In 1965, Jean Fields, aged 15 at that time, married a man in his 20’s. She went on to have three children by the time she was 21. Fields, along with Judy Wiegand of Kentucky, are one of the few people invited by lobbyists in North Carolina to help convince the state’s congress to address the increasing cases of underage marriage. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and Unchained at Last are among the groups that have pressured the state’s legislators to fix the gruesome age of consent for marriage.
In North Carolina, a person is too young to drink alcohol but not too young to get married… with parental consent. The state has been struggling with the influx of applications for marriage licenses. The majority of these applications are from individuals living out of state who purposely visit North Carolina for the chance of marrying an individual younger than themselves. This is no longer possible in other states, with New York increasing the minimum age requirement for marriage to 18 in 2017. North Carolina is left with questionable notoriety, a destination for adults who wished to marry an underaged person.
Drew Reisinger from the register of deed in Buncombe County, western North Carolina, said, “We will have moved the needle and made North Carolina no longer at the very bottom of the barrel of states.” Buncombe County hosts Asheville, which has become the epicenter for marriage applications whose applicants include children. Reisinger admitted that the progress in fixing North Carolina’s status as a haven for child marriage is slow, acknowledging that they may still “be putting a lot of children in harm’s way.”
More than half of the marriage license applications involving one party under 18 years old came from other states, including Kentucky. With North Carolina’s current law, a judge can allow a 14-year old female child to be married if pregnant.
According to Unchained at Last, North Carolina is one of the 13 states in the US that allows a person under 16 to be married. The ICRW published a study in August 2020 that reveals almost nine thousand children below 18 years old were listed for marriage licenses in North Carolina between 2000 to 2015.
Vickie Sawyer, a Republican state senator, recognizes that the issue goes beyond bipartisanship. Sawyer realized that the problem is a “generational divide.” She added that people from across the whole political spectrum “had those personal stories of family members who had been married and it turned out OK.”
Senator Sawyer intended to sponsor a bill that will increase the minimum age requirement for marriage to 18. Unfortunately, a compromise had to be taken, leaving the bill’s age requirement to 16. Rep. Kristin Baker, a child psychiatrist, facilitated the bill’s passing through North Carolina’s lower house.