From Property to Power – A History of Women’s Rights in Marriage and Divorce in the U.S.

March is National Women’s History Month and March 8 is International Women’s Equality Day. Despite representing 50.8% of people in the United States[1] and coming a long way since our nation’s founding, women are still considered a minority group. That is because, like people of color of both sexes, they have fewer rights compared to white men. In fact, 85% of the constitutions in the world now contain wording that protects the equal rights of women.[2] However, despite being one of the oldest in the world,[3] the U.S. Constitution does not. The U.S. is one of only 28 U.N. member nations[4] that doesn’t guarantee equal rights between men and women in its laws. Overall, we are 53rd out of 153 countries that the World Economic Forum studies regarding gender equality.[5]

This is one of many reasons why we celebrate women’s history in March. I decided to write about how women’s power evolved in the United States for this blog. There was so much fascinating information that it turned into a three-part series.

  • Part 1 will focus on how women gained power within marriage.
  • Part 2 will cover women in the workplace.
  • Part 3 will show how women went from not even being considered citizens to holding the second highest office in the land.

Women Under Coverture
No discussion of women’s rights* in the United States can begin without an explanation of coverture. In 1769, the American colonies formally accepted the English system of law called coverture, which had prior to that time been in place informally but not committed to paper.[1] Under this system, women were “covered” under the law by a man from their first moment of existence. At birth, a woman’s rights were subsumed by her father. Upon marriage, they passed into her husband’s hands, so that during her entire life—unless she became a widow—she had essentially the same rights as a child, a slave, or a person declared mentally unfit.

The actual language of the law stated, “by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.”[2] Therefore, women did not legally exist. This made women highly dependent on the men in their lives for everything, especially as it related to money and the law. They couldn’t vote, enter into contracts, or be sued. As historian Catherine Allgor explains, “They could not own or work in business. Married women could not own land or any other property, not even the clothes on their backs, and upon the death of her husband, a woman’s legal agency would transfer to her nearest male relative…. [A husband] owned her labor and could even lease her to work for someone else, taking her wages. He had absolute ownership of his wife’s children. If he chose, he could take custody of children after a divorce and could refuse to allow his former wife to ever see them again; and he could seize her property from other heirs upon her death… And of course, a husband could legally beat his wife, or ask that she be remanded to prison or an asylum…When it came to their rights as specifically women and wives, legally the only difference between a slave and a married woman was that a husband could not sell his wife…and even these distinctions were sometimes shaky.”[3]

In the American colonies, ending a marriage was even more difficult than being in one. While some marriages were “dissolved,” divorce as it is defined today was rare until the late 19th century. For women in the southern colonies, divorce was not an option because they followed English law. However, women in the northern colonies had it little better; they could only divorce their husbands if they could prove adultery, desertion or bigamy.[4]

These restrictions eased somewhat after the Revolutionary War, partly because people began to think that if colonies could leave their king, why couldn’t a husband leave his wife?[5] However, proof of cause still had to be provided, i.e. that one spouse had committed the crimes listed above, or were physically cruel, had threatened their life, did not provide economically or refused their marital duty in the bedroom.[6]

Laws Begin to Change
The first American law that permitted a woman any control over her own property was passed in Connecticut in 1808. It allowed a woman to leave a will and have her bequests honored.[7] But that was power only after death. Similarly, widows had the right of “dower,” which is the right to property they brought into the marriage, as well as to one-third of their husbands’ estate.[8] But again, this power only came after his death.

From 1821-1931, a series of marriage reform laws began to chip away at the stranglehold coverture had over women’s lives. For most of the 19th century, states passed a series of marriage reform laws aimed at granting women greater property rights, but they varied widely by state. The first state to act, in 1839, was Mississippi, which granted women the right to hold property in their own names with the caveat that they had to have permission from their husbands.[9]

In 1849, New York issued one of the most sweeping changes to marriage law under the Married Women’s Property Act,[10] which granted a married woman separate control over any rent or profit earned from property she held at the time of her marriage and protected it from her husband’s creditors. In addition, if a married woman was given property during her marriage through a grant or bequest, such as inheriting from her father, it was under her control, not that of her current or future husband. New York expanded women’s rights in 1860 with a reform statute stating “the earnings of any married woman, from her trade, business, labor or services, shall be her sole and separate property.”[11] For the first time, women had full control over the money they earned.

During this period, divorce became increasingly common, though adultery or cruelty still were really the only grounds.[12] This was due in part, at least to the increasing economic independence changes in marriage law gave to women. Divorce was expensive, so previously only the higher classes could afford to bring suit, which many did not out of fear for their reputation and social standing. But now some women’s rights advocates—including Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States in 1872—began to advance the belief that the law and religion should have nothing to do with marriage or divorce.[13] Woodhull famously proclaimed that she believed a marriage occurred when two people fell in love and dissolved when they were no longer in love.[14]

In 1871, cruelty, one of the most common reasons for divorce, became illegal for the very first time when Alabama became the first state to outlaw the beating of one’s wife. Previously, according to lore, a husband was only allowed to whip his wife with a switch no bigger than his thumb (which is where we get the phrase “rule of thumb”).[15] Other states attempted to follow, with mixed results. Maryland made wife-beating illegal in 1882,[16] but it wasn’t until 1920 that it was formally illegal in all states, and not until 1970 that domestic violence was treated as a serious crime under the judicial system.[17]

20th Century Progress
By the year 1900, every state had passed legislation granting married women the right to keep their own wages and to own property in their own name.[18] The fight for the next three decades (1907-1931) was to allow women to marry foreign men (especially Asian men) without losing their own citizenship, which began with the Expatriation Act (also known as the Married Women’s Citizenship Act) of 1907.[19] The Cable Act of 1922 (also called the Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act), partially reversed this ruling, stating “the right of any woman to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of her sex or because she is a married woman;”[20] however, a wife’s nationality was still dependent upon her husband’s status. This law was amended four times and repealed before the Nationality Act of 1940[21] allowed women to marry men of any nationality without loss of citizenship and restored the status of all affected by previous laws.[22]

In 1967, interracial marriage (meaning Black and White) was legalized in the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia,[23] but is still not accepted in some places today. Two years later, California adopted the nation’s first “no fault” divorce law, allowing divorce by mutual consent. By 1975, no-fault divorce was common in all states.[24]

But the ability to own property, keep one’s wages and marry and divorce at will is just the beginning of how modern women gained the rights we have today. In the next edition, we’ll look at women in the workplace and how we went from being regarded as the “angel of the house” in Victorian times to working women, wives and mothers today.

Please keep in mind that women’s history is very complex, so these articles can only scratch the surface. In addition, these articles are written in general terms. In reality, women of the upper classes experienced the world very differently from those of the lower and each race of women has their own history and their own struggles that continue to this day.


[2], 360

[3]Allgor. Catherine. “Remember…I’m Your Man”: Masculinity, Marriage, and Gender in Hamilton.” Historians on Hamilton. Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter, eds. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rugters University Press, 2018, 104-106.






[9] and




[13] MacPherson, Myra. “The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age.” New York: Twelve, 2014, 132-133.

[14] MacPherson, Myra. “The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age.” New York: Twelve, 2014, 132-133.

[15] 2144 – This has not been proven as a fact but is accepted into American and English folklore.

[16] Under the Rule of Thumb: Battered Women and the Administration of Justice. United States: The Commission, 1982., 2




[20] Cott, Nancy F. (December 1998). “Marriage and Women’s Citizenship in the United States, 1830–1934”The American Historical Review. New York, New York: Oxford University Press for the American Historical Association103 (5): 1440–1474.doi:10.2307/2649963





[2], 60

[3], 58



Victoria Woodhull’s Second Husband – Col. James Blood

bloodAfter Victoria divorced her first husband, the spirits guided her to St. Louis, where she set up shop as a medium named Madame Holland in a hotel office downtown. There she met Colonel James Harvey Blood, a Civil War veteran and city administrator. When he walked into her office, Victoria announced, “I see our future’s linked. Our destinies are bound together.” She believed that in that moment, they were betrothed “by the powers of the air.”

The only problem? He was already married and had at least one child. But that didn’t stop them from engaging in a torrid affair with Victoria and leaving his family to tour the Midwest with her as magnetic healers to raise the funds to pay off his debts in St. Louis. In 1866, they both divorced their spouses.

While they were in Chicago for Victoria’s divorce, she and Colonel Blood discovered that Buck Claflin was running a house of prostitution and using four of his daughters, including Tennie, as whores for the men.  Tennie must have seen an opportunity to  get out of this hellish life, for she found Victoria and James and asked with tears in her eyes, “My God, have I got to live like this always?” They took her in, earning the ire of parents, who saw only the influence James had over her and loss of income.

On July 12, 1866, Victoria and James were married in Dayton, Ohio. But the marriage application was incomplete and never filed by the minister, so there was some lingering question as to whether or not they were legally married. There’s also a persistent rumor that they divorced for a short period in 1868. Some sources say this was a show of political activism (but that sounds too Brad and Angelina modern to me). The juicer rumor is that Victoria’s sister, Polly, tried to blackmail them by alleging the Colonel’s divorce never went through and threatening him with a bigamy charge if he didn’t pay her. Instead, the story goes, he and Victoria divorced until he could verify the legality of his divorce from his first wife.

It was shocking to traditional society that Victoria didn’t change her last name to Colonel Blood’s, but she defiantly noted she was carrying on the tradition of professional women like actresses, singers and other artists who keep their own names (or in her case, her married name from her first marriage).

James as Influence on Victoria’s Future
As future posts will show, Colonel Blood was key to giving Victoria the stability and by all accounts the love that she so desperately needed. He was a supporter of the suffrage movement from way back and likely is the one who got her involved. He supported her desire to become a stock broker, even using his legal and accounting skills to help the firm, and then championed her run for office. In both cases, he served as her personal secretary, and also helped write her speeches.

James also believed in Free Love (the idea that love between two people governed when a marriage occurred and when it ended, rather than a governmental institution or legal piece of paper), a concept which he shared with Victoria. While it’s very likely she had an affair with at least Theodore Tilton, I haven’t found any solid evidence that he ever had one with anyone else. Some sources imply his close friendship with Elizabeth Cady Stanton (with whom it is said he “played chess” late into the night) was more than friendship, but I doubt that to be the case. It’s also rumored that he may have had an affair with Fannie Keziah Fogg, the daughter of the woman he later married after Victoria divorced him. But given that Fannie was born in 1862, and Victoria divorced him in 1876, if the affair occurred, it would have had to have been late into their marriage, as Fannie was only 14 when James was divorced.

Oddly enough, I am from St. Louis and I dated a guy with the last name of Blood in high school, so I can’t help but wonder if he’s a relative. How weird would that be?

Any thoughts or questions about James?


Brody, Miriam. Victoria Woodhull, Free Spirit for Women’s Rights.
Frisken, Amanda. Victoria Woodhull’s Sexual Revolution.
Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria.
Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.
Havelin, Kate. Victoria Woodhull.
Krull, Kathleen. A Woman for President – The Story of Victoria Woodhull.
MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters.
Tilton, Theodore. The Golden Age Tract No. 3 “Victoria C. Woodhull, a Biographical Sketch.” 
Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.

This post was updated on July 31, 21015, to correct confusion about Colonel Blood’s children. My sources vary in their answers. Some day two daughters, some say one. Some simply say “children” or “family.”

Victoria Woodhull’s  First Husband: Canning Woodhull

Canning Woodhull and family; wife Victoria, daughter Zula and son Byron (Portrait, probably 1856)

Canning Woodhull and family; wife Victoria, daughter Zula and son Byron (Portrait, probably 1856)

When we last left Victoria, she was 14, gravely ill, but in the hands of a handsome young doctor who was twice her age. His name was Canning Woodhull. Victoria had been ill for nearly two years with chills, fever and rheumatism and was exhausted.

But eventually, she recovered and he began to court her, calling her “my little puss” and “my little chick.” Her family was all for the match because he had convinced them (untruthfully) that his father was a well respected judge and his uncle was major of New York. (Some sources question his validity as a doctor as well, and given how he lived his life, I tend to agree, though medical care was not well organized or professional at the time anyway.) Not long after he began courting Victoria, he asked her to marry him. She gladly accepted, seeing marriage as an escape from her family.

The Real Canning: All Around Arse
But she couldn’t have been more wrong. The real Canning was an alcoholic and a womanizer, who was found in a brothel only three days after their wedding. Six weeks into their marriage, she found a letter from his mistress asking, “did you marry that child because she, too, was en famille?” As Victoria later discovered, on the day of their marriage Canning had sent his mistress to the country, where she later gave birth.

If Victoria was a modern woman, she might have given him the old heave-ho, but she was still young and in love, a woman of her time, who was far from the social revolutionary she would become. She prayed and tried to reform her husband, but to no avail.

A little over a year after their marriage while living in Chicago, Victoria gave birth to a son, Byron, who proved to be brain damaged. (Some sources say from birth, others that he was dropped on his head at some early point.) At first, Victoria blamed herself for her son’s defect, but slowly she shifted the blame to her drunkard of a husband. Sources vary as to why, but most agree he physically abused her, even while she was pregnant.

She visited her parents after the birth and when she got home, she found Canning in bed with his mistress. He left her for a month, with no money and little food. A particularly dramatic (and questionable) story says she heard that he was staying with a woman he called his wife at a fashionable boarding house, so she went there to retrieve him, forcing the mistress to pack up and leave.

Moving to San Francisco
Victoria and Canning then moved to San Francisco, where she supported him. Some sources tell stories of Victoria becoming a “cigar girl” at a place called the Californian. (Cigar girls were really low-level prostitutes who sold favors instead of cigars.) Other sources say her income came from her work as a seamstress to actress Anna Cogswell. When this wasn’t enough to sustain them, Victoria took to the stage herself. She is known to have held the role of “the country cousin” in New York by Gaslight for six weeks. That was when she met actress Josie Mansfield, who would later play an important role in Victoria’s life as a stockbroker.

One night, while on stage, she had a vision of Tennie standing with her mother, calling to her to come home. She left the theater immediately, still in costume. The next day, she and her family took a steamer to New York, where her parents were living. In 1863, while in New York, Victoria gave birth to a second child, their daughter, Zulu (or Zula) Maude. The story goes that the poor babe nearly bled to death after birth because her drunk father either cut the cord too short or failed to tie it off properly, leaving her and her mother, who was passed out with exhaustion, in favor of the local pub.

Victoria left Canning shortly thereafter, plying her trade as a healer and medium in Chicago and Terre Haute, Indiana. She continued to support Canning, even though they were no longer together (I haven’t found any sources that say where he went when she left him, but it’s obvious he kept track of her movements). In her job, women came to Victoria to unburden themselves with tales of sexual abuse, maltreatment, neglect, sickness, poverty and oppression – all of which she had suffered in her young life. She tried to help them with her gifts as best she could. But she never forgot them; they were her inspiration to fight for women throughout her later work with the Suffrage Movement and her candidacy for President.

Canning Reappears
Canning just couldn’t leave Victoria alone. About a year and a half after she remarried (which will be the subject of next week’s post), Canning was delirious with illness (likely caused by his alcohol and morphine addictions) and called for her. Victoria and James brought him back to their house and took care of him for six weeks. He paid them and they said he was welcome any time. From that day on, when he needed her, he came. After a while, he became a permanent resident in her home until he died. Victoria knew others were scandalized by it – in fact the revelation that she was living simultaneously with her former and current husband was front page news after in came out in an 1871 court trial – but she considered it her Christian duty to take care of him, and defended her decision for the rest of her life.

Have you heard of Canning Woodhull? What do you think of his story? Any questions?


Brody, Miriam. Victoria Woodhull, Free Spirit for Women’s Rights.
Frisken, Amanda. Victoria Woodhull’s Sexual Revolution.
Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria.
Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.
Havelin, Kate. Victoria Woodhull.
Krull, Kathleen. A Woman for President – The Story of Victoria Woodhull.
MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters.
Tilton, Theodore. The Golden Age Tract No. 3 “Victoria C. Woodhull, a Biographical Sketch.” 
Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.







A Primer on Women’s Life in 19th Century America

19th century womanI’m getting closer to being able to tell all of you exactly who my next historical fiction book is about. I sent it off to the freelance editor whom I worked with on the first Guinevere book yesterday, as well as the first reader. I should get edits back in 4-6 weeks, then I’ll put it out for a quick beta read and be able to finally reveal her identity.

Until then, I thought I’d give you a brief taste of what life was like for a woman during the period of my novel (mid-late 1800s in America). As with my previous post about the new book, I’m not listing my sources yet because their titles would give away who my main character is. I’ll come back and add them as soon as I can.

The early 19th century had seen mostly traditional female roles centered around hearth, home and babies. But as war always seems to do, the Civil War gave some women an additional measure of independence, mostly out of necessity while her husband/father/brothers/sons were off fighting. However, after the cannon fire stopped echoing through the valleys and the guns went silent, she was expected to resume her traditional role.

Personal ambition in a woman was considered evil. She was expected to obey her father or her husband without complaint. The less she showed intelligence, the better off she was. In fact, the quieter and more sickly looking a woman was – frail, thin, pale, prone to fainting – the more attractive she was. (Ironically, she had little recourse if she actually was sickly. Many male doctors believed all women were inherently diseased and refused to treat them.)

There were social taboos against women speaking in public. To call attention to oneself in public was unladylike and considered a form of treachery to one’s husband because when she strayed from her proper place in the home, a woman caused him shame. An interesting exception to this rule was made for mediums, who were exempt because they were instruments of God’s will. (More on the Spiritualism craze of the day in a future post.)

Unsurprisingly, the law was not on a woman’s side, especially if she was unmarried, divorced, or widowed. Women couldn’t vote, serve on juries or testify in court.

Beating a woman was not illegal, but some laws stipulated how large of an object could be used. (Thanks for that, lawmakers.)  A married woman had no recourse if she was beaten and she couldn’t deny sex to her husband. As a result, families were large. Unwanted infants were wrapped in rags and abandoned on doorsteps or tossed in the river.

Women were considered property of their husbands. Divorce was legal, but the laws by which it was enforced or allowed varied by state. In many, adultery was the only reason a woman could ask for a divorce. And if she did, she faced steep consequences: she could lose her property, children and reputation.

Some women did work, usually out of necessity, and many made barely enough to keep themselves alive. Acceptable occupations included teaching (there were even some schools for girls by the second half of the century), factory work and domestic service. Wages paid to married women went straight to their husbands.

Prostitution was very common and in many ways, much accepted, at least for men. It was expected that young, unmarried men would frequent brothels. It was also acceptable for married men to go there. After all, sex within marriage wasn’t about pleasure; it was about procreation. In many areas of the country, guidebooks to the local brothels were created and disseminated among the male population, rating the establishments, profiling certain women and giving a summary of ambiance and services offered.

In polite society, parts of the body normally covered by clothing were referred to only in whispers. Words related to sex – even pregnancy, rape and abortion – weren’t used in among anyone with class.

While a man could do as he pleased within or outside of marriage, a woman adultery was highly shamed, as was a woman who wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night.

Despite the acceptance of prostitution, the prostitutes themselves were considered the lowest class of woman. They were forbidden a Christian burial and could not get proper medical care. (Another ironic medical assumption of the day: women could carry sexually transmitted diseases, but could not become infected with them. Some doctors believed that all sexually transmitted diseases originated with women. The condom was originally developed to shield a man from diseases a woman might be carrying, not as contraception.)

Suffrage Movement
I’ll do a detailed post on the early years of the suffrage movement soon, but for now, let’s just say it was a haven for women who didn’t believe in the status quo. Most the exceptions to societies norms were involved in the suffrage movement. Women who were the first to receive degrees of higher education (especially in the areas of law and medicine) were involved. These women were not only campaigning for the right to vote; they were voices for change for women on all fronts.

If a woman was clairvoyant, she could find a degree of power because she was allowed to speak and people listened. Spiritualists also sought temperance laws to protect women from abuse by drunken husbands and favored vegetarianism because they saw the killing of animals as a form of male violence. Many were involved in creating Utopian communities were women and men were considered equal and Free Love was the norm. (More on that to come as well.)

What questions do you have about women in the 19th century? What did you already know? What surprises you?

Celtic Divorce

Photo by Jennifer Pahlka from Oakland, CA, [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Jennifer Pahlka from Oakland, CA, [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, we talked about Celtic marriage. Sadly, not all those ended in happily ever after. In fact, divorce was common in the Celtic world, and relatively easy to obtain in comparison with today’s tangled web of courts and lawyers. There was no social stigma against it, since it was simply viewed as the breaking of a contract, like any business agreement.

In the case of a handfasting where no permanent contract had been signed, tradition tell us that at the end of their year and a day, the couple’s hands were symbolically unbound and they were placed back to back. Each gave their consent to the divorce and they walked away from one another. (Modern neo-pagans sometimes copy this tradition.) Easy enough.

But in a contractual marriage, things got a little more complicated, mainly due to the Celtic concern over property rights and alliances. Although Ginnell argues that “divorce was easy and could be obtained on as slight grounds” as some of the current states of the US, Thompson writes that it was more complicated than that. Ginnell generalizes that the law favored women, who took most of their own property, as well as their husband’s with them (212) in cases of divorce, but Thompson shows the opposite.

The law also changes depending on what part of the Celtic world a couple lived in. I haven’t found any sources that speak of Britain directly, so we need to look at her neighbors to get an understanding of what the law may have been.

“Medieval Welsh law allowed either husband or wife to dissolve a marriage at whim, and legal grounds for divorce only affected the division of property. If both parties agreed to the divorce, and the marriage had lasted at least seven years and three nights, joint marriage property was divided equally…If only one party filed for divorce and/or the marriage lasted less than seven years and three nights, Welsh law used a complex formula to decide which properties would be awarded to the husband, which to the wife and which were to be divided proportionally between them. (Thompson 135). Welsh men could divorce their wives for adultery and they would get all of the marriage property. But if the husband was caught, this wasn’t grounds for divorce; he just paid a fine. Women could divorce only her husband had bad breath (you’d think that would be common…), impotency or leprosy. By the way, these laws were in use through at least the 10th century.

In Ireland, things were better. Either party could file for divorce and there were a lot more legally accepted reasons. A man could divorce his wife for not keeping house well, if she stole on a regular basis (wonder how many women were one-time or infrequent offenders?), had an abortion, betrayed him to his enemies (yeah, I’d want a divorce, too!) or dishonored him (not sure how this was defined). A woman could get a divorce for 14 different reasons, including her husband’s failure to provide for her or her family due to unemployment, mental or physical illness or entry into a monastery; emotional or physical abuse; impotency, sterility, bisexuality or homosexuality (Thompson 136).

If both wanted the divorce, they would get their own private property back and the equivalent land and goods they brought to the marriage. Anything acquired during the marriage was divided equally. If either the husband or the wife had committed any of the above offenses, the non-guilty party would claim all profits (Thompson 136).

Other Instances
Perry notes that there are reasons for divorce that would enable a woman to reclaim the bride price (dowry) her father paid for her, including her husband leaving her for another woman, failure to support her, or her husband “telling lies or satirizing her or  seducing her into marriage by trickery or sorcery.” She could also divorce him for being ” indiscreet enough to tell tales about their love life.” In addition, either party could obtain a “no-fault” separation if one wished to enter the priesthood or religious life.

Perry also notes an interesting legal temporary separation I haven’t seen documented elsewhere. The husband of a barren woman could leave for a while to impregnate a woman in a more informal form of marriage and the wife of a sterile husband could leave to get pregnant by another man. In either case, the child was considered the husband’s. (I think this is what Marion Zimmer Bradley may have been going for in The Mists of Avalon during the controversial scene with Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot, but that’s only a guess. There are a million theories out there.) And this is a good segue into next week, when we’ll talk about the rights of children in the Celtic world.


Ancient Celts: Celtic Marriage by Epona Perry
Women in Celtic Law and Culture by Jack George Thompson
The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook by Laurence Ginnell

What about you? What do you think about these laws? Are they any more complicated than ours? Have you read any other information?

Marriage in the Celtic World

The Uninvited Guest by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Uninvited Guest by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Marwage. Marwage is whaught bwings us togethor, today. Marwage, that bwessed awangement, that dweam within a dweam.”

(If you don’t know where that quote is from, get thee to Netflix!)

Celtic marriage was very different from what we think of today. It was very rarely done out of love, usually out of political gain for the families/tribes involved. It also was not a religious event, but a contractual agreement. (Celtic law is very complex, so what I’m going into here merely skims the surface. It’s based in Brehon Law, which is the only extant law we have for the Celtic people. It is known as the law of Ireland, but likely similar laws existed in Britain as well.) The laws governing marriage were set up to ensure children were protected (illegitimacy did not exist – more on that in a future post), make clear the rights of the husband and wife, and protect the property rights of both parties.

You may have heard of the practice of handfasting, trial marriages that lasted a year and a day. These did happen, most commonly on Lughnasa when the tribes were together, but when this occurred, it was more like an engagement. The realities of contractual marriage were much more complex. (If you want details that will make your head spin, read Thompson’s book, p. 129-175)

Under Brehon Law, there were 10 forms of marriage, each diminishing in importance, legal rights and desirability (thanks to Epona Perry for this simplified list):

  1. A first degree union takes place between partners of equal rank and property.
  2. A second degree union in which a woman has less property than the man and is supported by him.
  3. A third degree union in which a man has less property than the woman and has to agree to management of the woman’s cattle and fields.
  4. A fourth degree union is the marriage of the loved one in which no property rights changed hands, though children’s rights are safeguarded.
  5. A fifth degree union is the mutual consent of the man and woman to share their bodies, but live under separate roofs. (And ideal situation for some, I’m sure!)
  6. A sixth degree union in which a defeated enemy’s wife is abducted. This marriage is valid only as long as the man can keep the woman with him. (We see this a lot in Arthurian legend and traditional Welsh tales.)
  7. A seventh degree union is called a soldier’s marriage and is a temporary and primarily sexual union (a one night stand).
  8. An eighth degree union occurs when a man seduces a woman through lying, deception or taking advantage of her intoxication (equivalent to the modern definition of “date rape”).
  9. A ninth degree union is a union by forcible rape (this also occurs in Arthurian legend and Celtic folk stories).
  10. A tenth degree union occurs between feeble-minded or insane people.

Under the law, women had the right choose their husbands and could not be forced to marry. Although, given the nature of some of the types of marriage listed above, and the likely influence (read: threats) of family members, one has to wonder how much choice some women really had. Dowries were very important, as brides were purchased from their fathers by their husbands for what became known as a bride-price. Some of this was kept in reserve for the woman, should her marriage end at the fault of her husband, so she would not be left destitute. (More on divorce in a future post.) There was also a virgin-price that guaranteed the wife’s purity. It’s also interesting to note that if two people of unequal rank wanted to marry, the person of lower rank was responsible for the financial burden. We can assume this was meant to keep Celtic nobility from “marrying down.”

The Celts were believers in polygamy, so second wives and concubines were common, especially before the Roman invasion of their native lands. Multiple husbands were less common, but not unheard of. There were even laws that stated a first wife could legally murder the second wife within the first three days of marriage! She would still have to pay a fine, but other than that she was within her rights. (Brehon Law used the payment of fines to solve just about every problem, from divorce to murder.) Some say this is where the tradition of a honeymoon, or a husband and second wife going away for the first few days of their marriage, originated. (Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.) A chief wife had rights to her husband’s estate, while other wives were govered by informal contracts that often didn’t require the first wife to provide for them at all, or for the husband to leave them anything in the event of his death.

It’s hard to tell how Roman law, and then Christianity, affected these practices, but I believe it’s safe to assume polygamy and some of the more scandalous forms of marriage fell out of favor once Christianity became a major factor in Celtic life. We know that by the time these laws were written down by Irish monks, they were already amending pagan-era rules to suit their Christian audiences.

In my books, I use these laws as the basis for my characters’ actions, but I don’t stick strictly to them since we know so little about where and when they were really applied. Besides, the threat of death is much more dramatic than just paying a fine, and I find it hard to believe that the war-like Celts didn’t exact bloody revenge when they were wronged.


Ancient Celts: Celtic Marriage by Epona Perry
Women in Celtic Law and Culture by Jack George Thompson
The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook by Laurence Ginnell

What about you? What have you read/heard about Celtic marriages? How have you seen them portrayed in books and in Hollywood? What do you think about these laws?