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“Love and Companionship Came First”: Floyd Dell on Modern Marriage

In the 1920s, new sexual ideologies reshaped prescriptions for marriage, incorporating moderate versions of feminism. “Modern Marriage,” an excerpt from Floyd Dell’s Outline of Marriage (1926), set out the ideal of companionship between husband and wife. In this mock dialogue, a savvy young wife instructed a professor in the ways of modern marriage. She frankly endorsed birth control, simplified housekeeping, shared housework, and paid work for childless wives. At the same time, Dell’s dialogue affirmed a romantic view of fundamental sexual differences. Generically named “The Young Woman,” the female character averred that she chose motherhood as “fulfillment of my nature.” Circulated by the American Birth Control League, the tract sought to win support for contraception by portraying its place in respectable, if “modern,” marriages.

"But Professor!“

”Yes, what is it?“

”When are we going to get to marriage in contemporary life? After all, that’s what we came to hear about!“

”Excuse me-I confess, my dear sir, that I thought we had been talking about modern marriage all along! Sometimes it serves to throw light upon a modern condition if we view it in a somewhat unfamiliar guise and that is what I have been trying to do with my head-hunters of Borneo and so forth. However, if you insist upon seeing modern marriage without these historical trappings which serve to reveal its origins, you shall have your way. And I will play fair with you. For nine out of ten contemporary marriages perhaps ninety-nine out of a hundred—are not modern marriages at all. Some of them date back to the Stone Age in type; and I could find you husbands and wives in America to illustrate almost any historical period you might choose to mention. I could exhibit marriages that are made wretched through ignorance and superstition and fear. . . . But I will show you one that seems to me to be really modern. Nothing strange and revolutionary, mind you! If you expect something Utopian, you will be disappointed. I might peer into the future as far as human eye can see, but I will refrain. The forefront of the present will have to do for us now. Young woman, will you please take the stand?"

The Young Woman. “Very well.”

Q. “You are married?”

A. “Yes—very much so!”

Q. “How old are you?”

A. “If you think that is strictly pertinent to the discussion—I am thirty.”

Q. “Thirty! I am sure no one would have thought so! You look much younger than that. How long have you been married ?”

A. “Ten years.”

Q. “Ten years of marriage hasn’t aged you much. How many children have you?”

A. “Two—a boy and a girl. Their names, if you think these people would like to know, are Jack and Jill. Jack is four years, and Jill is ten months old.”

Q. “How does it happen that your children have happened along so late in your marriage?”

A. “They didn’t ‘happen along’—that’s the answer! They were planned for just that way.”

Q. “But why didn’t you have them earlier?”

A. “It would have spoiled everything. We aren’t rich—my husband and I. We couldn’t afford to be parents any sooner.”

Q. “Your husband is a professional man?”

A. “Yes, with a small salary. I suppose he could have given up his work and gone into something else and made more money—but he was interested in what he is doing and I wanted to give him a chance. Besides—I was working, too. I wasn’t ready to give that up yet.”

Q. “Why not?”

A. "Because it interested me. It was a good job. And both our salaries together made a very decent living for us. We could scarcely have afforded to get married on his salary ten years ago. It would have meant lowering our standard of living."

Q. “You didn’t think of waiting until he could afford to support you?”

A. “No—I was in love with him. I wanted to be with him. So I kept my job and we were married, without any silly waiting.”

Q. “But what if you had found yourself having a baby the first year?”

Knowledge is Freedom!

A. “Oh, I knew all about that! It’s a woman’s business to know how not to be caught in that biologic trap—if she wishes to control her own destiny. Knowledge is freedom.”

Q. “You kept your job and were a wife at the same time. Didn’t that involve a double burden?”

A. “No. We ate at restaurants for the most part—at home only when we especially wanted to. And we both helped get those meals, as if we were on a picnic. We washed the dishes together—it’s fun when you do it that way.”

Q. “How about his buttons? Did you keep them sewed on for him?”

A. “Not at all. He had managed about his buttons somehow before he married me. He didn’t marry me to have his buttons sewed on.”

Q. "What did he marry you for?"

A. “For love—and companionship.”

Q. “Weren’t you too tired after your day’s work to be a good companion?”

A. “Not a bit of it. Didn’t you ever hear of a working girl doing her day’s work and then enjoying her evenings with her beau?”

Q. “And you didn’t think it your duty to society to start right in producing babies?”

A. “What! as if there weren’t enough babies in the world already! It was certainly my duty to society not to burden it with babies that couldn’t be properly brought up.”

Q. “But you did have babies eventually.”

A. “Yes, when we could better afford to.”

Q. “In spite of the fact that there are enough in the world already?”

A. “I am a woman, and I wanted that fulfillment of my nature. And with us for parents, I could expect the children to be robust. I felt that we had a right to them.”

Q. “And how about your job?”

A. “It was not a life-work, like my husband’s. I was ready to give it up for a while. I may go back to work again, when my children are a little older.”

Q. "Won’t you have a double burden then?"

A. “Perhaps, It may be too difficult to manage. I don’t know.”

Q. “You won’t keep on having children?”

A. “I’d rather like one or two more. But I doubt if we can afford so many. We are not rich, you know. It is better to be able to give a good start in life to two children than to be like Mother Hubbard, and have so many children you don’t know what to do.”

Science and the Home

Q. “I see. But tell me, isn’t there an old spinning wheel in your attic at home?”

A. “Why, yes—it belonged to my great-grandmother. She spun wool to make clothes for the whole family.”

Q. “You have never spun wool, I suppose.”

A. “No, of course not.”

Q. “No, you buy your clothes in a store. Your mother baked bread for her family, didn’t she ?”

A. “She had to.”

Q. “While you get yours from a bakery. You send your wash to a laundry, of course?”

A. “Sometimes I wash out my stockings and silk things. I’ve done my babies' washing. I could do a family washing if I had to.”

Q. “But you don’t have to. It would be ridiculous for you to do your own washing when there are steam-laundries to do it for you. In fact, most of the tasks that used to occupy your great-grandmother have been taken out of your hands by modern machinery. When your great-grandfather took unto himself a wife, he was getting a lot of service thrown in. And you don’t even sew your husband’s buttons on, I understand!”

A. “No, poor fellow—all he has is my love and companionship. I’m not his baker, nor his seamstress, nor his washwoman—only his wife!”

Q. “How many children did your great-grandmother have?”

A. “Twelve. But my great-grandfather didn’t have to pay their way through college. They made themselves useful around the farm. They were hired hands without pay, and they couldn’t quit their jobs except by getting married.”

Q. “In other words, children in pioneer days were an economic asset?”

Going Slow on Babies

A. "Yes, and now they’re a liability! But, even if I can’t bake and brew and spin and weave for my husband, there’s one thing I can do for him—and that is, not have twelve children!"

Q. “The machine age has reduced to a minimum the number of things you can do for your husband. In fact, in your case, there seems to be nothing left for you to do for him but give him love and companionship and babies—and you must go slow in the matter of babies for his own sake. You wouldn’t describe your marriage as precisely an institution for the production of children, would you?”

A. “No. The children are part of our marriage—a very nice and natural part of it. But the love and companionship came first—and, if we are fortunate, they may last after our children have grown up and left the home. I hope so!”

Q. “You find each other so interesting then? Do you never quarrel?”

A. “Of course we quarrel! So, I suspect, did Lancelot and Guenevere, and Pericles and Aspasia. How can people who are in love with each other not quarrel, and sulk, and make up?”

Q. “You have heard of the Life Force?”

A. “Yes, of course.”

Q. “Do you regard yourself and your marriage as helpless instruments of it?”

A. “Not by a good deal! We have made self-respecting terms with the Life Force—terms which leave us our individuality, our freedom, our happiness. Perhaps it uses us for its purposes—I know that we use it for ours !”

Human Control of the Life Force

Q. “You have escaped, then, from the pressure of that automatic instinct by which the ants and the bees and the salmon fill the earth and the air and the sea with mere hungry, devouring, reproducing, dying life?”

A. “We are a part of the human race—and certainly it has not yet gained conscious control of that instinct; it still fills the world with hungry, devouring, reproducing, dying hordes, which make war on each other for space to breathe, but we—yes, as intelligent mates and lovers, we are able to use and enjoy sex and not be merely the victims of it!”

Q. “Thank you, darling. That will be all, I think.”

A. “But Dick—really, you ought not to call me ‘darling’ in public!”

Q. “Why not, Jane?”

A. “Because everybody will know I’m your wife!”

Q. "Oh! Well, if I can’t point with pride to my own marriage as fairly modern, I have no business lecturing others on the subject.

“And now, my friends, we have concluded our little discussion, and we wish you all good luck in your marriages. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!—Jane, help me off with this false beard!”

The end.

Source: Floyd Dell. The Outline of Marriage (American Birth Control League, 1926), 57–63.

See Also:Enemies, A Drama of Modern Marriage: The Sexual Revolution Enacted
"The Civilizing Force of Birth Control": Margaret Sanger Becomes a Moderate
"I Am Almost a Prisoner": Women Plead for Contraception
"No Gods, No Masters": Margaret Sanger on Birth Control