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The Legal Link

The Dawn Volume 3, Number 3. Sydney, July 5, 1890

MONA CAIRD and her disciples have whispered in the ears of those women whose sufferings have set them pondering, that the troubles which so often and so soon follow marriage are due to the marriage bond; to the practicably inseparable tie; the legal link. No bond, say they, then no ill-treatment; love that lasts, not languishes; at least the kindness of a friend not the autocracy of a legal master. Now again in the May number of the Westminster Review Jeannie Lockett writes:

It is a well attested fact that in cases amongst the poorer classes where people enter into marital relations not legally binding, the women as a general rule, receive better treatment than is the case in a similar grade of society where the tie is a legalised one. ‘Ah! it's easy to see the poor thing is his lawful wife else he would not dare treat her so’, is an expression of opinion not uncommon in such communities.

It is not only in the poorer classes that women have been driven, by unkindness, ill-usage or cruelty to ask why the love which seems so strong a security before marriage so often becomes hate when the bond is tied. Nor are they without grounds when they reason that men become demoralised by the absolute rights over women which, after marriage, law, custom and opinion give to them. Absolute rights they practically are, for when a woman marries she expects and intends to live with her husband all her life, and general opinion expects her to gratify at his pleasure, not at her option, nearly all his wishes. Her unpractised and unbusinesslike mind makes her readily confess in many things her weakness, and induces submissiveness and patient endurance; and her inferior strength tends, when once love is gone, to encourage the brute part which lies in human nature, the inherent propensity to bully and tyrannise any helpless, weak thing. Then the strongest force of all which keeps her quiet under cruelties, insults, and abominations known to women but which must not here be named, is the potent dread of stepping outside conventionalities, for to the woman far more than to the man the edicts of society are weighty and cruel. Lastly the dread of poverty, the hopelessness of life to a married and separated woman with or without children, holds her bound, so that she is indeed at the mercy of her legal protector. Reviewing all this it is not to be wondered at that those who think of these things and seek some principle or some theory by the adoption of which all the wrongs shall be slain at the root, should come to the conclusion that the substitution of voluntary union for the present style of marriage is the change we need. Look, they say, at the man who marries a clever, independent-spirited woman who can earn her living easily apart from him, he does not illtreat her, he knows too well he might lose her if he did, and in other cases if a man knew that his wife could and would leave him, he would take care that she desired to remain. Our theorists therefore urge that since it is not possible to many women now to have


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the strong basis of financial independence let them at any rate be free to dissolve the contract at will without reproach — let the man feel that his hold is not perpetual and secure and he will strive to retain his wife's affections by the tenderness and thoughtfulness which enabled him to win her. Altogether the theorists make out a strong case, seemingly strong at any rate to those who intimately know the pitiful sadness of the lives of many married women. But in our opinion so sweeping a change as the abolition of the present marriage ties; that is, an abolition either of the legal or moral binding force of them; is not the right method of cure. One extreme does not always balance another, nor can one safely cure a fever by stepping suddenly into an ice house, and any change in marital relationships which may be made must be the outcome of slow and gradual change in opinion and belief. Nor is the quick severance of a tie which binds to suffering always the noblest way to win happiness. Indignant and chafing as we are at the irreparable wrongs endured by multitudes of women, we are sure that it is not in the mutual and binding pledge that the evil lies. Change a man's ideas and his whole way of living is altered; and the change in ideas that is needed is this: men must think less selfishly, women more so. These are general terms and it is not to be supposed that we think there are not cases where this rule might justly be reserved. What we assert is that men should reflect in moments subtracted from their own ambitions, “What does my wife's life consist of?” Women in moments stolen from the daily round of work must remember the individual dignity they have to preserve, the soul they have to develop, the personal rights they have to maintain for the sake of themselves, for the sake of the whole sex and for the sake of the children whose lives and characters they are all the while forming. Submissiveness and readiness to bear everything does not make a woman attractive to her husband, quite the reverse: she takes an inferior, if not a contemptible position, with the natural result that she flings away her own and her children's happiness and encourages the faults she ought to oppose. Husbands in general are not unselfish though they may think themselves kind and generous. A man does not often consider what his wife's existence is, in what proportions her work and her pleasures lie, or what she gives in return for what she receives. Absorbed in their own ambitions, business cares or pleasures, how many men ask themselves what sort of life their wife leads, whether she has strength enough for herself and the children she rears, hope enough to make life cheery, chances enough for development, share enough in the general ambition and success of the family as a whole? We do not want to see women attempting to seize a mastership, or growing quarrelsome about imaginary rights, but we do want them to see that the unselfishness which seems a virtue is practically the abandonment of their position. To claim the full rights and privileges of thinking, self-respecting, free human souls is to undermine a thousand wrongs and humiliations, to render themselves the more beloved for their apparent audacity and to, at the same time, secure the best conditions for their children. Women must learn that if they bear wrongs other women must bear the same, if they do not claim personal respect neither can their sisters. If they are weak or oppressed how can their children be strong or noble? This habitual self-effacement leads to all manner of weakness. A woman will tell lies to shield her husband, or perhaps to shield her own pride. If she is pinched or bruised, or injured, if things are broken in a fit of temper, she will swear it was not he, it was the result of accident purely. If he insults her by boasting of his connection with other women, she does not resent it, if he squanders the money, she works the later and the harder to replace it, if he drinks she hides the fact and shelters him with lies and bears him dipsomaniac children. In time she does not own her own body or mind, and her only morality is to be faithful to the marriage contract. The long-suffering, patient, enduring temper of women under hardship only leads to hardship's continuance. They should have more trust in their own intuition of right, think more of their own lives and destiny and of the lives they bequeath to the race. For it is often easier to endure than to act and the true unselfishness is to be selfish for the cause of progress and the good of others. They must think more of self, if self is to have more dignity and more worth, they must gain for themselves more liberty and more respect that the children and the race may be stronger and nobler, inheriting less of passion and of vice, less of the weak and tired-out household drudge,


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more physical and intellectual strength, more mental and moral cleanliness. If women thus aim at the enhancement of their own individualism there will be no need to change the method of marriage relationships, and in time, by women's efforts to restore their side of the balance in the marriage scales, we may even find Jeannie Lockett's axiom inverted and married women a better treated class than those who are bound by no legal bond.

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