Nineteenth century divorce laws in America (and in Europe)


Divorce implies to a legal dissolution of marriage. During the nineteenth century, both America and Europe witnessed cases of divorce stemming from different causes. According to Angel, (1) In America, the history of divorce gives a reflection of how society changed with regards to economics, morality, gender roles and mobility which affected marriages. There were mannerisms in which people ended marriages and the colonial period was characterized by mutual separation or simply abandonment. Similarly, “wanted” ads would not be a strange phenomenon.  Whnadmin, (1) discusses that; England too as a part of Europe had its own share of divorce experiences. Prior to 1882, a number of reforms had been made relating to the married women property act. Wales, Ireland and England were relatively on the same level in terms of how they legally handled divorces. The married women property act restored the right to ownership of property to the married women. Additionally, the right to right to buy or sell property was restored. The act allowed them to sue or be sued, enter a contract, be indebted and even be declared bankrupt.

Many legal steps had been taken in the 19th century by America and Europe concerning divorce.  Marriage is much like an agreement entered between two people who intend to share their lives together. This can be described as a personal relationship between couples which is bound by a legal contract. This paper therefore discusses divorce in America and Europe highlighting various legal changes that have influenced this sector among other issues surrounding the marriage as an agreement (Hendrick, 103).


Regulating Divorce

All through the historical backdrop of divorce, the same issues as like the role of blame for terminating a marriage, worthy reason for separation, assets and liabilities distribution, child custody and spousal support have been issues to deal of concern. How people deal with the consequences of divorce as well as the causes is still an issue of societal concern. So much has changed about divorce including the involvement of religious groups, civil societies and other advocates (Engel, 1).

Let us look at the colonial periods. In America, marriages were basically regulated by manners, religious norms, ethics and customs. As such, different religious affiliations had their code of ethics expected for an individual in marriage to be bound by. For instance, the Judeo-Christian religious group had adopted a theological idea on innocence, guilt as well as punishments for those who are married but are seeking to divorce. The court authorities and other legislative authorities were later to quickly take over the role of marriages and divorce regulation. In 1629, a judicial tribunal was created in the colony of Massachusetts to handle divorce matters. This tribunal had the power to issue divorce on the grounds of impotence, abandonment, adultery or bigamy. Other colonies in America would then begin developing statutes for handling divorces. The southern colony was more focused on efforts to prohibit divorce in the society while the middle colonies would create limited provisions for divorce (Engel, 1).

The Married Women Property Act

WHNADMIN, 1 discusses; around the mid 19th century, there were very few cases of divorce in Europe. For example, Scotland would only record 55 divorces in 1879. The highest recorded divorces around this period would be 66 and that was barely a year after Scotland had legislated their married women property Act. However, the divorces were later to take a steady rise through 1880 to 1919 heating 829. They included post war divorces and post suffrage divorces. This height would only be reached 21 years later (1930).

WHNADMIN adds that; England would be correct to relate the rise in divorce to the enactment of the married women property Act. This act had various implications on the women’s life. Not only did it ensure that the women have access to property of their own but also impacted on how women were later to be viewed in the society. Women were therefore left with an opportunity to rise from the marital separation using the property to pick themselves up rather than lay in remorse and sufferings. It would make them be independent people I the society who had a financial autonomy. An example is the case of Isabella Gore-Booth. Her husband had involved in adultery and was willing to admit to it in before a court. However, Isabella would not go ahead to sue him due to the fear to share property. Nonetheless, after having children she later moved on to secure the divorce which was successful. The case of Muus and Oline as well shows hoe women suffered including being denied communication (Johnson, 1).

Similarly, in America,  Engel (1) explains; the issues of financial or property settlement became a hinge for divorce. Not only that but also, there were child custody issues as well as the right for an individual to remarry after divorce. In some occasions, there were harsh punishments ordered for the guilty party during a divorce. On the other end, where both parties had faults, the divorce would be denied. Worse still was the fact that the court ordered child pay was never always honored. Americans came to learn that Divorce hearings were taking much of their productive times and therefore moved to make the enactment of divorce laws as well as granting of divorce became a task of the judiciary much akin to what happens today.

Divorce Cases on the Rise

Unlike in Europe, Divorce was more common in America across the 18th and 19th century. They were a little more common even though the threshold would not qualify for it to be a social problem. Women and men lived with behavior restraints subject to community approval. As such, society constructed the role of men in business while women were to family. This gradually made the women lose the social power within their homes making them only known by their spouses’ names.  In America, this period saw women in marriage become a non-legal entity. They would not own property, enter contracts or any personal; businesses. The common law allowed a man everything that they acquired after marriage including that which a woman came with into the marriage. Noteworthy is the fact that the struggle for property rights by women has been an issue in America to date (Engel, 1).

Divorce has been characterized by socioeconomic challenges (Hendrick, 105). This has been a case both in Europe and America. Americans majorly focused on issues of divorce after the 1865 civil war. At this point the divorce rate was five times faster than the population growth rate. The period was a tough one for American because they were struggling with restructuring of their political and economic institutions. Therefore, it meant that the population was not ready for rebuilding broken marriages (Engel, 1). The divorces in this period could be attributed to long periods of separation due to war and rushed marriage decisions. Apart from the civil war, other factors also contributed to divorce in America. Industrialization, westward expansion a immigration were also major causes for family upheavals in the US.

Change of perception

Society was slowly getting to terms with divorce cases, different quarters reacted differently. Around 1910, a notion was flouted about the likelihood of divorcing individuals not being defective but rather pushed their by circumstances.  They suggested that social and economic circumstances prevailing in their lives were perhaps to blame. Issues like industrialization, urbanization, and the movement of women were also blamed for the rising statistics in divorce. Divorce was therefore a symptom rather than a social problem. The society then shifted their focus towards social reform and not individual rehabilitations (Engel, 1).

Divorce becomes a national crisis

In 1916, the department of Human services in the US had learned that the country was taking a lead in Divorce cases. This made the Americans regard divorce as the most unfortunate social problem. By 1920, the post war divorces were the highest of all the cases (Engel, 1). This pushed family brake-ups to be national crisis. The judicial and legislative systems in the US were not solving the divorce problems.

Angel (1) further points out that; Marriage counseling became crucial in the society, the psychological expects had to step in to solve this social problem. Labeling of divorced parents as well as their children was another problem experienced. They were often referred to as “psychological misfits” sexual incompatibilities were also associated with divorce. There was then realized an urgent need for sexual education. In 1920, the issue of sex, especially desirability of sexual pleasure becomes a serious issue capturing more attention. This was to bring about sexual revolution in the 1960s. The number of brides getting pregnant would then increase. Younger people got married for sex but unfortunalty got divorced later. Other causes like mental cruelty would alter be included in the grounds for divorce. Further, incompatibility was introduced to allow couples mutually consent to a divorce.

All these issues were worsened by the variants in the divorce laws. They include those legislations that were constantly introduced by every congress between 1884 and 1970. Judges further gave covert liberal interpretation based on whether they liked the wife or husband’s appearance or attitude. The child attachment to their fathers were also weakening on the rise were “visiting marriages”, persons of opposite sex sharing same quarters as some forms of marriages that people would opt to (Engel, 1).

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