World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

"Her Marriage Bondage": Useful Websites for Linking Women's Marriage Rights Past to Present

Lyn Reese


"Woman's chief discontent is not with her political, but with her social, and particularly her marital bondage."
- Laura Bullard in The Revolution, suffrage journal, United States, 1870.

     Historically the family has been the primary sphere within which most women have lived their lives. It is often regarded as the most important unit in society with women usually regarded as the "glue" that holds the family together. In the modern world, however, the family has also been identified as the location for women's greatest oppression. News items describe disturbing realities: families who sell daughters for sex or servitude, honor killings, female genital mutilation, female dowry burning, forced or prevented abortions, and alarming worldwide domestic violence.

     One reason such problems continue is the perception that regulation and government intervention are inappropriate within the private sector of the home and family. Another is the reality that the family is the area in which assumptions about gender difference are most solidly entrenched and can be most powerfully enforced. International and local agencies have a hard time trying to implement uniform human rights standards or finding equitable answers to questions such as: Should a woman have the right to choose whether to marry or not? Choose whom she wants to marry? Choose to live in plural or monogamous marriages? Choose whether or not to have children, and to decide how many? Should wives have equal rights with husbands to divorce? Have access to their children after divorce? Have the right to remarry? Share equally in inheritance? Own businesses and property in their own name? Be protected from physical and psychological abuse by family members?

     Only recently have laws regulating the status of women in the family incorporated the modern norm of equality between the sexes found in such documents as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979), and the Declaration on Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993).1 Such documents are seen by some as threats to cultural standards or national sovereignty. Opposition along these lines prevented the ratification of CEDAW in the United States (making it the only developed country not to do so). Fierce debates continue between those who contend that human rights standards should differ from one group to another and those who advocate the equal application of international human rights standards to all human beings.

     These current debates and the prevalence of sensational reports about human rights abuses offer a unique opening to explore historical attitudes about women in the family. Taking time to investigate mandated roles in the family in the past helps uncover what might be considered human rights obstacles today.

     One way to open such discussions is to use primary sources. Described here are some from commonly taught world history periods. Any one of them will make clear the extent to which the position of women in the family was an integral part of the large patriarchal structures in society, and also will indicate how deep beliefs about inherent male/female difference resulted in the assignment of gender roles. What is described in these sources did not necessarily reflect the reality of people's lives. Restrictive laws and teachings did not apply to women in all social classes, were followed unevenly, or were sometimes simply ignored. Sometimes family control was harsh, sometimes not.

     These sources could be used in a variety of ways. They could be used to analyze differences and similarities among civilizations, or changes and continuities over time. Students could be asked to think about what the source suggests a good wife should do in order to achieve power within her family, or what the possible effects family restrictions might have had on the lives of women in the period. The sources can also be read to note areas where women were held in some esteem or were protected. After examining the sources, students might find out what the larger situation for women in that particular culture was. (All the source readings mentioned here are found on the Internet with their web addresses listed in the endnotes.)

Early Codes

     Laws and codes often establish the extent to which gender difference was embedded in concerns about marriage. "Marriage is the basis of all disputes," proclaims the first sentence of the chapter "Concerning Marriage and Women" in the Indian Arthashastra by Kautilya (c. 250 BCE).2 Most codes illustrate the truth of this comment. Prevalent are concerns about property rights. They also provide details of wifely duties, inheritance, sexual intercourse, and punishments for violating justice.

  • The Code of Hammurabi, (c.1780 BCE).3 This code is too often taught with no reference to its significant amount of information on women and marriage. The Internet Ancient History Sourcebook site includes a full scholarly comment along with laws dealing with marriage.
  • The Code of the Assura Assyrians (c.1075 BCE) 4 is a much harsher set of laws that refers to physical abuse and the oft-noted stipulation regarding the veiling of women in public. It might be compared to both the Hammurabi and other Assyrian codes to demonstrate variety between laws in similar regions and periods.
  • Selections from Middle Assyrian Codes give further insights into the power accorded to fathers.5 All marriage arrangements apparently did not go smoothly prompting the need for this law: "If a man either has poured oil on the head of the daughter of a man or brought dishes for the banquet, and then the son to whom he assigned the wife either died or fled, he shall give her to whichever of his remaining sons he wishes from the oldest to the youngest aged (at least) ten."
  • The Roman Twelve Tablets (c. 450 BCE) introduces that civilization's ancestral harsh patriarchal laws.6
  • The Augustus Period (27 BCE-14 CE), on the other hand, produced a series of laws that eased the granting of divorce, choice of partner, and punishments regarding adultery.7 Emperor Augustus, desirous of increasing the Rome's population, also made marriage a duty for Roman patricians.
  • A site dedicated to The Code of Justinian (533 CE) can be explored to see the impact of law on the lives of women in Byzantium.8 There are short descriptions rather than a listing of the laws. Of interest are comments about betrothal requirements, the reasons given for a husband and a wife to divorce, stipulations regarding concubinage, and the economics of marriage.
  • The Laws of Manu, a Hindu code compiled sometime during the first to fourth century, is arguably the most restrictive of Indian laws regarding women.9 The Laws of Manu became the standard source of Brahman elite authority in later orthodox Hindu tradition. They appear to have restricted women from activities they had undertaken in early Vedic India. Women's participation in religious rites was forbidden, and their legal independence sharply limited. The concept that women are married for eternity to one man was affirmed, and widow remarriage was forbidden. Indian women today often refer to the dictates of the Manu Laws with disdain, particularly the law that states: "A wife, a son, and a slave, these three are declared to have no property; the wealth which they earn is (acquired) to him to whom they belong."
  • In medieval Europe, The Magdeburg Law of 1261 sheds light on marriage and property rights among wealthy and middle-class families in the growing urban center.10 The laws, developed in the German city of Magdeburg, were used as a model in other cities in today's Germany and elsewhere in central Europe. In most places, they remained in force up to the nineteenth century. Basically, the legislation gave the man the sole powers of property disposal and right of guardianship. "When a man takes a woman, he takes into his possession and acquires disposal right over all her property."

Influential Teachings

Prose sources are a particularly engaging way to learn about women's marriage duties.

  • A selection from Xenophon's "Oeconomicus" (c. 430-355 BCE) brings life to the Athenian habit of marriage between older men and younger women.11 In the piece, the gentleman farmer Ischomachus explains to Socrates how he educated his young wife for her duties. His long list of her responsibilities reveals details of a woman's household tasks ending with his caution that she "bide tranquilly at home rather than roam abroad," a situation, he says, that for a man would be a contrary to his nature and "a thing discreditable."
  • Nujie (Lesson for a Woman), by Ban Zhao (c.48-120 CE), is another type of instructional thesis, this time written by the author for her daughters who were on the verge of marriage.12 Ban Zhao was a renowned Han dynasty historian whose work is full of Confucian principles regarding gender. For example, she describes the female function of the Yin as a way to support the correct harmonious relationship between husband and wife.
  • It is useful to compare Ban Zhoa's work with the much harsher view of women in the legend of Mencius' Mother.13 Written by the orthodox Confucian scholar Mencius in the Warring States Period (475 BCE-221 CE), NeoConfucian scholars of the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) used the story as part of their efforts to reassert stricter controls on women. The phrase most often repeated is the admonition the mother gives her son about what he should expect from the wife of a "superior man." "A woman is subject to the rule of the three obediences. When young, she has to obey her parents; when married, her husband; when a widow, her son."
  • The Greater Learning for Women (1762, Japan) is another vigorous promotion of NeoConfucian values about the proper roles for women.14 Widely influential in the later Edo Period, at least among the Samurai class, the treatise's doctrine of female submission and support for a rigid physical separation of the sexes was never applied to peasants since the labor of both female and male peasants was essential.
  • For medieval Europe, a concise, short reading is the letter from Peter of Boise sent to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1173.15 In it he chastises her for her part in the revolt of her sons against her husband, King Henry II. "The woman is at fault who leaves her husband and fails to keep the trust of this social bond," wrote Peter whose patron, the Archbishop of Rouen, was in turn a patron of the king.
  • The works of Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) present a woman's perspective on many issues. De Pizan was a learned and successful writer who valiantly defended women against some contemporary misogynistic writers. She was, nonetheless, influenced by traditional views on marriage. Her practical and moral advice in "The Mirror of Honor" reminds women of their duties toward their "lord and master."16 A lady above all should avoid dishonor, she cautions. A wife should exhibit humility in deed, word, and attitude and obey her husband without complaint.
  • Elizabeth I's Marriage Homily, while not written by the famous queen herself, presents views of marriage that were probably accepted by Elizabeth as it was issued under her authority as governor of the church in 1562.17 Late sixteenth century marriage homilies, read in place of sermons by Anglican ministers, became a common way to advocate the authority of the husband, who was to be both the spiritual and actual head of the family. This lengthy homily includes phrases such as "Man is as the king in his own house," and "Man is to his wife in the place of Christ to his church." Women also should be obedient, silent, and keep their heads covered in public as a sign of their subjugation. This reading might gainfully be compared to India's Laws of Manu and Japan's "Greater Learning for Women."
  • William Gouge's Of Domesticall Duties (1622), and selections from other writers of this period, bring attention to the proliferation of popular marriage advice or good conduct guides directed at the growing middle-class readership in Tudor and Stuart England.18 The reading might encourage student research into the works of seventeenth-century female writers, some of whom created angry responses to the period's misogynistic diatribes.

The Enlightenment and Natural Rights

     In Europe, the eighteenth century saw continued discussions of women's subjugation and challenges to male supremacy. Both men and women used concepts of reason and natural rights to mount their arguments. Questions were raised. Were women equal to men? Could they be emancipated from familial control? What about the transmission of property, and love and sexual liberty?

  • Mary Astell in "Reflections Upon Marriage" (1700, England) begins the period by lamenting women's lack of choice in marriage and their required submission.19 "If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?"
  • Mary Wollstonecraft, author of "Vindication of the Rights of Women" (1792), wrote a sharp response to the famous French writer Jean-Jacque Rousseau, who glorified a woman as wife and mother but thought that nature had made her "to submit to man and to endure even injustice at his hands."20 Wollstonecraft acknowledged women's important role as mother, but she also urged an education that would allow them to become "rational creatures and free citizens; and they will quickly become good wives and mothers, that is - if men do not neglect the duties of husbands."
  • The French Revolution put women's claims to citizenship and desire for public participation to the test. As the Women's Petition to the National Assembly in 1789 boldly states, "All privileges of the male sex are irrevocably abolished throughout France."21 And, "In the household, both parties should enjoy the same authority."
  • Olympe de Gouges' "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and (Female) Citizenship" (1791) should be read for the extent of those rights she considered to be women's natural due.22 In her list of rights, she calls for recognition of illegitimate children and in a rather odd postscript writes a "Form for a Social Contract Between Man and Woman."
  • The 1803 French Civil Code, (the Napoleonic Code) is a classic example of reaction to women's push for public involvement.23 The revolution had spurred the creation of women's organizations with many using the concept of patriotic motherhood to justify their political activities. Men, suspicious of the clubs, claimed that women's public involvement distracted them from their domestic duties. By 1793, the clubs were banned and government leaders insisted that women should be content in the heart of their families. Napoleon's code ended women's hopes by stating in no uncertain terms that the wife owed her husband obedience. Wives also were forbidden from selling, mortgaging, or buying property. Within France and its colonies, the Code survived virtually unaltered for more than 150 years, for women perhaps the most enduring legacy of the French Revolution.

Nineteenth Century Reform

     During the nineteenth century, there were calls in many nations for reforms to benefit women. Questions regarding suffrage were of course raised, but the idea of more equitable marriage rights took pride of place. The United States managed the first successful campaign to undermine common law principles concerning the dependence of married women.

  • America's Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions (1848), passed at the first Women's Rights Convention, included concerns about the deprivation of married women's rights.24 "In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master--the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty and to administer chastisement."
  • Ernestine Rose's Speech at the 1850 National Woman's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, is another statement of American concerns.25 Rose, a Polish born Jew, petitioned the state of New York as early as 1836 to let married women hold their own property. In her dramatic and widely circulated 1850 speech, Rose noted that in marriage a husband "keeps her, and so he does a favorite horse; by law they are both considered his property." She also referred to the international nature of reform, saying, "We are not crusading for the rights of the women of New England, or of old England, but of the world."
  • In England, well known writer Caroline Norton, in her "English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century" (1854) and her "Letter to the Queen" (1855) wrote confessional accounts of her struggles with her husband.26 In 1824, she was pressured into marrying an older abusive husband. She left him but failed in her efforts to secure a divorce and gain access to her children whom her husband had handed to his mistress to raise. This ignited her writing and lobbying efforts for reform. Partly as a result of her very public voice, Parliament passed the Custody of Children Act in 1839 and in 1857 the Marriage and Divorce Act. It was not until 1882, however, that a comprehensive marriage property act was passed; not until 1923 that women could divorce on the same ground as men; and not until 1925 that mothers were given equal rights with fathers over their children.
  • John Stuart Mill's "The Subjection of Women" (1869) lends a strong male voice to the call for reform.27 In it he proclaims his renunciation of the "odious powers" given him as a male upon marriage. Mill also acknowledged that much of the source of his intellectual development came from his long association with Harriet Hardy Taylor, whom he later married.

     In colonized countries and those engaged in efforts to compete with the industrialized West, calls for women's rights were complex and varied widely from place to place. Egypt and Japan offer two case studies. In both regions by the later nineteenth century, middle class and elite women were emerging from household restrictions. The argument that women should be educated not necessarily for their own sake but for their capacity to improve the nation became a major rational for these new freedoms. Often this was in response to attitudes of the colonizers who considered non-western cultural practices regarding women as "barbaric," while ignoring women's demands for reform at home.

  • In Egypt, Qasim Amin's "The Liberation of Woman" (1899) is thought by some to be that country's first work to address the question of women's new roles in society.28 Although he believed the proper role of women to be wife and mother, Amin wrote against polygamy, the harem, veiling in public, and for women's education.
  • Some came to see Amin as too influenced by European ideas, and many Egyptians preferred Malik Hefni Nassef's (pen name Bahithat al-Badiyya) more accommodating approach for women's rights.29 In 1909, she began a series of public lectures delivered to women-only clubs. Her strong views on the rights for women within marriage reflected her own experience; she had been married by her family to a man who was already a husband and father though she did not know this at the time of the wedding. She argued that Islam guaranteed rights to women though customs and traditions stood in the way. She said that women could regain their basic rights with a "middle way between two extremes" that did not violate what Islam prescribes. In 1911, she presented ten modest demands to the Egyptian Legislative Assembly, which were rejected by the all male Assembly. Nassef's stance presents a useful parallel with the ideas of those in the Muslim world today who support changes for women within the context of their religion and culture.
  • In Japan, Kishida Toshiko (1861-1901) was an exciting and talented public speaker who was heard by thousands of women.30 During the early Meiji Restoration, nationalists were arguing that improving the status of women was essential if other technologically advanced nations were to accept Japan as an equal. This gave women a chance to introduce ideas for change. When Toshiko was a teenager she served the Empress at court, but left, describing the court as a symbol of the concubine system which "was an outrage to women." She also felt that the present family system turned girls into "maidens in boxes" and that the only appropriate box should be one "as large and as free as the world itself." Toshiko was among women, now labeled Japan's "first feminists," who saw their views as logical responses to rapid change in their country. They organized women's groups, made public speeches, and created, at least for a while, a journal.
  • Japanese Civil Codes of 1898. 31By the end of the century, however, the ruling elite in Japan reacted negatively to women's pressure. Even the male supporters of women's rights were reluctant to back changes in the traditional family structure. Like the French under Napoleon, they reinstated the most conservative and oppressive model of the family. Men were enshrined as head of the family with absolute authority over family members; married women lost some of the rights they had gained. One provision stated: "Cripples and disabled persons and wives cannot undertake any legal action." The Codes also attacked traditional means of birth control in order to promote high birth rates especially after the losses in the 1905 war with Russia. The patriarchal family thus became a part of state policy, and NeoConfucian principles were extended to all women, not just to the upper class.

Twentieth Century Communist Revolutions

     In Russia and China, old beliefs had enshrined practices in which wives were sharply controlled. The communist revolutions in these countries attempted measures to radically alter the old family structure. Such changes were deemed necessary ways to support women's abilities to work in their new society. Some fundamental changes were accomplished, but over time reaction and sometimes outright rejection limited their effectiveness.

  • In Russia, in her writing Communism and the Family, Alexandra Kollontai called for improvements in conditions for women after the revolution of 1905.32 The only woman to hold a cabinet post in the new Bolshevik government, Kollontai said that the revolution had to first start with the family and establish a new idea of sex and gender. She envisioned the "proletarian family of the future" as one which would liberate women from "domestic slavery," making life richer and happier. Under the workers' state, society as a whole would take on all the tasks that before the revolution fell to individual parents. She received a certain amount of support for her measures, but by the 1920s Party support weakened. Kollentai's push to free women not only to work but also to have access to all levels of political and economic power, plus her moral views about sexuality and a free union between partners, were bitterly contested. By Stalin's era only a few of her longed for reforms had gained solid ground.

     In China, the Communist party also made a conscious effort to free women from age-old family restraints. Peasant women, considered to be at the bottom of the social heap, were targeted as early as the 1930s. Women's groups were created to give poor women a place where they could gain confidence and express their grievances against, the Party hoped, their bad treatment by local landlords. In these "speak bitterness" sessions, however, many of the women aimed their attacks at husbands and in-laws who had physically abused them.

  • The Marriage Law of 1950 was passed soon after the establishment of the Communist government in China in 1949.33 It gave women full legal equality with men inside the family. Polygamy, the sale of women as wives, arranged marriages, and all forms of child marriage were prohibited. The provision for divorce simply said, "when one part is determined to claim a divorce, it shall have immediate effect." Opposition to the new law developed rapidly when it came into conflict with the realities of the lives of the peasants. The surge in divorces created the most attention. Since the code had also given women equal rights to the land as part of the requirement for their emancipation upon divorce, the woman kept her land allotment and equal share of any property gained during marriage. Men complained that they stood to lose both their wives and their property. Women, who returned to their families after finding it hard to live independently, often faced incredible abuse. In the face of this disruption, the Party hesitated. By 1953, divorce became more difficult to get and many cadres simply neglected all applications for divorce by poor women. Traditional practices persisted and were supported by many women, including older women who felt the new law threatened their relationship with their sons and lessened their expected privileges as mothers-in-law.
  • In Jan Myrdal's book, Report from a Chinese Village, Li Kuei-ying, an official in a village commune, tells of her efforts to educate families who still practiced "purchase marriage."34 By 1958, the government needed women's labor as it tried to increase industrial production during the Great Leap Forward. In rural areas, farmers were mobilized into communes, and Li Kuei-ying was charged with bringing families in line with the expectations of the changing society. Following the reading, research could be done on recent circumstances in China, including revisions in the 1950s Marriage Code, the recent surge in divorces caused by China's rapid economic growth, and a relaxation of the one child policy.


     These sources not only provide information about the history of women and men in families but also raise questions about the struggle for women's rights today: To what extent have beliefs about gender differences in many societies changed? How have they remained the same? What obstacles have women around the world identified as the hardest to overcome? The multiple international and local women's rights organizations with Internet sites provide places to locate current concerns.35 For example, there is a discussion on the Human Rights Watch site on inheritance customs in Kenya where, in some areas, the equal rights of widows to their property are obstructed.36 Noting the importance that groups like Human Rights Watch give to the status of women will help students understand why the position of women within their families remains an important contemporary as well as historical issue.

Biographical Note: Lyn Reese founded and directs Women in World History Curriculum. She also consults for the International Museum of Women in San Francisco.



1 Excerpts: Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979), and the Declaration on Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993), Women in World History, []

2 On gender issues from the Arthashastra, Indian History Sourcebook, []

3 The Code of Hammurabi, Ancient History Sourcebook, []

4 The Code of the Assura Assyrians, Ancient History Sourcebook, []

6The Roman Twelve tablets, Women's Life in Greece and Rome, []

7The Augustus Period, Medieval Source Book, []

8The Code of Justinian, Women in the Ancient World, ['s%20law.htm]

9 The Laws of Manu, Women in World History, []

10 The Magdeburg Law of 1261, Women in World History, []

11 Xenophon's "Oeconomicus", World Wide School Library, []

12 Nujie (Lesson for a Woman) by Ban Zhao, Other Women's Voices, []

13 Mencius' Mother, Humanistics Texts, []

14 The Greater Learning for Women, Reading About the World, []

15Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1173, Medieval Sourcebook, []

16 "The Mirror of Honor", Mount Holyoke College, []

17Elizabeth I's Marriage Homily, Dayspring Anglican Church, []

18 William Gouge's "Of Domesticall Duties," The Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth I, []

19 Mary Astell in "Reflections Upon Marriage," Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature, []

20 Mary Wollstonecraft, "Vindication of the Rights of Women", Women in World History, []

21 Women's Petition to the National Assembly in 1789, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution, []

22 Olympe de Gouges' "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and (Female) Citizenship", Liberty Rhetoric, []

23 The 1803 French Civil Code, (the Napoleonic Code), The Napolean Series, []

24 Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions (1848), Sunshine for Women, []

25 Ernestine Rose's Speech, Women's Rights Convention (1851), Women Studies Research Center of Brandeis University, []

26 Caroline Norton's "English Laws for Women" and "Letter to the Queen", Women in World History, []

27 John Stuart Mill, "The Subjection of Women", Middlesex University, []

28 Qasim Amin, "The Liberation of Woman", Mujeres mediterráneas, []

29 Malik Hefni Nassef's Lecture, Women in World History, []

30 Kishida Toshiko, Women in World History, []

31 Civil Codes of 1898, Women in World History, []

32 Alexandra Kollontai's "Communism and the Family", Alexandra Kollantai Archive, []

33 The Marriage Law of 1950, UCLA Center for East Asian Studies, []

34 Li Kuei-ying, Women in World History, []

35 Women's Rights Organizations, Women in World History, []

36 Women's Property Rights, Human Rights Watch, []


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use