 64.

[16] Hymowitz, “The Knot Yet Report.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Hymowitz, “The Knot Yet Report.

[20] Martineau, “On Marriage,” 64.

[21] Ibid., 64.

[22] Ibid., 64.

[23] Ritzer, Classical Sociological Theory, 299.