Breadwinners and Housewives? State, Society, and the Institution of Marriage in Istanbul during the Great War

By Kate Dannies
Submitted to Session P5175 (Widows, Adulteresses and Brides: Gender, Power, and Society in the Ottoman First World War, 2018 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper examines the way the social and political dynamics of the First World War shaped the institution of marriage and those individuals who sought to enter it, providing a closer look at how this fundamental social structure fared during the years of conflict. From the mid-nineteenth century, the Ottoman state actively promoted universal marriage and the nuclear family through legislation and policies designed to regulate marriage procedures and registrations and to lower the financial barriers to matrimony. As a proxy for social stability, in times of conflict facilitating marriage and remarriage took on a heightened importance in the eyes of the Ottoman authorities. During the Balkan Wars, special legislation paved the way for easier annulments for the wives of missing soldiers in order to allow them to remarry and reconstitute male breadwinner-led households. By the eve of World War I, the state’s interest in preserving the male breadwinner-led family through marriage had become deeply ingrained into Ottoman institutional practices and during the war, the preservation of the male breadwinner-led household constituted a central pillar of the war effort. Using a rare source, a series of marriage wanted notices published in Ottoman dailies towards the end of the war in early 1918, this paper examines interactions between state policy, wartime social upheaval, and changing attitudes towards marriage. Part of the quasi-state Society for the Employment of Muslim Women’s compulsory marriage campaign, this matchmaking effort is exemplary of the way civil society and the Ottoman authorities cooperated to promote marriage as a pathway to social stability and demographic viability in the context of war. The notices also provide a unique window into how individual men and women viewed the marital relationship, and a rich sense of how the material, physical, and social environment of wartime Istanbul shaped the expectations and demands of Ottoman marriage seekers. This paper argues that an imbalanced marriage market resulting from wartime demographic changes and favoring men, eroded the normative socioeconomic bargain of marriage based on the breadwinner/housewife nuclear family. What emerged from the war was a weakened version of this model, wherein women were expected to forego the expectation of economic dependence in order to maintain the viability of marriage as a universal practice at the center of political and social life in the Ottoman Empire and post-Ottoman geographies.