General, Women's History

Patriarchs, Power and Eighteenth Century Marriage

you reign my Eliza alone in mine (heart), & every sentiment of it, is subservient to you … as long as you love me, the most endearing word to my thoughts is wife, because it implies my possession & enjoyment of you whole love for all my life … I must be first, & superior, in your heart & thoughts, your affection as a parent, must be derived from you love as my wife.[i]

This quote is from a letter written by Hugh, Earl of Marchmont, to his wife Elizabeth Crompton in 1750. It highlights a number of sites of power within the eighteenth-century Scottish family. Hugh conceived of his love in terms of possession, of ownership of his wife- mirroring a legal system where if wives were not quite property, they were certainly viewed as being in the control of their husbands. It conveyed the lines of power within the family where his wife was expected to put him first, and where her relationship to others within the family- including their own child, who was only month old when this was written- were to be derived from her relationship with him. Hugh, and many others of his generation, expected his wife to subsume her identity within his, demanding that her relationships even with other family members reflected her new relational self as wife.

The need for eighteenth-century women to adapt their loyalties on marriage- to seek their interest and even sense of selfhood in their husband, rather than their family- was emphasised in advice. Robertson of Strowan advised his fifteen year old daughter on her marriage in 1755, that ‘if Mr [Oliphant] intrusts you with a secret, let niether father or mother, brother or sister ever hear of it. In short as man & wife are said in scripture to be on flesh so ought they to be one soul; no separate views or separate interests in prosperity or adversity in sickness or in health.’ In a letter that focused solely on a wife’s duties towards her husband (with no hint of the reverse), her father concluded: ‘I pray God you may be a comfort to him, & the instrument of happiness to his family’.

This model for marriage where authority and selfhood was vested in the male patriarch, while his family’s help enabled him to take on the public role as household head, disciplinarian, family representative within the broader community, and for elite men, leaders of their communities and nations, raises a number of questions around the relationship between masculinity and family, particularly with regard to the power held by the household patriarch. On the one hand, the masculinity of the patriarch was enabled by his family and dependent upon it. In the early modern period, it has been shown that a patriarch’s authority was often contingent on his ability to successfully control his household, leading to a form of masculinity that was able to be undermined by unruly, or sexually dissatisfied, wives and disobedient children. This was particularly true for men who were unable to fulfil their obligations as patriarchs most notably as protectors and providers, perhaps due to physical disability, poor credit or unemployment- highlighting the extent to which mastery of the household was intricately related to other forms of social authority, such as wealth or the achievement of masculine ideals.

At a more personal level, and as is suggested by Marchmont’s words, male dependence on women was more than a pragmatic need for them to behave in order to shore up a public persona. Men were often psychologically dependent on the wives who offered them emotional and spiritual support, as well providing practical help within the household economy. The sublimation of wives into their husband’s identities was viewed by men, at least from the mid-eighteenth century, as enabling them to be full and independent individuals. It was seen as the natural function of women, whose right or need for their own self to be enabled was not recognised by many thinkers (or most husbands) of the period.

It created a form of co-dependency that left men vulnerable to the exposure of their private inner-selves to the public world by their wives and to an extent by other family members. For some historians, this vulnerability has led to an emphasis on the contingent nature of patriarchal authority, as well as a focus on the ways that male power was threatened and insecure within the family and beyond. Studies have also shown the ways in which patriarchy has been damaging to men- so the cultural prohibitions on men admitting to weakness is demonstrated to stop them receiving timely medical or psychological help, while the need to conform to certain models of manliness is regarded as limiting to the expression of self, which can have negative effects for both the individual and society.

Yet, the other side of this is that the patriarch of the long-eighteenth-century, particularly if he was of the elite, held a considerable amount of power. He was not only granted social and cultural authority over his family, and particularly his wife, by social institutions such as the Kirk and the state, but benefited from the training in subordination and obedience that women underwent in childhood that made it difficult for them to question their role. While wives had the potential to undermine their husband’s masculinity, in practice that their own well-being was rooted in the successful functioning of their household made this unlikely, at least in homes where men were fulfilling their social responsibilities. Furthermore, while an unruly wife could make life uncomfortable and ruin a man’s social reputation, his loss of authority was generally not her gain- at least not beyond the doors of the household. Women who tried to subvert ‘natural’ authority were commonly ridiculed and shunned- amongst the poor they may have been underwent ritual punishment, such as ducking; amongst the elite, they were the subject of gossip and social exclusion. The ability of wives to undermine their husband’s masculinity, and so his authority, at a personal level, has to be balanced against the massive weight of social custom and cultural discourse that vested power in the male. From this perspective, male authority seems less vulnerable and the limitations of a patriarchal self offset by the payoff in social authority or ‘the patriarchal dividend’.

Further Reading

Katie Barclay, Love, Intimacy and Power: Marriage and Patriarchy in Scotland, 1650-1850 (Manchester University Press, 2011).

Katie Barclay is interested in the ways that men and women negotiate for power within their marriages. Her book can pre-ordered now on Amazon!

[i] NAS GD158/2584/23 Hugh, Earl of Marchmont to Elizabeth Crompton, 30 August 1750.

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