Stray Wives: Marital Conflict in Early National New England

Stray Wives: Marital Conflict in Early National New England

by Mary Beth Sievens


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Stray Wives: Marital Conflict in Early National New England by Mary Beth Sievens

Whereas my husband, Enoch Darling, has at sundry times used me in so improper and cruel a manner, as to destroy my happiness and endanger my life, and whereas he has not provided for me as a husband ought, but expended his time and money unadvisedly, at taverns . . . . I hereby notify the public that I am obliged to leave him.
Phebe Darling, January 13, 1796

Hundreds of provocative notices such as this one ran in New England newspapers between 1790 and 1830. These elopement notices--advertisements paid for by husbands and occasionally wives to announce their spouses' desertions as well as the personal details of their marital conflicts--testify to the difficulties that many couples experienced, and raise questions about the nature of the marital relationship in early national New England.

Stray Wives examines marriage, family, gender, and the law through the lens of these elopement notices. In conjunction with legal treatises, court records, and prescriptive literature, Mary Beth Sievens highlights the often tenuous relationships among marriage law, marital ideals, and lived experience in the early Republic, an era of exceptional cultural and economic change.

Elopement notices allowed couples to negotiate the meaning of these changes, through contests over issues such as gender roles, consumption, economic support, and property ownership. Sievens reveals the ambiguous, often contested nature of marital law, showing that husbands' superior status and wives' dependence were fluid and negotiable, subject to the differing interpretations of legal commentators, community members, and spouses themselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814740095
Publisher: New York University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2005
Pages: 171
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Mary Beth Sievens is assistant professor of history at SUNY Fredonia, and co-editor of Yankee Correspondence: Civil War Letters Between New England and the Home Front.

Table of Contents

List of Tables ix Acknowledgments


  1. 1 A “Disobedient, Clamorous” Wife: The Problem of Wifely Submission

  2. 2 “A Trifling Sum”: Economic Support and Consumer Spending in New England Marriages

  3. 3 “The Duties of a Wife”: The Meaning of Women’s Work

  4. 4 “The Wicked Agency of Others”: Community Involvement and Marital Discord

  5. 5 “Having Confidence in Her Own Abilities”: Coping with Estrangement

  6. 6 “Free and Clear from All Claims”: Divorce and the Contradictory Nature of Women’s Status

    Afterword: Settling “All Matters of Dispute”: Marital Conflict, Negotiation, and Compromise


    Select Bibliography


    bout the Author

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher


“Wonderful. . . . A fascinating and complex account of husbands struggling to assert their legal dominance in a changing cultural landscape, while law remained static. . . . Stray Wives is full of creative research and compelling new insights about marriage in early national America. Sievens's nuanced argument about power and interdependence within marriage is absolutely convincing. She also clearly demonstrates that legal change lagged behind cultural change, leaving husbands frustrated by their inability to rule.”
-William & Mary Quarterly


“Offers an engaging look at marital conflict at a key transitional time in the emotional and economic landscape of early national New England.”
-Journal of the Early Republic


“Sievens focuses on a rich and under-used source: the ads that appeared in early American newspapers alerting readers not to extend credit to run-away wives, as well as occasional replies made by wives themselves. This is a terrific source that illuminates marriage, gender, law, print culture, and community in early America. Sievens has shown considerable sensitivity and acuity, as well as diligence in the pre-digitized days, in her approach to these fascinating sources. This is an impressively lucid coverage resting on persuasive claims. . . . Indeed, this book, in its brevity, clarity, and inherent drama, may be of particular use in the classroom. A fine book on an important topic, it will certainly be of use to many working in this field.”
-Journal of Social History


“Sievens shows how even when free of their marriages, women often remained dependent on male kin.”
-The Chronicle of Higher Education

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