What do historians think about power in marriage in the past?

One topic sure to start a debate is what wives and husbands want from marriage and which of them holds the most power. Only last month Laura Doyle, the author of The Surrendered Wife, was writing in the Daily Mail Online advising women how to have happy marriages. She commended the advice she’d been given from women ‘who’d been married longer than me’:

One said: ‘I never criticise my husband no matter how much it seems he deserves it.’  Another said: ‘I handed all the finances to my husband — it prevents all sorts of rows.’

(NB: If this is what marriage should be, I’m tempted to support this thought piece in the Guardian on 4 January 2014 advocating that we abandon it altogether!)

Throw into the debate the question of how marriages worked in the past in a patriarchal society and you will get a multitude of opinions. A few are reflected in this cartoon!


Copyright Mirrorpix, British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent, W.K. Haselden, Published: Daily Mirror, 19 Aug 1907.

So, for anyone who wants to come to such discussions with a bit of scholarly punch, here is an outline of what historians think about marriage and the relationship between spouses in Britain up to the mid nineteenth century.

Economic management and decision-making are pretty good lenses for assessing how spouses tackled questions of power. Indeed historians of marriage who study economic-based evidence showing property ownership, access to the household’s material resources, and credit and business activities often describe marital relationships as interdependent. In my work on marital conflict between 1660 and 1800, I found that nearly three-quarters of the complaints were about who provided, governed, distributed and owned household stuff, which shows how crucial the marital economy was to household authority.[i] It is most visible in labouring and middling rank marriages where wives participation in labour, provision and consumption is more easily seen. Yet it has its counterpart in genteel families. Amanda Vickery’s work on three ‘his and hers’ account books, which she describes as ‘a tool of domestic control,’[ii] demonstrates that in two cases there was ‘discrete female accounting within a framework of masculine oversight’ and in the third the wife had come into her inheritance before her husband and therefore she paid his bills and gave him spending money.

So what does economic interdependence tell us about marital relationships? Well, spouses worked towards the same objectives: to manage their households and economies efficiently and to protect their individual and household credit. They therefore pooled their labour, interests and resources and prioritised familial interests – or children’s wellbeing – over individual concerns and united spouses in collaborative – though not necessarily the same – endeavours. Although spouses’ spheres overlap their authority was differently weighted, typically in favour of husbands.

Also, interdependence makes us think about the profound economic value of wives. They brought with them invaluable goods, cash or property at marriage, provisioned the household as consumers, contracted with traders to purchase household necessities and carried out business activities, and, alongside childbearing and rearing, did paid or unpaid labor. This was fairly common whatever the law stated. For example, despite variations in the laws relating to marriage and inheritance across Britain and Scandinavia, practices converged so that married women had similar economic capabilities. Though theoretically restricted and in practice more limited than men’s economic pursuits, wives activities had the potential to provide them with a sense of control during married life.[iii]

And, if we follow this line of thought, interdependence shows that men depended upon their wives. Here is Jane Bewick’s (daughter of Thomas Bewick) memory of her parents’ relationship in the later eighteenth century:

had it not been for her [Jane’s mother] excellent frugal management, I have no hesitation in saying, my father would never have been master of one penny … Out of her allowance for housekeeping my mother soon contrived to save eighty five guineas, which she placed at interest, in the hands of Mr Ward: and the secret came out some few years afterwards when, in settling a xmas acc[oun]t for woollen drapery, Mr Ward asked my father, if the interest should be deducted, – this was a great surprise & pleasure, which my father often spoke of in after life as the first money he was master of …

Men relied upon their wives for essential tasks that facilitated the smooth running and financial worth of their household, as well as the more abstract public qualities of status and credit-worthiness. This freed-up husbands for pursuits elsewhere. Interdependence could therefore undermine expectations about marital authority. Each spouse’s hold on power was influenced by the other (of course women’s power was, crucially, informal) and their positions were secured or undermined by the other’s actions and goodwill.

Historians who are lucky enough to work on letters written by husbands and wives to each other are able to explore marital authority more directly and often in some detail. What can be seen in these records is a process of negotiation, where spouses work out in practice who does what. For the most part, examples of spouses thinking about their roles are one sided, but evidence of this as collaborative exists, and Katie Barclay’s work is an in-depth examination of this two-way process.[iv] She found that Scottish spouses who were parted for periods of time negotiated the meaning and practice of authority, their right to act in particular ways, to make decisions and exercise choice, and to shoulder or reject responsibilities and duties. Negotiation was an ongoing activity and went on across the life of a marriage and therefore might vary in form and outcome. So this picture of authority is less fixed or monolithic than earlier explanations and shows that power could be distributed more fluidly between spouses, not always resting in only one – the male.

These spouses operated within a shared understanding of patriarchal marriage as a hierarchical relationship in which benign male rule was balanced by male obligations and female duty balanced by female rights. Negotiation was about how best to achieve its common principles. Thus we also get to see how spouses interacted with ideals about appropriate behaviour for married men and women. For example, ‘fashionable’ women in the early eighteenth century used the language of moralising advice about marital roles to declare that they were obedient wives and thus demonstrate their virtue and moral authority. Yet, this apparently submissive gesture offered them liberties within marriage and in some cases enabled them to defy their husbands. Letters suggest that husbands and wives sang from the same hymn sheet – conduct advice and scripture. But they had their own strategies in using the ideals – for example to justify and defend their own behaviour or attack their spouse’s actions. The advice for couples gave them the tools to persuade each other, as well as to ignore the other’s requests and orders, or evade them by claiming ignorance or misunderstanding. In effect, we now see that spouses could use the same cultural discourses to interpret the nature of marital roles and authority differently.

When wives and husbands negotiated their roles, they hoped that the result would be harmony. But the process could produce conflict. No doubt, it was the tactic of the individual who knew his/her marriage guidance and the Church’s views, and the articulate – those who possessed discursive and analytical abilities. Thus negotiation was most likely to fail when one of the spouses did not possess the requisite skills. Interestingly, this echoes sociological findings that it is emotionally or verbally inarticulate men who resort to violence against their wives. Nonetheless this was – ideally – a more managed conflict, since the system itself accommodated such negotiation. In Katie Barclay’s words, ‘by allowing the opportunity for resolution, negotiation allows patriarchy to repair and survive’.

Negotiation and inter-dependence are quite compatible. For example, wives’ economic role granted them the power to negotiate with husbands. There is evidence that some wives went on strike – refusing to manage the household – to mark their resentment of husbands’ interference or inadequacy. In some cases this persuaded the husbands to fall into line. Both ways of thinking about historical marital relationships suggest that spouses shared commonly held views – whether the prevailing ideals of patriarchal marriage – or advancing familial or household interests – or attaining a successfully functioning economic unit – and indicate how spouses worked towards achieving them. They also show that a variety of behaviours could be accommodated within normative boundaries. In a successful union in both cases there was enough flexibility to allow differences in spouses’ interpretations to be accommodated without its destruction. The flipside in both was instability and conflict –where negotiation or economic activities were perceived as challenges to the status quo or male authority – nevertheless some degree of conflict was considered normal rather than disruptive.

So successful marriages were based on couples pooling their resources, sharing the labours of family and work, and talking things through with a reasonable amount of give and take – not that surprising is it? But this doesn’t mean that nothing changed over time. For a start, specific expectations about what husbands and wives did in the household, family, and labour market changed according to economic, legal, and cultural circumstances. Also, advice for spouses has changed regularly too – gender constructions evolve – and therefore people will use different conventions and phrasing to talk through their place in their marriage. Landmark changes in the availability of divorce and new ideas about the role of love and sex in marriage in the twentieth century have also rewritten the terms of expected behaviour, as Claire Langhamer shows in The English in Love.[v]


Copyright Mirrorpix, British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent, W.K. Haselden, Published: Daily Mirror, 15 Jun 1906.

Still, just as stereotypes of bad marriages and awful wives and husbands are long lasting, as the increasingly smaller husband above shows, I think that sharing and negotiation continue to be solutions to organising the distribution of power in marriage – and then no-one needs to surrender, because marriage is not a battle.

[i] Joanne Bailey, Unquiet Lives: Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in England, 1660-1800

[ii] Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England.

[iii] Maria Agren, and Amy Erickson (eds), The Marital Economy in Scandinavia and Britain 1400–1900.

[iv] Katie Barclay, Love, Intimacy and Power: Marriage and Patriarchy in Scotland, 1650-1850.

[v] Langhamer, The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution.


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