H.  L.  Mencken


   III Marriage


29. Marriage and the Law


 ... No more than a century ago, even by American law, the most sentimental in the world, the husband was the head of the family firm, lordly and autonomous. He had authority over the purse-strings, over the children, and even over his wife. He could enforce his mandates by appropriate punishment, including the corporal. His sovereignty and dignity were carefully guarded by legislation, the product of thousands of years of experience and ratiocination. He was safeguard in his self-respect by the most elaborate and efficient devices, and they had the support of public opinion.
    Consider, now, the changes that a few short years have wrought. Today, by the laws of most American states--laws proposed, in most cases, by maudlin and often notoriously extravagant agitators, and passed by sentimental orgy--all of the old rights of the husband have been converted into obligations. He no longer has any control over his wife's property; she may devote its income to the family or she may squander that income upon idle follies, and he can do nothing. She has equal authority in regulating and disposing of the children, and, in the case of infants, more than he. There is no law compelling her to do her share of the family labour: she may spend her whole time in cinema theatres or gadding about the shops as she will. She cannot be forced to perpetuate the family name if she does not want to. She cannot be attacked with masculine weapons, e. g., fists and firearms, when she makes an assault with feminine weapons, e. g., snuffling, invective and sabotage. Finally, no lawful penalty can be visited upon her if she fails absolutely, either deliberately or through mere incapacity, to keep the family habitat clean, the children in order, and the victuals eatable.
    Now view the situation of the husband. The instant he submits to marriage, his wife obtains a large and inalienable share in his property, including all he may acquire in future; in most American states the minimum is one-third, and, failing children, one-half. He cannot dispose of his real estate without her consent; he cannot even deprive her of it by will. She may bring up his children carelessly and idiotically, cursing them with abominable manners and poisoning  their nascent minds against him, and he has no redress. She may neglect her home, gossip and lounge about all day, put impossible food upon his table, steal his small change, pry into his private papers, hand over his home to the Periplaneta americana, accuse him falsely of preposterous adulteries, affront his friends, and lie about him to the neighbours--and he can do nothing. She may compromise his honour  by indecent dressing, write letters to moving-picture actors, and expose him to ridicule by going into politics--and he is helpless.
     Let him undertake the slightest rebellion, over and beyond mere rhetorical protest, and the whole force of the state comes down upon him. If he corrects her with the bastinado or locks her up, he is good for six months in jail. If he cuts off her revenues, he is incarcerated until he makes them good. And if he seeks surcease in flight, taking the children with him, he is pursued by the gendarmerie, brought back to his duties, and depicted in the public press as a scoundrelly kidnapper, fit only for the knout. In brief, she is under no legal necessity whatsoever to carry out her part of the compact at the altar of God, whereas he faces instant disgrace and punishment for slightest failure to observe its last letter. For a few grave crimes of commission, true enough, she may be proceeded against. Open adultery is a recreation that is denied to her. She cannot poison her husband. She must not assault him with edged tools, or leave him altogether, or strip off her few remaining garments and go naked. But for the vastly more various and numerous crimes of omission--and in sum they are more exasperating and intolerable than even oven overt felony--she cannot be brought to book at all.
    The scene I depict is American, but it will soon extend its horrors to all Protestant countries. The newly-enfranchised women of every one of them cherish long programs of what they call social improvement, and practically the whole of that improvement is based upon devices for augmenting their own relative autonomy and power. The English wife of tradition, so thoroughly a femme covert, is being displaced by a gadabout, truculent, irresponsible creature, full of strange new ideas about her rights, and strongly disinclined to submit to her husband's authority, or to devote herself honestly to the upkeep of his house, or to bear him a biological sufficiency of heirs. And the German Hausfrau, once so innocently consecrated to Kirche, Kuche und Kinder, is going the same way.



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"In Defense Of Women" by H. L. Mencken, 1922