A few days ago, a friend told me she had just learned that she had a 2x great-aunt who was a beloved and honored single white teacher in the US south in the first half of the twentieth century. The beloved teacher had a school named after her. My friend never heard anything about her distinguished relative while growing up. As a woman without children herself and a teacher, she wished she had. “There are many of us,” she commented.
I offered to do a little research for my friend. Perhaps thinking of my 2x great-aunt who was a single businesswoman, I expected to find that the beloved teacher lived with her mother. What I found was so shocking that it kept me up at night.
As it turned out, the beloved teacher’s mother died when she was a little girl. The woman who had the same first name as the beloved teacher’s mother–but whose recorded age was the same as that of the beloved teacher—was her father’s third wife. I found the beloved teacher (age 9) on the 1880 census living with her father and his 19 year-old wife. The beloved teacher’s father married a barely 17 year-old girl when he was 44 (the marriage record said he was 40). It is not known what happened to this girl. Did she die? Did she run away? I could not find any records.
What is known is that the beloved teacher’s family moved to an adjoining state in 1884. Then in 1886, her father, by this time over 50, married another barely 17 year-old girl.
The beloved teacher began her career in 1892 at the age of 22. By 1900 she was living as a boarder with a childless widow who was 30 years her senior. She continued to live with this woman until the elder woman died, at which point the teacher inherited the house they had shared. When the beloved teacher herself died, she was not buried in the family grave of her father and his third wife, but rather in the family grave of the lady (and the husband of the lady) with whom she had lived for more than 30 years.
There is a story here, and I would love to know it.
But what kept me awake at night was the fact that the man who was remembered by his family as a respected judge, had twice married teen-age girls less than half his age. I do not know about customs in the deep south where this story occurred, but in my family research, I have not found teen-age marriage to be common—let alone the marriage of a teen-age girl to a man old enough to be her father.* This man not only married one 17 year-old, but did it again when he was nearly 10 years older.
I believe we should be asking if these stories are stories of child abuse. But the man who committed it (if that is what it was) was rewarded by his community with a judgeship.
In my family, I found one scandalous marriage. When his wife died after giving birth to 9 children, one of my 2x great-grandfathers married his niece (the daughter of his first wife’s sister) who was just a few years older than his eldest child. At least she was 26 to his 50. This man also went on to hold elected office, the scandal apparently having been forgotten or forgiven in the town. I believe relationships were strained with the children of the first wife: most of them moved to other states.
Old men marry young women—and young girls—all the time, so I do not know why I found this particular story so disconcerting. What I do know is that in patriarchal cultures we have normalized behaviors of old men that are not normal, and we have accepted behaviors that should not be accepted.
*Further research confirms that in Western Europe and in the United States in the 19th century, most brides were in their early 20s, while most grooms were in their mid-twenties. In the US South after the Civil War, there was a shortage of men: this could explain why young girls would agree to marry old men, but it does not explain why old men would choose young girls when there must have been age-appropriate single women and widows interested in marriage. In the US today the majority of child brides marry a partner who is 18 to 20. In other parts of the world marriages of children (often to older men) are common: Unicef considers child marriage a form of violence against children .