Bioethics Blogs

Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age #2: Eugenics, Love, and the Marriage Problem

Wedding dress, 1910s. Source: Wikimedia Commons

[Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age is a blog series exploring the lesser-known ways that eugenics affected and engaged American lives during the first half of the twentieth century.]

For American women in the early twentieth century, marriage was a dangerous affair.

Upon her marriage, a woman’s civic and social identity became subsumed in her husband’s. A wife was expected to be subservient in the home and in the marital bed. If a husband became abusive, indifferent, or otherwise lackluster, she had little recourse. Divorces were rare, difficult to obtain, and stigmatized.

Even if a woman could obtain a divorce on grounds of cruelty or adultery, separation was often impractical. Few women worked after marriage and even fewer after having children, leaving most financially dependent on their husbands. To make matters worse, judges in divorce cases typically awarded custody of children to their fathers. Sexually transmitted diseases were rampant, alcoholism was epidemic, and even discussion of these serious matters—especially in regards to their impact on women—was considered uncouth. For all these reasons, a woman’s choice of spouse was likely to be one of the most important determinants of her lifelong happiness.

But broad social changes were afoot. Yet, in the early twentieth century, broader society was rapidly changing. The middle-class “True Woman” of the Victorian Era—passive, pious, frail, and domestic—was facing challenges from the Progressive Era “New Woman”—passionate, opinionated, independent, and well-educated. The New Woman studied in university, worked before marriage and occasionally after, and didn’t hesitate to tackle some of the more difficult and uncomfortable marital and reproductive matters of the time.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.