Marriage and the ‘Prospect of Happiness’

Cornelia Powell
6 min readJan 1, 2024

Susan B. Anthony, who lived from 1820 to 1906 and dedicated her life to winning the vote for women, wrote: I never felt I could give up my life of freedom to become a man’s housekeeper. When I was young, if a girl married poverty, she became a drudge; if she married wealth, she became a doll. Had I married at twenty-one, I would have been either a drudge or a doll for fifty-five years. Think of it!

“The Unequal Marriage” by Vasili V. Pukirev 1862

Historically, given the patriarchal nature of most world cultures, the happy expectations that many brides may have imagined at their wedding fell far short during their marriage — disappointment often began before the honeymoon phase, if there was such a thing. To cope with the lack of attention or even abuse by their husbands, women around the globe had limited choices — especially since ill-treatment of wives was often sanctioned by their religions and governments. “A bride,” nineteenth-century journalist Ambrose Bierce said, “is a woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her.” Indeed, for eons, a married woman’s “prospect of happiness” was a dilemma.

In the middle of nineteenth-century England “marriage was the subject of much contemporary debate,” wrote best-selling author Kate Summerscale. Divorce laws were being investigated and reformists were “campaigning to improve the lot for married women.” One such reformist, novelist and poet Caroline Norton, even wrote to Queen Victoria — a happily married woman and mother — about the “injustices of wedlock,” as shared by Summerscale:

“A married woman in England has no legal existence…her being is absorbed in that of her husband.” A wife could not undertake legal proceedings, or keep her own earnings, or spend her own money as she wished. She “has no legal right even to her clothes or ornaments; her husband may take them and sell them if he pleases.” A wife’s identity was subsumed in that of her husband….

And Caroline Norton should know. “When she left her unfaithful, bullying, profligate husband in 1836,” wrote Summerscale, “he had kept her children from her and had confiscated the money that she earned through her writing.”

In her book Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, Summerscale’s story of a real-life Madame Bovary, she reports that many suppressed middle-class married women of the time (suppressed intellectually, sexually, creatively, physically, spiritually) kept journals or diaries to take them away from their dreary lives — to assist with their “restlessness,” as Gustave Flaubert wrote about his fictional heroine, Emma Bovary. The diary also served to simply express their true feelings, emotions and creativity that the world didn’t think warranted any notice. “The diary could conjure up a wished-for world, in which memories were coloured with desire,” wrote Summerscale about Isabella Robinson, the central and real character of her book — and a discontented wife. Isabella was intelligent and curious about the world and not only kept a diary, but “immersed herself in reading and writing,” sending articles to newspapers and journals. A comment from an anonymous contributor that Summerscale thought may have been Isabella, “argued that a husband’s inordinate power could ruin his wife, leaving her full of hatred for him and for herself. A woman was not just wronged by a bad marriage, she suggested, but deformed by it.”

As Isabella — and thousands of other women across Great Britain, America, and beyond — was “succumbing to loneliness and languor,” in Flaubert’s words, he was completing his novel, Madame Bovary, in France. If Isabella Robinson or Caroline Norton ever got their hands on a copy (it was not published in English for many years), they would surely identify with his heroine where “ennui, that silent spider, was weaving its web in the darkness in every corner of her heart.”

Is there any wonder why marriage and divorce were prominent subjects in the ground-breaking “Declaration of Sentiments” written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and other activists, then presented and adopted at the first Woman’s Rights Convention in the United States in 1848? (The suffrage movement in the U.S. grew out of this convention in Seneca Falls, New York.) Inspired by other earlier declarations written by women in eighteenth-century France and England — the “Declaration of the Rights of Women” by Olympe de Gonge (she literally lost her head over it) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (she was mocked as a “hyena in petticoats”) — this bold document scripted in the next century, stating that “the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman,” pointed out that married women lost their entire identity and were considered “civically dead, in the eyes of the law.” This, of course, made it hard, if not impossible, for women to generate change. But the courage of these outspoken, resolute women began creating cracks in the hardened, harsh patriarchal mindset.

The mid-nineteenth century was a time of robust, daring social activism which helped power an impassioned women’s movement. Susan B. Anthony, one of its leaders in the United States — who chose not to marry and dedicated her life and energy to women’s suffrage — felt marriage was an obstruction to their goals, even encouraging single women activists “to withstand the mighty matrimonial maelstrom.” She wrote in the early part of the movement: “I would not object to marriage if it were not that women throw away every plan and purpose of their own life, to conform to the plans and purposes of the man’s life.” Since marriage was the means of social and economic security for women, Anthony was aware of what she was asking of women — and the bravery it would take to live outside the ‘domestic sphere’ of marriage.

Because of her independence, Anthony could do what she was committed to do: travel the country and speak for a woman’s right to vote. (I read that she traveled more miles for the cause than any politician before or since — often in uncomfortable, rickety old wagons trekking along miles of rough, washed-out roads in all sorts of weather.) “As I passed from town to town, I was made to feel the great evil of woman’s utter dependency upon man….” With each stopover, speech, luncheon, or club meeting, she was more emboldened. “Though I had long admitted the wrongs, I never until this time, so fully took in the grand idea of pecuniary and personal independence.”

Editors of The Women’s Suffrage Movement, a historical anthology published to commemorate the Nineteenth Amendment’s centennial in 2020, wrote about the early women’s rights’ agenda, emphasizing this quest for freedom and independence that Susan B. Anthony wanted for all women: “While there was interest in working for the vote, activism also focused on gaining property rights, education, employment opportunities, ‘equal pay for equal work,’ guardianships of their children, an end to oppression by religious dogma, and the right to divorce.”

Marriage reform laws were slow in coming in the U.S. and Great Britain, but nineteenth-century women’s rights activists were determined because these freedom-denying laws — laws supported by church and state — struck at the heart of a culture’s social order. Therefore, since the goal was a woman’s autonomy, these activists knew that the key for such independence was securing voting rights for women. “Marriage, to women as to men,” wrote Susan B. Anthony, “must be a luxury, not a necessity; an incident of life, not all of it. And the only possible way to accomplish this great change is to accord to women equal power in the making, shaping and controlling of the circumstances of life.”

What Anthony was saying , along with thousands of other women’s rights advocates — mostly married women, some even in satisfying, supportive relationships — was that the time had come for a woman’s “prospect of happiness” be placed into her own hands. ~

[excerpt from the “A Woman’s Inheritance” chapter in my book-in-progress]



Cornelia Powell

Grew up on a farm exploring wonder/Worked in fashion exploring dreams/Spiritual journeyed the world exploring me/Live on a green mtn ridge exploring more wonder