Women during the eighteenth century were subject to the authority of men, whether father, brother, or husband. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, a text used in the training of American lawyers, had this to say about the relation of men and women in marriage. “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, or at least is incorporated and consolidated in that of the husband, under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything.” The wife was a feme covert. Things were beginning to change in America given the war and the assumption of many responsibilities hitherto considered outside the sphere of women. Society, however, was still basically patriarchical and a husband was considered to have the right of reasonable chastisement. ELIZA WILKINSON, a young South Carolina woman, wrote this poem after having seen a woman experience physical violence at the hands of her husband.
Poor wives are made to Honour and obey,
Must yield unto a husband’s lordly way.
Whether you live in Peace, or horrid strife,
You must stay with him, aye, and that for life.
If he proves kind, then happy you will be,
If otherways——O! dreadful misery!——
Kind husbands now-adays you scarcely find
The lover’s seldom in the husband’s mind.
The imperious Mortal makes his wife his slave.
He will, he won’t, yet knows not what he’d have.
While she—poor trembling Soul! in vain doth try
To please him: marks the motion of his eye;
He still storms on, while from his eyes flash fire.
She trembles more —is ready to expire.
Wou’d any stander by but hand a glass [mirror]
He’d start! amaz’d! to see his frightfull face.
O shamefull sight, he cou’d not then dispute.
But that he made himself a very brute.
Guard me good Heaven whene’er I change my state!
That this may never be my wretched fate.——
Wilkinson is implying that marriage is basically a crap shoot and is warning young women to be cautious when contemplating it: “Guard me good Heaven whene’er I change my state!” The lucky ones will have a peaceful and happy marriage; the unlucky ones may suffer both psychological and physical abuse with only a slight likelihood of legal relief as divorce was difficult.