On 'Breaking Conventions: Five Couples in Search of Marriage-Career Balance at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century'

our authors Jul 18, 2023

by Patricia Auspos

Dual career marriages are commonplace today, but they were deeply shocking in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when well-to-do white women in America and Britain were not supposed to have careers, and career women were not supposed to marry.  Instead, women were expected find fulfillment in being wives and mothers, caring for their children and husbands, and creating an uplifting and nurturing home environment.  They were socialized to defer to men and be subordinate to their husbands.

Breaking Conventions: Five Couples in Search of Marriage-Career Balance at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century shows how five early dual career marriages challenged these deeply engrained standards in multiple ways.  Women who pursued careers of their own found it difficult to be the self-effacing, self-sacrificing domestic angels, helpmate wives, and companionate spouses that their social world expected them to be.  Their marriages upended gender stereotypes and romantic ideals, sought new ways to build emotional connection between spouses, and chipped away at the foundations of male privilege and patriarchal power that defined most marriages of their time.

Much has been written about the ways marriage affects a woman’s professional advancement and opportunities.  Breaking Conventions offers a different perspective: Drawing on a rich array of archival sources and focusing on five path-breaking couples who married between 1887 and 1912, it explores how a woman’s career affected her marriage and her relationship with her husband.  Then, as now, a husband’s support was key to the woman’s ability to maintain a career after she married.  In this era, husbands potentially posed a greater threat to a woman’s career than having children did.

Power couples of their day, these wives and husbands were leaders in the fields of education, mathematics, social science research, anthropology, economics, law, and government.  The Palmers, the Parsons, and the Mitchells were American; the Youngs and the Webbs were British.  All five couples faced daunting obstacles in their attempts to construct more equitable and fulfilling marriages.  Some succeeded; some failed; all struggled.

At a time when the professional standards were becoming more rigorous and professionals were spending longer hours at work, the couples’ efforts to balance career and family life pushed against the accepted boundaries between professional life and domestic life, and forced husbands as well as wives into new roles.  In practice, if not always by intention, these five couples were developing new concepts of masculinity and femininity and new standards of romantic love and marital intimacy.  Nevertheless, societal expectations and years of socialization continued to exert a powerful grip on their attitudes and behavior, even when they were motivated to change.  Some wives struggled to be independent and authoritative on the job but deferential, subordinate helpmates in the home.  Some husbands encouraged a wife to have a career, but balked at making the compromises, adjustments, and sacrifices needed to accommodate it.

The couples who most successfully sustained two careers and deep emotional connection – Lucy Sprague Mitchell and Wesley Clair Mitchell, and Beatrice and Sidney Webb – consciously modeled new roles and behavior in both the workplace and the home.  In contrast, Alice Freeman Palmer and George Herbert Palmer as well as Grace Chisholm Young and William Henry Young were less successful in their efforts to support the wife’s independent career within the framework of an otherwise quite traditional marriage.  Elsie Clews Parsons and Herbert Parsons maintained their separate careers, but were deeply divided by their conflicting views on domestic life and marital companionship.

More than a century later, dual career marriages have become the norm rather than the exception among the middle classes in Britain and America.  Nevertheless, modern couples still struggle to combine intimacy with independence and balance the demands of home, family, and work, just as this earlier generation did. Despite the progress women have made in education and the workplace, gendered stereotypes persist.  Studies show that husbands take on more domestic responsibilities, but women still do the lion’s share of work in the home and are more likely than their husbands to make career sacrifices for their families.  These five path-breaking marriages offer both inspiration and cautionary tales for readers today.  Their stories remind us how far women have come and how much still needs to change if women and men are to be more equal in the home as well as in the workplace.

This is an Open Access title available to read and download for free or to purchase in all available print and ebook formats below.

Breaking Conventions: Five Couples in Search of Marriage-Career Balance at the Turn of the 19th Century
This rich history illuminates the lives and partnerships of five married couples – two British, three American – whose unions defied the conventions of their time and anticipated social changes that were to come in the ensuing century. In all five marriages, both husband and wife enjoyed thriving pr…

Open Book Publishers

We believe that knowledge should be available to everyone: our books are free to read and download online, and we are working to create a world in which all research is freely available to all readers