Up until around 2003 it was still legal for a 14-year-old girl to be married in the state of Alabama — with parental consent. The law was finally changed — with no small amount of debate and controversy — to age 16 (which I would contend is still a child). They actually fought about this down there. In 2001 the Alabama state Senate debated a bill that would raise the age of consent from 14 to 16 but it failed after a late-night filibuster. Really, a filibuster? Really?
Apparently a lot of, ahem, adult male lawmakers were opposed to changing this backward measure, which seems a throwback to frontier times in the United States when young girls were often treated like pawns even within their own families as a way of conducting business.
So this Roy Moore story about events from years ago but first reported last week by the Washington Post didn’t surprise me at all. And the additional accusations that followed didn’t either — accusations Moore still denies even though many are backing away from him these days, including Fox News broadcaster Sean Hannity. That a man over the age of 30 allegedly would and could pursue or sexually assault what most in normal society consider an underage girl, was part of abnormal society in Alabama for decades — disturbingly so. It was largely condoned — and may still be if recent follow stories on Moore, a former district attorney, judge and current Republican candidate for U.S. Senate are any indication. Amid the outrage among what could be his future Washington Senate colleagues should Moore win his election bid, were voices from his state condoning this kind of behavior.
It defies understanding in a modern world. It defied understanding decades ago, too. And they were still debating this in Alabama in … 2003. Really?
I was reminded of a story we covered in the 1990s when I was working as a news editor or managing editor for the Daily News in Jacksonville, North Carolina. We encountered an instance there about a 14-year-old girl from Alabama living by herself in an apartment in the city. We were tipped off about the story by the girl’s father. And he wasn’t reporting a runaway teen who had somehow made it to North Carolina.
He was demanding that the U.S. Marine Corps bring his daughter’s husband home from a military deployment.
Daily News reporter Patricia Smith covered the story of what we in the newsroom called “The embryo bride.” The 14-year-old girl was married to an 18 or 19-year-old Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune. This was around 1994 or ’95. It was the first time I had a reason to look up Alabama’s marriage laws. I was stunned to discover that even way back then it was still legal for a 14-year-old to get married if her parents signed off on the license.
But the father hadn’t considered something completely predictable. The military deploys Marines and sailors every six months for duty in the Mediterranean Sea. They send troops to other areas as well. It’s part of the duty. So when the Marine was deployed, his child spouse was left alone in an unfamiliar and unforgiving town with limited support. She by definition was an abandoned child. And she did what many young teens might do in similar circumstances — ran a little wild.
Her father was incensed and as I mentioned earlier arrived at Camp Lejeune demanding that the Marine be shipped back to Jacksonville, even alerted the media to his situation.
I think most can predict how well that all turned out.
The Marine remained deployed. We wrote a half-dozen or so stories about it. I can’t really recall what happened to “the embryo bride.” Maybe her father took her home. Maybe she moved elsewhere and became a future guest on “The Jerry Springer Show.”
I just know this was the first time I realized that things are different in Alabama. And sadly still are.