States of Suffering: Marital Cruelty in Antebellum Virginia, Texas, and Wisconsin
Boles, John B.
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation explores the nature of marriage, violence, and region in the mid-nineteenth-century United States. Based on more than 1,500 divorce cases, it argues that marriages were often characterized by open enmity, not companionate harmony. Violence and cruelty between spouses generally erupted as part of ongoing struggles for power in the household and in the relationship. As the only book-length study of marital cruelty for a southern state, this work challenges much of what historians have argued about the relationship between violence and region. It finds that, contrary to what is generally understood about the American South, marriages in Texas and Virginia were not exceptionally violent, at least not compared with those in Wisconsin. The presence of marital cruelty was most pronounced in environments suffering from gender role instabilities. As the statement above shows, this dissertation takes seriously the use of gender as a lens through which to analyze marital discord. Correcting the historical perception of women’s violence as trivial, rare, or defensive, this dissertation contends that antebellum wives were indeed capable, and often willing, to commit a wide variety of cruelties within marriage. This work presents the first multi-state comparative study of marital discord focusing on the United States. Exploring nineteenth-century marriages from “way, way below” allows us to move beyond ideals to examine the messiness and unhappiness that characterized many conjugal unions.
Domestic violence; Family violence; Companionate marriage; Frontier families