Vestiges of Coverture: Child Marriage in Present Day United States

After my long-lasting obsession with 16 and Pregnant, I’m familiar with the fairy-tale fantasies of young women in high-school, who believe their Prince Charming must be the man-boy with whom they flirt, and text, and Snap, and procreate.  I also remember how mature I felt (and was, in some ways) when I was finishing up high school and how easy it was to get swept up in ideas about grand gestures.  So, when diving into an article this past weekend about young marriage,  I was expecting to learn more about the implications for political and social service organizations that then support teenagers in the 16-18 age bracket who get married and then need help.

I was wrong.  Instead, I learned about child marriage — here in the U.S.  Real, no gloss to be had, child marriage of girls as young as 12 (at least).  Of course, there are serious long-term concerns to weigh regarding consent, domestic violence, education, financial stability and agency for those who get a wedding dress for their sweet-16.  Those concerns amplify exponentially when you drop the age lower.

Fraidy Reiss, Executive Director of the non-profit Unchained at Last which works to combat child marriage here in the U.S., wrote the article that sent me down this horrifying rabbit hole.  The article, in turn, relies heavily on this 50-state report completed by the Tahirih Justice Center center on November 18, 2016.  Here are the highlights of the report:

To recap, only one state requires that the people getting married be adults — Virginia.  Everybody else allows to be married individuals recognized by the law as children.  But, if you want to carve out the 16 or older crowd in honor of the mythologizing that comes with 16, that adds fourteen states* to the honorable mentions list.  With only 15 states handily out of the way of our ire, that leaves a whole lot of targets on the table.

This isn’t a hypothetical problem.  According to the Post, per a survey of available wedding records from 2000-2010:

in 38 states, more than 167,000 children — almost all of them girls, some as young 12 — were married during that period, mostly to men 18 or older. . . .Many of the states that provided data included categories such as “14 and younger,” without specifying exactly how much younger some brides and grooms were. Thus, the 12-year-olds we found in Alaska, Louisiana and South Carolina’s data might not have been the youngest children wed in America between 2000 and 2010.

Based on the rates of marriage in the states where records included age information, estimates for the entire country put child-marriage rates closer to 250,000.  And based on states that report the age of the spouse, “at least 31 percent were married to a spouse age 21 or older.”

That is tens of thousands of girls being married into a dynamic that, when sexual, constitute statutory rape.  Or, for those of us who don’t need to qualify it, rape.  And since it is safe to assume that many of these “marriages” won’t be constrained to only one sexual interactions, hundreds of thousands of rapes.  Here in the U.S.  That government officials know about, facilitate, but do nothing about.

If that isn’t chilling enough by itself, consider this:

a child who leaves home is considered a runaway; the police try to return her to her family and could even charge our organization criminally if we were to get involved. Most domestic-violence shelters do not accept minors, and youth shelters typically notify parents that their children are there. Child-protective services are usually not a solution, either: Caseworkers point out that preventing legal marriages is not in their mandate.

Thus, even if these young women try to leave, the state is most likely to return them to the very source of their abuse.  Because they are children.

Understanding this all requires us to look backward and understand that up through very recent history, marriage wasn’t about two equal individuals partnering together.  Instead, under the laws and concepts of coverture, married women were non-legal entities.  Instead, a married woman was essentially absorbed into the legal person of her husband.  The husband was the “person” the law recognized; the wife literally belonged to him.  As a result, according to the law, a married woman couldn’t be raped.  That same backward logic erases the rape implicit in marrying off children.

This should be an easy win that everyone can rally around, yet only Virginia has gotten its act together thus far.  Legislation, like the statute being considered in New Jersey, should be passed to outlaw any marriage for minors.  So add this to your list of things you talk to your elected officials about.  Also keep in mind that organizations like Unchained at Last and the Tahirih Justice Center work to help the young girls and women who are victimized under the antiquated laws that permit child marriage here in the U.S; so if you’re looking for additional organizations to donate to, consider them.

Yes, I’m counting the District of Columbia as a state.  Learn about DC statehood if you’re worried and then get back to me. 






Katherine Kimpel

Kate Kimpel is the Senior Editor of Shattering the Ceiling and is also an accomplished civil rights lawyer. She represents women and people of color in discrimination cases (and other kinds of employment and civil rights matters).  When not lawyering, she likely is bragging about her hound dog Ulysses, inventing cocktails to serve at her next dinner party, or convincing her husband to watch reruns of a Joss Whedon television show (any of them will do). 

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