"Maidens" of a Very Different Sort: Law, Community, and Sexual Control in Nineteenth-Century Illinois

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM
Chicago Ballroom VI (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Melissa A. Hayes, Northern Illinois University
In early fall 1849, Mrs. John Van Kleek decided her pregnant daughter’s beau had put off nuptial plans long enough.  The exasperated mother confronted the young man at his home, “You know what you ought to do, you ought to marry her.”  Van Kleek averred that he agreed to marry her daughter during the Christmas holidays.  But when the stubborn bachelor reneged on these arrangements, the Van Kleeks took more drastic measures, bringing bastardy, seduction, and breach of promise of marriage proceedings against him.

Abby Van Kleek’s courtship mishap and her family’s responses to her predicament point back to the sexual worldviews of a bygone era and forward to the emerging sexual viewpoints of an industrializing world.  Abby’s kin took her out-of-wedlock pregnancy somewhat in stride.  Her parents seem to have developed concern for their daughter’s condition only when it became clear to them that they were not, in fact, dealing with a premarital pregnancy.  Their distress grew out of young Martin’s refusal to legalize his relationship with their daughter, not from Abby’s premarital sexual dalliances per say.  Although the Van Kleeks were unsuccessful in their efforts to intimidate Martin into marriage, they were able to draw on new gendered conceptions of sexual fault and responsibility. These ideas centered on then-circulating assumptions about male sexual aggression and female sexual vulnerability.     

This paper explores the kinds of sexual behavior that left unmarried women in search of legal solutions to intimate troubles.  I characterize Illinois’s sexual culture as a hodgepodge of late colonial understandings of out-of-wedlock sex intermixed with halting acceptance of new dualistic constructions of gender and sexuality.  As a result, I reveal far more community acceptance for young women who had sex outside the bonds of matrimony than has been accounted for in the historiography. 

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