Nicholas L. Syrett studies gender, sexuality, and childhood in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States. He is a coeditor of Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present (2015) and author of two books: The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities (2009) and American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States (2016). He has also published articles on queer U.S. history in American Studies, Genders, GLQ, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, and the Pacific Historical Review.
Between 2000 and 2015, more than 200,000 minors, mostly girls, were married in the United States. This number is actually an all-time low, but there is a long history of child marriage in the U.S. From the 1910s to the 1930s, for instance, between 8 and 10 percent of all 17-year-old girls were wives. In 2018, it remains possible to marry below the age of 18 in every single state. In the US, there have been four main reasons that minors have married.
The first is lack of age consciousness. Until well into the nineteenth century, and in some cases the twentieth, many Americans did not know their birthdays or how old they were. In a society not structured around age norms, marrying early was far less noteworthy. Second, marriage gained teenagers some benefits, especially the legal right to live independently from parents and the right to keep their wages. The third reason is poverty. Especially in rural areas of the country where girls have had little expectation of graduating high school or pursuing careers, marrying before eighteen has not been unusual. Fourth and finally: sex. Even as many Americans have increasingly accepted sex outside marriage and single motherhood, in some rural and conservative regions, marriage is seen as the solution to teen pregnancy or the way for eager teenagers to be able to have sex legitimately. Some girls have been pressured into marriage by parents.
It is largely for this last reason—sex—that conservative legislators have been unwilling to bar minors from marrying, even though all evidence demonstrates that minors who marry are more likely to divorce, fail to graduate high school, and suffer from abuse and mental health issues. There is no evidence that marriage can “solve” the problem of teen pregnancy, at least not for the pregnant girl herself; rather it seems to cause problems of its own.