Babylonian Marriage Market, 1875
Edwin Long (1829-1891)
Oil paint on canvas
Purchased for Thomas Holloway, 1882; acc. no. THC0039
To modern viewers this painting looks like a strange picture to choose for a women’s college. It shows women from ancient Babylon, whose families have not been able to afford a dowry, being auctioned off as wives. Was Holloway implying that the women who went to his college would be sold off in a modern day marriage market?
In fact, it seems likely that Holloway bought this painting to act as the stimulus for debate about women’s new role in society, their legal status and whether or not to marry. In 1870 a new act had been passed allowing married women to retain some of their income and wealth. Before this, upon marriage, the husband and wife became one person under the law, the property of the wife was surrendered to her husband, and her legal identity ceased to exist. She in effect, like the women in the painting, became a possession of her husband. Although this new law was passed, some campaigners felt that it did not go far enough. In the 1870s, when this picture was painted, there was great public debate about married women’s rights. These led to the act being amended in 1882.
For the women who came to Royal Holloway these laws gave them new legal status if they married, but many of them would also have wanted to debate the need for women to get married at all. By gaining a university education, the students were giving themselves the option of a career as an alternative to marriage. Many felt that in having a professional career they would not have time to fulfil the role of wife and mother and that it may be better, or preferable, not to marry. It seems likely that Holloway chose this painting to act as a springboard for discussion and perhaps as a reminder that he was offering the women the chance not to enter the 19th–century marriage market