I have been reading a lot of old newspapers in my genealogy research. I came across an article in The Washington Post dated March 4, 1907 on page 40:
KEPT HUSBAND ON $3 A WEEK
Child-wife Tells Court Her Story of Cruel Treatment
Battles with Policeman, Who Tries to Arrest Her–Husband Admits Charge of Nonsupport.
Special to The Washington Post
New York Mar 3 — The police of the West Twentieth street station on Saturday afternoon got a request from Mrs. Elizabeth Grover, of 207 West Fourteenth street, for a policeman to take away a woman, whom Mrs. Grover said was annoying her. Policeman Bickert found a girl tearfully walking up and down in front of Mrs. Grover’s house. He refused to arrest her. Mrs. Grover insisted that the girl be removed. Bickert tried to coax the girl away. The girl slapped the policeman several times and was finally made a prisoner. She was bailed out by the manager of a department store where she works.
In the station house, the girl got a telegram which read: “Your husband is dying. Come at once to Mrs. Grover’s house.” For the second time she went to the house seeking her husband and learned that he was not sick.
In the Jefferson Market Court to-day, Mrs. Grover said that the defendant whose name is Pearl Phillips, had come to her home and demanded to see Phillips. The latter, Mrs. Grover said, refused to see the girl, and the wife would not leave the house when ordered to do so. The girl said she had been married three years. She is only nineteen years of age.
Her husband, George Phillips, is an ironworker. After they had been married a short time, the girl said, her husband began to treat her cruelly. She then left him. She went to Mrs. Grover’s to get the clothes she had left there and to try to get some money from her husband.
Phillips in court admitted that although he earns $1.50 a day, he did not contribute to her support, and was ordered by the court to do so.
Miss McCusker, the probation officer, learned from the wife that she had been working in the department store ever since her marriage. Her salary is $3 a week. Soon after the marriage, the girl said, her husband sprained his ankle and was unable to work. She supported him on the savings she had accumulated.
Since her husband had gotten well, she said, he refused to pay his physician, and she paid the bill a bit at a time from what she could save out of her $3 a week. But when she left her husband she was in real want.
Phillips admitted in court that he sent the telegram to his wife.
After reading it, my first thought was that feminists have been lying to us. Pre-1960s society was not anti-women, nor was it backwards and unjust towards women. The policeman had not wanted to arrest the young woman in the first place! Women held important jobs. The probation officer was a woman! And from the tone of the article, I don’t think society approved of girls being married in their teenage years, and society was certainly disapproving of cruelty and spousal neglect. In fact, the husband was ordered to pay spousal support! In 1907!
The most striking thing about this story is that it was even considered newsworthy. The space and detail given to a marital dispute makes New York City seem positively quaint and quite alien by today’s standards.
—– Comments —-
Art from Texas writes:
From Natassia: “After reading it, my first thought was that feminists have been lying to us. Pre-1960s society was not anti-women, nor was it backwards and unjust towards women. The policeman had not wanted to arrest the young woman in the first place! Women held important jobs. The probation officer was a woman! And from the tone of the article, I don’t think society approved of girls being married in their teenage years, and society was certainly disapproving of cruelty and spousal neglect. In fact, the husband was ordered to pay spousal support! In 1907!”
People today have forgotten how much social change had already been attained by 1900. It makes it a lot harder to understand the present. I remember reading an article from around 1900 that points out how much education of men and women was already converging by that point as well, with the learning of foreign languages like German and French superseding the classical languages such as Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in academic institutions for both men and women. And one can find that Kinsey was not the first person to try to reform sexual habits, although earlier attitudes had a very different approach.
As far as men being responsible to support their wives, that goes back a long time. In England under coverture law, men were even imprisoned for their wives’ debts and could be jailed for desertion. A wife’s property was also put in her husband’s name. Coverture law is often decried as justification for feminism. But it carried with it onerous responsibilities for men.