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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Absence of pressure to marry at an early age for a young southern woman

Here, Arnow talks about her mother and her female relatives in relation to marriage and birth control. According to Arnow, women in her family tended to become married at a relatively late age. Arnow's mother was not married until she was 28, which was somewhat atypical for women coming of age in the South during the late nineteenth century. Arnow, herself, did not marry until the age of 31 and her sisters similarly married late. Although Arnow does not recall a strong pressure for women to marry young within her community, the push towards domesticity seems to have been especially absent within her own immediate family. Arnow believed that her mother did not really want her sisters or herself to marry at all and suspected that this may have been because her mother's fondest memories of her own life occurred when she was unmarried and working outside of the home. This demonstrates an interesting perspective that deviates from common perceptions that women invariably met social pressure to enter marriage and domesticity almost immediately upon their coming of age in the early twentieth century.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

The women all seemed to enjoy talking of the past. Mama was that way, too. And they talked a lot about their father, the three cousins did. They were married, but they had no sure-fire way of birth control; they just waited until they were past the age of child-bearing, you see, and then married, so they had no children.
MIMI CONWAY:
Oh, my heavens.
HARRIETTE ARROW:
That's, I suppose, one way of birth control.
MIMI CONWAY:
Was that common?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Women, I think, that we knew married older; they were older than they are now. Mama was twenty-eight.
MIMI CONWAY:
And you were thirty-one?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
I was thirty-one, yes.
MIMI CONWAY:
I was interested in that, because I didn't know if it was unusual for you to marry late, or, because your mother and father had also married late, it was...
HARRIETTE ARROW:
I don't know. I guess the man I wanted just didn't come along, although I was preoccupied with writing. I published a book, my first novel, and some short stories, and I didn't think much about marriage. On the other hand, many of the girls my age in high school married at about the same age I did.
MIMI CONWAY:
I was confused about that, because I knew that there was a strong emphasis on husband, children, family-I think there was in your upbringing-and I wasn't sure, in your twenties, whether you had pressure from your family, "Why aren't you married?" or whether that was just part of either the tradition of your family or the tradition of the people that you grew up with. I mean, especially since they objected to your writing.
HARRIETTE ARROW:
I don't know. I think it's a mixture. Mama didn't want my older sister and I to marry at all, and my older sister didn't. The rest of us did. And I don't know; it was a combination. But many girls my age in high school married about the same time I did, and some of them didn't marry. There was no pressure or feeling that one had to get married in order to be a person.
MIMI CONWAY:
Why do you think your mother didn't want you to marry? Did she actually say?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
I don't know. She wanted us, I think, to stay at home, which we didn't...
MIMI CONWAY:
[laughter]
HARRIETTE ARROW:
...and stay close to her, is all I know. World War II came just at the right time; our brother finished all his work for the bachelor's degree at the University of Kentucky-I don't think he went through the motions of graduating-and joined the Air Force. So during the War she was writing to him overseas-he was a navigator in a bomber-and to five daughters in five different states. Now the Denneys seemed to hang all around the great-grandfather Matthew. The country, that part, was full of Denneys, and you'll still find an awful lot in that same county. Looking at the list of teachers, here's Denney, Denney, Denney; they still teach school. Papa's people, one of his uncles went to Idaho, the territory, long before there was a state. One of his sisters, shortly after her marriage, she and her husband bought land in Alberta, Canada. I always wanted to go there; I never have. She married a Burnett. I have few Simpson relatives left in Wayne County. They scattered, and I think they wanted to go to different places. Some went all the way to Oregon before there was a state of Oregon.
MIMI CONWAY:
But you think it was simply because your mother wanted to have you at home. You don't think it was because she had any feelings against marriage.
HARRIETTE ARROW:
No, she had married. She may have had feelings against marriage; I don't know. Of course, she wouldn't say, but I've often wondered. She seemed to love her past as a teacher. She didn't tell us any remote stories from the distant past the way Papa and Grandma Simpson and Grandma Denney did, but it was all about when she was a girl or woman and teaching. She had one of these old red plush albums. Most of the photographs in that were of her and her friends when they'd go to what they called "Teachers' Institute" at Monticello. And so on and so forth. I think she perhaps enjoyed that part of her life better-I don't know-but she wouldn't, of course, come out and say, "Well, I wish I'd never married" or anything like that.