During Elizabeth’s lifetime, an individual’s choice of a mate tended to be based on romantic attraction and on shared social status—a common economic and religious background. (Contrary to lingering stereotypes, marriages were rarely arranged by one’s parents, although parental sanction was considered highly important.) Once a couple decided to marry, they would become “betrothed” or “contracted” to each other, a state similar to the modern engagement, except that to break such a contract might incur legal action and the payment of financial damages. A subsequent step would involve the “publishing of the banns,” or official announcement of the couple’s intention to marry, which usually took the form of a notice posted on the meetinghouse door. Prior to the marriage itself, the parents of the prospective bride and groom would decide upon the financial gifts they would make to the couple; the groom’s family often provided lands and housing, while the bride’s family commonly supplied household goods, cash, and cattle. (This would be considered the bride’s “dowry.”) Because residents of both the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies regarded marriage as a civil contract rather than a sacrament, wedding ceremonies were often performed by magistrates rather than ministers, and were frequently held at the bride’s home rather than in the meetinghouse.
Women did not enter into the marriage state lightly, because in doing so they accepted feme covert status, in which their belongings, their earnings, and even their physical being became the legal property of their husband, who was considered the ultimate authority in a family. Despite this inequality in the holding of power in the relationship, it was also believed that love and affection were critical to the success of a marriage. Ministers often compared the bond between a husband and wife to the connection between Christ and his church, and stressed the importance of a married couple’s achieving both a spiritual—and a physical—“oneness.” (As historians have long noted, early New Englanders were not as prudish as they have often been depicted, and believed that a healthy sex life was an integral part of marriage.)
Elizabeth likely would have viewed herself as William’s “helpmeet,” with both partners working toward the common goal of the prosperity of their farm and their family. Elizabeth more than fulfilled cultural expectations in the latter regard, giving birth to eleven healthy children who lived to adulthood. Reproduction was considered one of the most important of a wife’s responsibilities, in that it helped perpetuate the family name, provided workers for the property, and ensured a source of support for a couple when they reached old age.