Till Divorce Do Us Part

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Soon, divorce, like every other American institution, came up against slavery, not as an issue (since slaves were not officially permitted to marry, there was no need for them to divorce) but as a metaphor. When word of an unhappy wife’s suicide traveled through Philadelphia in 1788, an anonymous writer published An Essay on Marriage , in which he cited the new sentiment for freeing slaves and wondered, “where is there any relief to the miserable, hen-pecked husband, or the abused and insulted, despised wife?” In 1881 The Century Magazine heralded serialization of William Dean Howells’s A Modern Instance , generally regarded as the first serious divorce novel, with comparisons to Uncle Tom’s Cabin , which it had run three decades earlier. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton wasn’t likening marriage to “legalized prostitution,” she was sprinkling her speeches on divorce with words like slavery, chains , and degradation . In 1884, she wrote, “Liberal divorce laws for oppressed wives are what Canada was for Southern slaves.”

Soon, divorce, like every other American institution, came up against slavery, not as an issue—slaves, after all, were not permitted to marry—but as a metaphor.

If slavery provided an apt analogy for marriage, race inflamed the issue of divorce. In 1803 a wife’s infidelity with a slave prompted Virginia legislators to enact the state’s first “bill of divorcement.” Thirteen years earlier, John Sewall sued his wife, Eve, after she gave birth to a mulatto child. If that had been the end of the action, it might be a simple case of adultery, but Eve and the child were sold into slavery in accordance with Maryland law.

If abolition entered the divorce arguments, so did feminism. By the mid-nineteenth century, when women could both earn wages and legally control them, many feminists saw liberalized divorce as one more step on the road to woman’s full equality. Divorce and feminism were not, however, a match made in heaven. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had several lectures in her repertoire, admitted that “women respond to this divorce speech as they never did to suffrage.” The vote might be nice, but it couldn’t hold a candle to freedom from a husband’s beatings, food for the children, and the certainty that the week’s wages were not going to the corner barkeep.

Other feminists, however, feared destroying the family, which they regarded not only as woman’s special realm and responsibility but as the very foundation of civilization. The division went back to the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. One supporter of the vote for women complained, “It has been a source of regret to me ever since I joined the Women Suffrage party, that so many advocates of that measure are advocates also of a greater liberty of divorce.”

Some suffragists saw an even greater threat. They feared sullying their political purity with the salacious scent of free love. In a thinly disguised 1855 autobiographical novel, titled Mary Lyndon; or, Revelations of a Life , the spiritualist, reformer, and medical practitioner Mary Gove Nichols portrayed her first husband as a leech who appropriated her income as fast as she earned it. But to The New York Times , the book, which also celebrated Nichols’s fashionable salon and a subsequent love affair with an English spiritualist, was nothing more than an argument for “the reforming influence of fine art and fornication.” Meanwhile the factions splintered further. Among those who supported liberalized divorce, old-line feminists wanted to free women from the abuses of sex, new moralists for the pleasures of it.

The idea of women carrying on like men tapped into the rich vein of misogyny that so often runs beneath the surface of chivalry. Colonial pamphlets on marital advice warned against man’s enslavement to woman’s sexuality. More than two and a half centuries later, one of the spate of marriage manuals that appeared in the early nineteen hundreds warned against selfish wives who carry the “germ of divorce.” Clearly the rate at which the nation’s marriages were foundering reflected the American woman’s sexual and economic voraciousness.

Statistics seemed to substantiate the argument. Historically, women have brought more divorce suits than men, but the main cause of the imbalance was a peculiar gentleman’s agreement. Men would permit women to charge adultery as long as they could go on committing it; real men weren’t subject to mental cruelty; and women who were not employed had the luxury of establishing residency elsewhere, while men who were did not.