Patriarchal blogger Lori Alexander is at it again, this time with a blog post titled How Young Should Women Marry? Lori starts with a comment from a young man named Jonathan who is looking for a godly wife. Jonathan wrote as follows in his comment, which Lori shares:
“The ‘plain Jane’ is exactly what I’m looking for. I don’t want the ‘professional model’ at all. God gave me a servant heart, so I enjoy helping behind the scenes. A young woman who simply serves where she can and where she is needed (community, nursery, food pantry, etc.). She doesn’t call attention to herself, yet her simple, godly conduct speaks volumes.
“I’ve actually met someone kind of like that. I first met her while helping after a church event. She was washing dishes. I’ve repeatedly seen her try to be helpful and even ask me if she could help when I was serving. I’ve also noticed times when she was serving and all the other ladies were just sitting talking among themselves. The only issue is that she just turned 17 and I’m 24. I’m pretty sure that’s a bit too much of an age difference, now. But, I’d love to get your view of that.”
Um. Okay. So, Jonathan has his eye on a girl who just turned 17, and he met her some time ago. I’m going to be charitable and assume she was 16 when he met her. He would have been maybe 23 at the time. Or maybe he was already 24 at the time, who knows! The point is that when he met her, he was already a full grown adult. He had either graduated from college or already spent five or six years building his career, job skills, and earning potential. And she, in contrast, was halfway through high school (if she has recently turned 17, she’s currently a high school junior).
Is there any reason Jonathan hasn’t been able to find a woman his own age? He’s 24. Isn’t there a young adults group at his church? Why is a high school student the only person he sees that interests him? Are there no unmarried women his age at his church? Is this high school girl who just turned 17 really his only option here?
It’s possible that Jonathan has written off all of the women his age as not having enough of a “servant’s heart” for his interests. It’s possible that he has determine they are too selfish or headstrong. But if the only female bodied person who appears properly servant-oriented to him is an underage child, he may want to rethink the meter he’s using to judge those other women. Is there something about the self-confidence of adult women that is turning him off?
Let me just note that literally the only thing Jonathan knows about this girl is that she tries to be helpful at church functions. Does he know her interests? Her dreams? Her likes and dislikes? No. No he does not. He’s interested in her because she washes dishes without being asked.
When I had just turned 17, I looked much like the girl Jonathan describes. I was raised in a patriarchal evangelical home and believed my future depended on my ability to find a man to marry (I was also homeschooled). One of the ways I sought to distinguish myself was by serving, and serving, and serving. But you know what? I had no idea who I was. I had never lived outside the home, I’d never had the freedom to make my own decisions, absent my parents.
I had no idea who I was. It took me years to figure that out. And see, that is part of the problem—in the highly patriarchal culture Lori represents (the same one Michael and Debi Pearl write to), it’s best not to let girls have the time to figure out who they are before they marry. Why? Because who they are should be shaped by and around their husbands, not developed independently.
We’ll get to that in a moment. When Lori answers questions like this, she typically offers her own answer and then offers some of the responses given by the women in the chatroom she maintains. We’ll start with Lori’s response to Jonathan’s question:
My initial reaction is that she sounds like a good one! A young woman who loves to serve others is rare indeed. I thought he could begin to get to know her better and then if she’s the one, marry her when she’s 18 years old. If she has a mother and father, it would be good for him to meet them and receive her father’s approval. The quality of loving to serve others is far superior than the quality of wanting to spend a lot of money on higher education and gaining a career; that’s for sure.
To her credit, Lori suggests that he wait until she’s 18 to marry the girl. (It’s worth noting that if she recently turned 17, this girl won’t graduate high school until she’s been 18 for almost a year. I am curious whether or not Lori thinks Jonathan should wait until she finishes high school to marry this girl.) Not so much to her credit, Lori doesn’t suggest that Jonathan wait until she is 18 to begin pursuing this girl. She’s suggesting that it’s well and good for him, at 24, to pay court to the girl he has been watching, who is 17 and still a child.
I’ll get to why this is a problem in a moment. Or rather, the women in Lori’s chatroom will. In an inverse way, that is, because they don’t think it’s a problem. But, before getting to the women in her chatroom, Lori adds this:
After this discussion, I went to church and a young woman who has been reading my blog came up to me and introduced herself. She married at 16 years old with her parent’s full approval. She’s 18 years old now and loves being married!
I once again have questions. Did this girl drop out of high school to get married? Did she move in with her new husband, when she was just 16? And, critically, how old was he?
Some years ago, a 16-year-old girl posted on a moms group I’m in. She wrote that had gotten pregnant in high school and had dropped out and married the baby’s father, who was 17. The two of them were now living in a run-down apartment in the cheap area of town, and she didn’t have money to buy any Christmas presents for her baby’s first Christmas. I messaged her, drove to her apartment, and gave her a $20 gift card. I’ll never forget how grateful she was. She was miserable and isolated from her friend group and support network. She said her parents had made her marry him. She’d thought it was a good idea at the time, but, well, now here she was.
Apart from the issues that surround signing a marriage contract when you are legally a child and are not permitted to sign contracts or even make decisions about where you live, where you go, or how late you stay out without your parents’ say-so, as a general rule people do not graduate from high school until they are 18. Marrying before you finish high school seems profoundly unwise.
My grandmother married right out of high school. Key phrase—out of high school. If you looked back to the 1950s, even, that’s what you’d see—girls aiming to marry after they graduate. Not before.
Ah, but let’s turn to the women in the chatroom.
In the chat room, Lindsay Harold wrote this: “By the way, a few decades ago or more, nobody would have thought twice about these ages. In fact, a young woman was actively encouraged to marry around 17 or 18 and to marry a man several years older so that he could provide for her. A young man of her own age would not be prepared yet to provide for a family. Plus, a slightly older man would inspire respect for his leadership more naturally. Most women expected to marry right out of high school to a man in his mid-twenties. That was completely normal. I think we have gotten too peer-oriented and expected men and women to marry within their very narrow peer group. Yet if they wait until the man is established enough to provide for a family before they settle down, they have dated for years and not been chaste in the process.”
Before we get to the sentence I put in bold, it’s worth noting that Lindsay is incorrect when she claims that most women in the period she’s discussing expected to “marry right out of high school to a man in his mid-twenties.” If you go back to around 1800, the age difference between husband and wife tended to be around seven years. But in 1800, the vast, vast majority of people never attended high school. High school didn’t become a universal social norm until the 1950s.
In the 1950s, when high school attendance became a cultural norm, women’s average age at first marriage was 20 and men’s average age at first marriage was 22. This stands in stark contrast to Lindsay’s claim that women were expected to get married at 17 or 18 to men in their mid-20s.
It’s worth noting that the average age difference between men and women at first marriage—two years, with the man being older—has not changed much since the 1950s. Despite Lindsay’s claim that we have become “too peer-oriented” in our expectations that men and women “marry within their very narrow peer group,” that norm has actually not changed since the period she treats as some sort of golden age where teenage girls marrying men in their mid-20s left and right.
Her historical memory is, to put it simply, mistaken. But don’t take my word for it. Have a look at this chart:
We do need to return to Lindsay’s comment, though, because she gives away something big—and important. Quoth Lindsay:
[A] few decades ago or more, nobody would have thought twice about these ages. In fact, a young woman was actively encouraged to marry around 17 or 18 and to marry a man several years older so that he could provide for her. A young man of her own age would not be prepared yet to provide for a family. Plus, a slightly older man would inspire respect for his leadership more naturally.
A slightly older man would inspire respect for his leadership more naturally, Lindsay writes. Rarely have I read a more insidious sentence. I would love to have the opportunity to ask Lindsay to explain in more words what she means by this. I don’t think it would go well.
Lori, remember—and likely Lindsay as well—believes that wives are to submit to their husbands in everything. Everything. The husband is to be the leader and spiritual head of the home, and the wife is to submit and follow and carry out her husband’s vision and word. A wife, the argument goes, will more easily submit to and obey her husband if she marries him when she is a mere child or an unformed immature adult and he is a mature, fully grown adult with years of experience.
Why might this be? Because, dear readers, if she is an unformed teenager and he is in his mid-twenties, she will not view herself as her equal. Their marriage will not be a relationship between two equals. It will be a relationship between a dominant party and his subordinate.
Interestingly, in 1800, when the age difference between husbands and wives was around seven years, if a man married a woman who was brand new to adult responsibilities, he would have a problem. A wife needed to be able to manage a household, which at the time was like running a small business. A man didn’t want an unformed, impressionable girl. He wanted a woman capable of making informed decisions and operating independently. There was none of this “inspire respect for his leadership” bullshit. A husband and wife had to pull together, or it would be bad.
(Yes, there was the law of coverture, and there were a lot of things women were not allowed to do. But in some real ways, women had more economic agency then than they did in the 1950s, when they were asking their husbands’ permission to buy a vacuum cleaner. Think Betty Draper.)
At least Lindsay is honest—she wants women to marry young to ensure that they won’t be confident in who they are or in their own capacity, to ensure that they will respect and obey their years-older husbands. These are the exact reasons the United Nations and other international organizations are fighting child marriage around the world: because child marriage robs women of their ability to develop independence and places them in subservience to their husbands.
But for Lindsay—and for Lori—that’s a perk.
So that’s just super fun.
Now, Lori did say Jonathan should wait to marry the girl until she’s 18, and Lindsay said girls married in the past at 17 or 18, so technically you could argue that they’re not advocating for child marriage. But here’s the thing—they’re advocating for all the things that are the reasons aid organizations oppose child marriage. They want girls to marry when they are still immature and on uneven footing (who is completely confident at 18?) to men who are years-older than them so that they’ll respect and obey those men.
So sure, they could argue that they’re advocating marriage at 18, not necessary 17—but their agenda here is still a massive violation of the spirit of opposition to child marriage.
Yesterday my almost middle school daughter looked up from a magazine she was reading in horror. “They banned women from driving in Saudi Arabia?!” she exclaimed in shock. I explained to her that, in Saudi Arabia, all women had to have a male guardian. I’m reminded of that now, because it sounds as though what Lori and Lindsay really don’t like is for a woman to be independent and unattached. At 18 a girl first becomes independent from her parents. Give her a few years of that independence, and she’ll get used to it. Marry her straight way to an older man, so that she’s once again under some man’s control, and you nip that independence in the bud.
Marry her off real quick at 18 and she’ll never know what it’s like to be independent. She’ll go straight from her father’s household and authority to her husband’s.
It’s almost like women are capable of being independent and making their own decisions, and Lori and Lindsay are nervous about what will happen if they realize that. Huh. How about that.
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