With marriage women and men had to—or have to—adjust to life with a person who is, in essence, a member of an alien group?
My interest in Emily Dickinson has led me to another classic academic paper, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century,” originally published in the journal Signs in 1975. Reproduced below are two of the concluding paragraphs of the piece, which is based on the correspondence and diaries of women and men in thirty-five American middle-class families between the 1760s and the 1880s. In these concluding paragraphs Smith-Rosenberg focuses on differences between how girls in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were prepared, or ill-prepared, for heterosexual marriages. Reading these observations now, in the twenty-first century, I was struck not only by the differences but also by continuities.
Or might one want to say that the twentieth century—with its insistence on heterosexuality—was the outlier? Previously, not only did women enjoy uninhibited physical contact with each other, men may have enjoyed more contact, as well as the pleasures and displeasures of schools, offices, clubs, etc., that were all men.
It is possible to speculate that in the twentieth century a number of cultural taboos evolved to cut short the homosocial ties of girlhood and to impel the emerging women of thirteen or fourteen [years old] toward heterosexual relationships. In contrast, nineteenth-century American society did not taboo close female relationships but rather recognized them as a socially viable form of human contact — and, as such, acceptable throughout a woman’s life. Indeed it was not these homosocial ties that were inhibited but rather heterosexual leanings. While closeness, freedom of emotional expression, and uninhibited physical contact characterized women’s relationships with each other, the opposite was frequently true of male-female relationships. One could thus argue that within such a world of female support, intimacy, and ritual it was only to be expected that adult women would turn trustingly and lovingly to each other. It was a behavior they had observed and learned since childhood. . . .
Of perhaps equal significance are the implications we can garner from this framework for the understanding of heterosexual marriages in the nineteenth century. If men and women grew up as they did in relatively homogeneous and segregated sexual groups, then marriage represented a major problem in adjustment. From this perspective we could interpret much of the emotional stiffness and distance that we associate with Victorian marriage as a structural consequence of contemporary sex-role differentiation and gender-role socialization. With marriage both women and men had to adjust to life with a person who was, in essence, a member of an alien group.
I will close with the very nineteenth century Emily Dickinson’s striking poem on marriage (which also appears in my recent review-essay: Translating Dickinson):
I gave Myself to Him —
And took Himself, for Pay —
The solemn contract of a Life
Was ratified, this way —
The Wealth might disappoint —
Myself a poorer prove
Then this great Purchaser suspect,
The Daily Own — of Love
Depreciate the Vision —
But till the Merchant buy —
Still Fable — in the Isles of Spice —
The subtle Cargoes — lie —
At least — ’tis Mutual — Risk —
Some — found it — Mutual Gain —
Sweet Debt of Life — Each Night to owe —
Insolvent — every Noon —