Why marry? Three generations tell their wedding stories

Three generations of marriage, from left to right: Estelle and Hyman Sherman, Syrel and Mick Dawson, Jessica Chipoco and Lindsey Dawson. Syrel and Mick Dawson/Helen John Photography

Growing up, Lindsey Dawson never pictured herself as a wife.

"I thought marriage was just an institution and that it was sexist," said the 31-year-old public policy associate. And, although she believed same-sex marriage should be a right, Lindsey herself was "kind of disinterested."

That was, until she met Jessica Chipoco. They met on an online dating site after Lindsey moved to Washington, D.C.

Six months later they were living together. At nine months, they were talking about getting a house, and 20 months into the relationship they were anxiously watching TV on election night to see if they could get married in their state of Maryland.

"I didn't feel that [marriage] was something I needed for myself," Lindsey said. "But when I met Jessica, we decided we wanted to be committed...It just became, I wanted to advance our relationship further."

Marriage has always been evolving, but it's changed more dramatically in the past 100 years than in the past 1,000. And not just concerning who can marry -- also when people marry, and why.

A recent study sponsored by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia titled "Knot Yet" made a splash by analyzing how young people are viewing marriage as a "capstone" more than a "cornerstone" to their adult lives: Rather than the launching point for prosperity and happiness, marriage is more likely to be viewed as an endpoint after establishing "financial and psychological independence." Other recent data points to marriage as no longer being necessary in a successful life: The

Centers of Disease Control and Prevention foundthat almost half of all first births are born out of wedlock, and a 2011 Pew study reports that nearly four in 10 Americans believe marriage is becoming obsolete.

Although the number of adults getting married is at a record low and more are finding the institution archaic, the dream of one day saying vows before an altar persists for many. According to the Pew study, most people who have never tied the knot -- 61 percent -- say they'd like to marry some day. Traditions in marriage have changed a lot since Lindsey's grandparent's generation, but one thing remains consistent: the desire to make it official.

Hyman & Estelle

 

Estelle and Hyman Sherman on their wedding day in April 1942.
Estelle and Hyman Sherman on their wedding day in April 1942.
Syrel and Mick Dawson
 

Everyone in Lindsey's family knows the story of how her grandparents met. They danced for the first time at her grandfather's cousin's 25th wedding anniversary.

"Who's that skinny girl you were dancing with?" a relative asked Lindsey's grandfather, Hyman Sherman.

"That's the girl I'm going to marry," he replied.

Her name was Estelle. They were supposed to have a big wedding in April 1942, but there was a change of plans when Hyman was drafted overseas during World War II. Friends and family advised them to get married before he left -- that way, when he was out fighting, he'd have "something to live for."

Estelle and Hyman Sherman married in Estelle's sister's living room, just their siblings and parents to witness the moment of matrimony before a rabbi. The few wedding photos they have show two happy, glowing faces, his eyes locked on her smile -- there is no trace of plans and hopes soon to be disrupted by war. He went overseas for four years, and like many WWII couples, their interactions immortalized in dozens and dozens of letters.

Hyman and Estelle tied the knot on the eve of what could be called a marriage boom. While they got hitched relatively late -- both were 28 years old -- the pressure to marry young heightened after the war. The rate of marriage spiked all through the 1940s, before reaching a record high in 1950: by then, 78 percent of American households were occupied by a husband and wife, according the Pew Research Center. The median age of marriage was at its youngest in 1950, too; it dropped from 21.5 to 20.3 for women and from 24.3 to 22.8 for men within the decade.


Sound the Wedding Bells


Average age of first marriage, by year

 

 

The post-war era's thriving economy contributed to an American Dream that was as scripted as a "Leave it to Beaver" episode. About one in four women took jobs outside the home to fill in the labor gap left by men fighting overseas, but as the men returned, women were expected to return to their roles as housewives. Women often got married right after high school -- if they went to college, they'd joke it would be to get their "MRS," or Missus. Husbands brought in most of the dough, and would remain so for the next few decades: According to Pew research data, only 4 percent of husbands had wives whose income topped theirs in 1970, compared to 22 percent in 2001.

On Hyman's return, he and Estelle built a household that was not much unlike many of their neighbors'.

Hyman was the primary breadwinner, running a furniture store in the Boston area, although Estelle worked at the shop to help out. She was responsible for all domestic chores.

"My father did nothing!" recalled their daughter Syrel Dawson, laughing. "Because my mother took care of the house. She did all the cooking and dishes." And, with Syrel, four children to look after.

From what Syrel remembers, her parents had a happy marriage until her mother died in 1982 (her father died in 1997). Not all women were lucky. Before the sexual revolution and wide availability of safe birth control, being a single woman in the 1940s and 50s provided a tremendous amount of anxiety -- marriage often being the only way out. Pregnancy was something that constantly lingered in the back of every woman's mind.

"To be unmarried and pregnant in the 1950s was to be in the deepest kind of trouble," writes journalist Brett Harvey her 2002 book "The Fifties: A Woman's Oral History." "First of all, there was the shame; a kind of shame that's unfamiliar to girls now: a profound and overwhelming feeling that you were bad and dirty in the deepest part of you, that you'd done something irredeemable. Then there was the terrible quandary of what to do."

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    Sara Dover is an associate news editor for CBSNews.com

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