×

Married at 14: ‘Other girls could miss out like I did’

  • Gail Benton,63, reflects on her experiences of having a child and getting married at the age of 14 from her home in Concord last month. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Gail Benton, 63, of Concord reflects on her experiences of having a child and getting married at the age of 14. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Gail Benton around the age of 13. She had recently found out she was pregnant, and would be married five days after her 14th birthday.  Courtesy

  • Gail Benton at 17 years old with her son Frank in 1971. Gail was getting ready to be married for the second time when this photo was taken.  Courtesy



Monitor staff
Sunday, February 11, 2018

Gail Benton remembers the excitement she felt packing up her stuffed animals when she was 14 years old, preparing to move in with her first husband.

She had a collection of plush tigers, rabbits and dogs her parents had bought her as gifts.

“I would line them up on my bed and pretend I was their teacher,” Benton said.

She couldn’t bear to leave them all behind, so she packed a few favorites into boxes to take with her to begin her new life.

Benton turned 14 less than a week before she married her 16-year-old husband.

The law back then, in 1968, is the same as it is today: girls as young as 13 and boys at least 14 can get married in New Hampshire with parental permission and a signoff from a judge.

Benton and her husband were wed in a small ceremony at her parent’s home on Loudon Road in Concord. She wore a yellow dress that her mother bought her.

At the time, the decision to get married made sense to Benton. She had a baby on the way, and she and her husband both wanted their child to have the best life possible.

It wasn’t until years later that Benton began to question how getting married young had impacted her and her son’s lives. Her relationship with her husband was tumultuous, and after she became his wife, Benton dropped out of middle school. She never went to high school.

“I had no idea at the time how much I was missing out on,” she said. “At that age, your brain is not old enough to realize what’s going on.”

Some legislators have been working to pass a law that would prevent children like Benton from getting married.

One bill that would have raised the marriage age for both boys and girls to 18 was killed on the House floor just last year. Legislators said that raising the age to 18 would enable teens to have children out of wedlock, or prevent young soldiers from getting married and providing military benefits to their families.

Another set of bills proposed this year would raise the marriage age to 16, the age of sexual consent in New Hampshire.

Gov. Chris Sununu has voiced his support of the proposed legislation, calling the notion of 13- and 14-year-old spouses “unconscionable.”

“It is long past time for us to take affirmative action to prevent child marriage,” he wrote in a letter to the state House of Representatives’ Children and Family Law Committee.

The beginning

Marriage was never something Benton considered for herself, even after she found out she was pregnant at 13.

She was still processing how she could have a baby in the first place. She had just started menstruating the year before, when she was 12.

“I didn’t even realize that I could get pregnant,” Benton said. “I thought it only happened in the movies.”

Benton’s parents weren’t happy to find out about her pregnancy, but promised to care for her and her baby. But Benton couldn’t shake the fear that the baby’s father, whose family was wealthier, would be able to obtain custody of her son.

So, she agreed to run away with him when he sneaked into her house on her 14th birthday. She remembers her father screaming after her, as she and her soon-to-be husband ran down the street to where his car was parked.

“I just wanted my baby to stay with me,” she said.

The marriage

Benton said she drove around with her baby’s father for three days before they came home. They agreed to return when both sets of parents said they would give their permission for the marriage.

The law then – and now – is that individuals under the age of 18 must petition a family court to receive a marriage license. Both spouses’ parents must sign off.

RSA 457:6 says that petitions may be granted by judges when a “good/special” cause is shown. Teen pregnancy is one of the most common reasons cited for petitions that are accepted, according to court records.

Five days after running away, Benton and her husband were married.

Benton’s husband’s parents bought a house for them on the Heights. Benton said she felt excited to start her new life. She learned how to perform domestic tasks like balancing a checkbook, laundry and housework.

“The only thing I didn’t do right was cook my first turkey,” Benton remembered, laughing. “I cooked it upside down.”

But it wasn’t long before the relationship began to sour. Benton said her husband was often gone, and he would come home at odd hours of the day, yelling at her and trying to frighten her by banging on the outside of their home.

Benton said he was possessive, and almost never let her leave the house or talk to her family, even though they lived in the same neighborhood.

“He made me feel like a prisoner,” she said.

Life changes

Benton’s life changed drastically when, about a year into their marriage, she and her husband’s car was hit head-on by a truck on the drive home from a family trip to Michigan.

Benton’s husband, then 17-years-old, was killed instantly. She was in the hospital for a month recovering from injuries, and at age 14, was a widow.

She didn’t get to attend her husband’s funeral, and when she was ready to return home, her husband’s family had already moved all of her belongings into her parent’s garage.

Benton stayed at her parents’ house for a few years. When she was well enough, she got her GED, and a job at a nursing home in Concord.

But Benton said living at home seemed strange after she had already been married and living on her own.

Eager to regain that independence, Benton became engaged again at 17. She went through the same court petition process as before, and was approved for a marriage license.

That marriage did not last more than a few years. Benton and her husband were divorced by the time she was 21, and she soon got married again. By the time she was 30, Benton had been married four times.

She said she didn’t realize until years later that she was looking for a father figure for her son. But in her haste to fill that void, she often chose “the wrong people.”

She said she was physically or verbally abused by three of her four husbands.

“You don’t know the person you think you’re in love with,” she said. “It can turn out so bad.”

Time to reflect

Until now, Benton said, she hasn’t talked about her marriages openly. Benton never kept any photos or mementos from her former relationships.

“I thought, ‘I’m done with that life,’ ” she said. “I was angry.”

But when Benton heard about 18-year-old Cassandra Levesque, the Barrington Girl Scout who has been pioneering legislation to raise the marriage age, Benton felt she had to speak up.

Benton said she has thought for years about talking to young girls about the potential harm of getting married young. It made her and her son’s life harder – something she deeply regrets.

She said if she had the chance to talk to young girls, she would tell them her story, and urge that they can still keep their babies without being married.

She said she hopes that other girls in her situation could have parents that were as supportive as hers were.

“My mom and dad never closed the door on me,” Benton said. “It didn’t matter how old I was, I could always come back.”

Benton said she’s been with her current and fifth husband for more than 30 years. They dated for almost 10 years before marriage.

“He taught me how to do things the right way – to be patient,” Benton said. “We became like friends before our marriage, we really got to know each other.”

State of child marriage

Cases of minors married in the state are relatively rare. Between 1995 and 2012, a total of 323 girls and 46 boys under age 18 have been married, according to the state’s vital statistics. The number of married minors has declined steadily since 1995, a year when 47 teens were wed.

Although child marriage is not very common in the U.S., it is legal in almost every state. Nearly every state technically prohibits people younger than 18 from marrying, but each state has exceptions to these laws, like marriage with parental permission or judicial consent.

Last year, Connecticut and New York passed legislation to raise those states’ minimum marriage age to 16 and 17 respectively.

But most states do not have a minimum age as low as 13 for girls, according to 2016 research by the PEW research center.

Still, New Hampshire’s proposed legislation would not stop the large majority of child marriages, according to state data. Most child marriages that occur are by 16- and 17-year olds.

In the last five years, 39 of 67 total petitioners for a child marriage license were 16 or 17 years old. Only two were 13 or 14.

Benton said she believes that raising the marriage age to 16 is not enough. It’s a good start, she said, but she’d really like to see the age raised to 21, an age she said she the brain is more developed and able to make better decisions.

“It makes me sad to think that other girls could miss out like I did,” she said.

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, lwillingham@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)