The New England Divorce Reform League sprang up in the late 1800s in response to a divorce crisis in the country. The Civil War was hard on marriage. Men left their families for long periods. Many returned with mental as well as physical injuries (not to mention sexually transmitted diseases, in some cases). Thatsad state of affairs began showing up in divorce records.
In the years after the Civil War, divorce rates began to skyrocket nationwide. From 1850 to 1880, divorce rates in Massachusetts increased from one in 41 marriages to one out of every 21 marriages. The other New England states showed similar increases.
The problem touched off debate about when to allow divorce and when not to. It also raised the question of where people could get a divorce.
What if a couple resided in separate states? When was a spouse (usually the man) guilty of desertion?
Divorce laws varied widely from state to state. Adultery, abandonment, cruelty and simple incompatibility were all reasons for divorce in certain states. Connecticut maintained what it called an omnibus divorce law, which essentially allowed a judge to grant a divorce for whatever reasons he deemed acceptable. And judges were inclined to grant divorces when lawyers asked for them. The only way to stop a divorce was for one party to contest the divorce – a rare occurrence.
Social critics argued that easy divorce led to casual marriages. The president of Yale College tackled the issue head on. Theodore Woolsey was known more for an interest in international law and Greek, but Woolsey dove into the thorny topic of divorce, publishing essays on the topic in 1868 and 1869. The linchpin of Woolsey’s position was that adultery should be the only acceptable reason for divorce.
In the southern states, the removal of governments following the Civil War brought tremendous changes to divorce customs, as well. In most of the South before the war, an act of the legislature was needed to end a marriage, following Church of England customs. That would change after new reconstruction era governments took power.
The West, meanwhile, had a hodge-podge of divorce laws. Couples often entered into common-law marriages, simply by cohabiting and declaring themselves married. Divorces were often also informal, do-it-yourself affairs.
William Dean Howells
William Dean Howells tapped into the national angst over the state of marriage in 1881 with a best-selling, serialized novel — A Modern Instance. It was the first American novel to examine divorce. In the book, Marcia Gaylord, the most desirable young girl in the fictional town of Equity, Maine, falls for Bartley Hubbard, a thoroughly modern man. The couple then run away from Maine to Boston. In doing so they leave behind the guiding forces of family and religion to live a life governed now by greed and charm. The marriage ends with a divorce. The book leaves Bartley dead and Marcia cloistered, sorrowfully, in her childhood home of Equity.
Howells had come to Massachusetts in 1860 and served as editor for the Atlantic Magazine. He summered in Maine and wrote more than 100 books in his lifetime. His great friend Mark Twain claimed that he was himself the model for Bartley Hubbard. That was something of an insult since Hubbard is an immature, frivolous fellow whose good looks are only rivaled by his scoundrel’s streak.
In Howells’ view, the blame for divorce could be placed upon modern capitalism and greed. He also faulted the failure of society to embrace religion and the importance of family and breeding.
Everyone had an opinion on divorce, but divorce rates still escalated. Woolsey, who moved on from Yale, gathered a group of ministers and founded the New England Divorce Reform League.
The goal of the reform league (which later became the National Divorce Reform League) was to establish stricter, standardized laws for divorce across the country. Lobbying in Connecticut had led to the repeal of the omnibus divorce laws, but states elsewhere were still permissive. Indiana, Illinois, South Dakota and Rhode Island had a long history of taking turns becoming divorce mills. They would allowing out-of-staters to come, establish brief residency and win an easy divorce.
Ultimately, the League failed in its efforts, collapsing in 1908. Historians judge the league and its supporters made a key mistake in tackling the issue. They didn’t recruit feminists to aid their campaign. Women had as big a stake in divorce as men, maybe bigger, but the reform league did not choose to represent women’s interests in their campaigns. The movement came in an era when women were solidifying legal gains that gave married women more rights and greater control over their own property.
Though the league conventions and events were open to women members, it was slow to tackle the divorce laws that favored men in settling financial affairs. Outspoken women activists of the era such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton turned their criticism on the divorce reform movement, helping quell its momentum. She and others did not believe male reformers would adequately protect women’s interests in child custody and property rights, and so the divorce reform movement landed on the scrap heap of history and the quickie divorce survived.
This story was updated in 2021.