The Companionate Marriage
During the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries the authority of the father over the family was likened to the authority of the king in the State. Men up to and through the seventeenth century exercised almost absolute control over their households, at the direct expense of the women.
A quote from Stone’s book attributed to a Mary Astell in 1706 sums up this state of affairs, “If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?”
Political theory of the seventeenth century finally began to evolve. The idea of marriage as a contractual obligation developed, providing for common interest and property. Because this was incompatible with the absolute domestic patriarchy of the past, influential politicians and religious leaders of this century attempted to undermine the traditional absolute authority of the father and the husband.
Laws became progressively inclined, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to insist on far greater care for protection of the property rights of the wife regarding marriage settlements. However, these improvements were for a long time limited only to the wealthy women of society. The vast majority of women were only gradually affected by these changes. As a Mr. Blackstone, a writer of the late seventeenth century put it, “The husband and wife are one, and the husband is that one.” As late as 1869, John Stuart Mill described the legal position of most women in England as one of total dependence on their husbands.
Increasingly during the eighteenth century another evolution was taking place alongside that of political theory. This was the initiation of marriage based not so much on economic considerations but on affection. Prior to this time, marriages between the children of families had been arranged by the parents. Gradually, the shift of control of marital choice from parents to children would have important consequences upon marital relations. By the second half of the eighteenth century a clear trend to companionate marriages was emerging.
The hardest evidence for a decline in the near absolute authority of the husband over the wife was the decline in the husband’s power to control his wife’s estate and income. Prior to these changes in law the wife had little legal power over the family’s money or even her own. By law the children belonged solely to the husband and even after death the widow had no rights over them.
This evolution of the husband/wife roles required a sharing in authority and dominance between the sexes since it now depended on a greater awareness of equality. This re-assessment gave impetus to the earliest feminist movements and the considerable efforts in the quality and quantity of female education. Stone emphasizes that because of these changes away from a strict patriarchial influence, the institution of marriage came under severe stress and brought with it profound changes in domestic relationships. This brought cost as well as benefits.
Economic Influences Upon Family
The economic function of the poor family has changed radically over time. Up to the late seventeenth century the family was a unit of production, its members working mostly in or around the home, or in nearby fields. Today, it is a unit of consumption, productive labor being carried on individually for wage outside the home.
Regardless of how much the source of income for poor families has changed, the results still seem much the same over time: poverty remains poverty with all its negative associations. Among the conditions which have blighted American life, surely the most puzzling has been the continuation of poverty. This paradox of poverty in the land of plenty continues to be one of the most disturbing problems facing the American consciousness.
For some, this paradox has served to reinforce a number of deeply rooted attitudes and prejudices concerning the poor. Accordingly, the philosophy of the upward mobility has never been possible for all people in America in spite of what we have been told. Equal opportunity has never really been a reality.
Yet, in spite of these very real and difficult to negotiate barriers people continually strive to obtain a piece of the American dream, to gain a financial foothold and succeed, whether it be for themselves or for their families in the future. Some do succeed, some succeed partially never really matching the reality of some success with their dreams of success, and some fail totally.
The dream of a better life, to get beyond the trappings of poverty and gain some measure of success, has always been a strong desire for most people. There is little dignity in poverty and in feeling unsuccessful, particularly in America. This seems to be a major theme in each of the plays we have chosen to study, families and the individuals in those families searching for some dignity.