On any number of occasions, you encounter the first half of a quote from 1 Corinthians 7:1-16 from feminists determined to show that christian marriage is no more than sexual slavery for women :-
For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.
However the full quote makes it sound a little bit different :-
For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again.
Not quite the same. Perhaps not at modern levels of political correctness, but neither is it at quite the level that the feminists will portray it as.
Now there are other bible verses on marriage; some good (from today’s perspective) and some bad. If you take all the bad bits, it makes it sound like women were repressed to the point of being ground into the ground. If you take all the good bits, it makes it sound like early christian marriage was a perfect equal partnership of a type that wouldn’t look totally wrong even to today’s standards.
The truth lies somewhere in between.
If I move onto mediæval marriage, there is often a mistaken belief that an arranged marriage was a forced marriage, and that arranged marriages were always young girls being married to lecherous old men. There is always the assumption that the men were always happy about the arrangement whilst the women were always unhappy.
In other words, it wasn’t just women “persuaded” into an arranged marriage.
As for young girls being married off to old lecherous men, there are a few exceptions :-
- Henry II may have been “old enough” when he was married to Eleanor of Aquitane, but she was 11 years his senior.
- David II was just under 5 years old when he was married.
- Henry IV was probably 14 when he was first married.
Obviously not conclusive, and it is still possible that the overwhelming majority were lecherous old men marrying young girls. But we don’t really know.
As to women being forced into arranged marriages, it certainly happened from time to time, but there were usually plenty of opportunities for the victim (whichever one) to escape :-
- The church was opposed to forced marriage, and it is possible that they would assist those forced into a marriage to get an annulment (although a peasant might find this trickier).
- There are plenty of cases where women who were opposed to an arranged marriage would run off to a convent for temporary (or permanent) refuge.
- The church would recognise any “informal” marriage as a valid marriage blocking any further marriages. So anyone with a problem with a proposed arranged marriage could simply run off and get married to someone else. Which would instantly block any arranged marriage.
One indication that forced marriage wasn’t generally accepted is that the Magna Carta contains a provision to block the king from forcing his wards into arranged marriages. So the barons who forced the king into accepting the Magna Carta were annoyed by the king forcing their female relatives into marriage.
Property rights are a similar area where the law is misunderstood; married women could not own property in their own right. True enough, but there are two aspects that are overlooked :-
- Dowry was an arrangement by which a woman’s family or the woman herself could take property into a marriage with the expectation that on the death of the husband that the property would be returned to her. It was an arrangement to ensure that the woman had the resources to maintain herself after the marriage died. And whilst this was open to abuse, there are plenty of legal cases to show that a woman could (and usually succeeded) take a case to court and get the dowry returned.
- In some cases women could get a declaration of femme solo to go into business on her own account, own property, and be responsible for her own debts independent of her husband.
Does this mean that everything was equal and fair? Of course not, but equality wasn’t an important concept to the mediæval society – and that applied to men just as much as women. But neither was it quite as bad as portrayed; indeed there are plenty of indications that conditions for women got worse as the mediæval era ended and the modern era began.
One concrete indication of that was the 1834 reform act which for the first time explicitly removed the vote from women; before that date women could and did qualify for a vote under the regulations for their constituency. Although social pressure to not vote increased towards 1834.