Thursday, December 8, 2011

100 years ago today: Defending traditional marriage

One hundred years ago the defenders of "traditional" marriage weren't worried about "same-sex" unions they were fighting against divorce and especially remarriage after divorce.

Take, for example this article DIVORCE REFORMERS SUSTAIN RUDE JAR on the front page of the December 8 1922 issue of the Arizonan Republican. Dateline Kansas City:
Reformers who hoped to check the indiscriminate granting of divorces in this city, received a shock today when W. W. Wright. divorce proctor, recently recently appointed to investigate the merits of divorce cases, was barred from participation in an uncontested suit. The plaintiff's attorneys objection to the proctor was that he was in no way connected with the case and had no right to interfere. Judge Guthrie sustained the point. The office of proctor was created as the result of a popular demand that the divorce evil be abated. All eight circuit judges concurred In the demand. Since the Procter assumed his duties last month, few divorces have been granted. Formerly all uncontested suits resulted favorably to the plaintiff.
Note the vaguely specified "popular demand" and the fact that in a non-editorial piece divorce was passingly referred to as an "evil." It was still extraordinarily difficult to get a divorce in England and difficulty (and expense) varied from state to state in America.

While some were most worried about the sheer fact of divorce others were more concerned about the issue of divorce and remarriage. For example, this article in the August 9 1911 issue of The San Francisco Call on the question as to whether any Episcopalian minister should be willing to marry John Jacob Astor (a divorced man) and his intended bride, Miss Madeleine Force.[1] EPISCOPALIAN CLERGY UNITED AGAINST ASTOR (p. 1) written by Rev. D. G. Kelley:
There is only one class of divorced people that can be reunited in our church—the innocent parties where the divorce was secured on statutory grounds. The rector who would marry this couple ought to be deposed from the ministry.
Girl Needs Protection
As for this marriage, I call abominable if the girl herself, is innocent and decent. She should be protected. One of the greatest menaces to our social system is the laxity of our divorce law.
In paper after paper one comes across article after article about threat that easy divorce, divorce on grounds such as incompatibility and the remarriage of the "guilty" partner after divorce were to health of the nation. Some pundits argued that the age of consent should be raised, that people should have to wait much longer between the granted of the licence and the marriage itself and that remarriage should be allowed, even for the innocent partner, only after an extended period of time. And, much like today, citizens of states with one view of marriage, divorce and remarriage complained that they should not have to recognize marriages and divorces from states with different laws.

One hopes that in 100 years Americans will look back on the resistance to "same-sex" marriages much as Americans of today look back on the resistance to "no fault" divorces and remarriage of the "guilty" partner of 100 years ago.

[1] Both John Jacob and Madeleine Astor were aboard the Titanic when it hit the iceberg. Mrs. Astor (noticeably pregnant), along with her maid and nurse, were given places in a lifeboat and survived the sinking the ship. John Jacob Astor, one of the many man not allowed a place on a lifeboat, died some time that night. Given the size of his estate (over 100 billion in 2011 dollars) it is fortunate that his body was one of those recovered from the ocean.


  1. Totally tangential-- but there's that synchronicity thing again!

    I haven't thought about either John Jacob Astor or the Titanic in years, but last week I found The Watch That Ends the Night, by Allan Wolf, on the YA shelf at the library. Astor is one of the characters in the book, and suddenly I'm meeting the man or the ship everywhere I turn.

    (Well, OK, not everywhere, but this is not the first reference I've come across in the last week.)

    Anyway, the book is subtitled "Voices fromt he Titanic." And it's quite good, except...except, for a collection of voices, most of them are in the bass range. That is to say, there are only two women given individual speaking parts. One of them is Margaret Brown ("the unsinkable," although apparently not called "Molly" in her own lifetime), who balances out John Jacob Astor as the other first-class-passenger representative, well and good. (The book could even be said to pass Bechdel, as Brown is shown in several conversations with Helen Churchill Candee.)

    Granted, the crew was almost all male, but there were some stewardesses and female cashiers aboard. If we have space to hear from the White Star executives, the officers, the wireless and mailroom staff, the kitchen staff, the stokers, then why not even one stewardess? Violet Jessop, for instance-- I looked her up, and Titanic was only the second of three disasters-at-sea that she survived. What did she think as the lifeboats were lowered?

    The only other female voice is that of Nicola Yarra, a teenage third-class emigrant. Okay as far as it goes, but there are a bunch of male voices from that class. For instance, there's a tailor who abducted and fled with his own sons after his marriage broke up; both he and his oldest son have their own sections. There's another family emigrating to America after a family tragedy; we hear from the nine-year-old son, so why not from his mother, as counterpoint to the other father?

    (Here's Frankie on "women and children first," by the way:

    out goes Y-O-U! You're OUT!

    That's how me and my mates do the choosing.
    But the Titanic man said, "Only women and children.
    The rest must wait." Now tell me: how is that fair?

    I will say, though, that it was an inspired idea to give the iceberg its own voice. When the book is good, it's very good. But there was that little niggle in my own head saying, something's missing...

    End impromptu book review.

  2. I don't know if it's true-to-life, but several of Margaret Atwood's books -- including "Life Before Man" and "Edible Woman" -- mention how hard it is to get a divorce in Canada during the time she was writing them -- there are processing periods of YEARS in her examples. One 'cynical' woman advises her roommate to have her marriage in the US so that the inevitable divorce will be faster.

    That shocked me when I read those books. It's frightening how hard it was to get a divorce even very recently -- and it's one reason why I get chills when some allies say that if right-wing pundits were SERIOUS about protecting marriage, they'd outlaw divorce. I rather imagine some of them would LOVE to do just that. *shivers*

  3. Ana -- divorce was incredibly difficult to get in Canada until the late 1960s unless you were very wealthy. I think that that may have something to do with Canadians attitudes now towards more open marriage laws. Within fairly recent memory Canadians saw just how marriage/divorce laws worked on two tiers -- one for the wealthy and another for ordinary people. Divorce (like abortion) was always somehow available for the rich.

    There is a nice summary of what the laws were like here:

    One of the reasons for the Abdication Crisis of 1936 was that divorce, and even worse, divorce and remarriage, was considered to be extraordinarily shocking. In England people were even forced to pretend to commit adultery since you couldn't have a divorce without a guilty party. And the Church of England frowned on remarriage even for the innocent partner.

    So ordinary Canadians had to remain in unhappy marriages and stay horrible domestic circumstances while rich Canadians would go to the US to get divorced.

    In late 1967 Pierre Trudeau, then the Justice Minister famously said 'There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation' as the many laws against homosexuality and other "offenses" began to be dropped from the nation's criminal code.

    Atwood was approaching her 30s when the laws began to change and she must have seen the struggles of many of her friends. She herself was divorced (after a brief marriage) in 1973 when divorce was still not that easy/quick.

  4. *shudders*

    I really just sounds awful, full-stop. "Life Before Man" also has a pregnant, not-married woman who believes she will lose her job when her situation becomes clear to her boss. "Edible Woman" has an engaged woman lose her job because 'married women don't have jobs!'.

    So you're damned if you get married and damned if you don't.

  5. (And I know that the U.S. had pretty similar situations in various states, so that last comment wasn't directed at Canada except inasmuch as I've read more Canadian literature that touches on the subject, due to my Atwood obsession. :))

  6. I didn't take it as a hit at Canada at all. Canada got to see just what life was like when you had a restrictive regime at home and a less restrictive regime within rich for the wealthy (thus making us more cynical about the whole process.)

    What surprises me (sort of) is that American political activists didn't hit back as much at the status quo as did Canadians. Partly, I guess, it was because we didn't have at Vietnam War we were protesting so we could go right to fights that got side tracked in the US.

    And I don't think you can underestimate the importance of the Tommy Douglas' fight for health care. What Canadians saw was
    a) that the entrenched powers were really fighting for their power not our good

    b) that we could win if we went to the mat


    c) that what we got for going to the mat was worth it.

    We had real, actual, doctors strikes over getting our health care system. The doctors shot themselves in the feet on that one cause you can't claim to be a "special community loving snowflake whose judgement should always be deferred to" when you have just endangered the lives of your patients by going on strike.

    [Insert here the irony that Keifer Sutherland of the right wing's fave show "24" is the grandson of Tommy Douglas. And Sutherland has cut political ads in Canada admonishing people to not undermine the things "grand dad fought for." Tommy Douglas is about as close to a universally beloved Canadian we ever had. And Tommy (he was the kind of guy everyone called by their first name) was willing to throw down to support the rights of the common person.

    There was a lot to fight about. There was a lot to fight about in the US -- and yet American women (and men) don't seem to realize that they didn't so much win the battle as were giving token wins to make them go away.


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