The Divorce Crisis in the United States in the Late 1800s

“The Family is beyond all doubt the most important question that has come before the American people since the War.”

This is a quote from Elisha Mulford, author of the book “The Nation: the Foundation of Civil Order and Political life in the United States.” When he refers to “the War” in the above quote he is referring to the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. This quote being given shortly after the Civil War ended no later than 1885.

I think it is pretty clear and obvious that The Family is the most serious problem affecting the United States and the Western World in general at this time. I find it quite shocking that this sentiment, that the problem of the family is the most important problem facing the nation, was also being thought and discussed right after the Civil War in the 1880s.

There is also this quote from the “Independent”, apparently a newspaper in the 1880s:

“The time has come when the American people should make common cause in correcting this stupendous and flagrant abuse which has gradually crept into the whole divorce system of the country and threatens to sap the very foundations of the nation’s life. The statistics on this subject are simply horrible.”

This quote is probably from the early 1880s, no later than 1885. The “stupendous and flagrant abuse” the author is referring to refers to easy divorce, abuse of the availability of divorce. When he says “the statistics on this subject are simply horrible” he is referring to the increase in divorce already visible from statistics gathered on divorce from certain states.

These quotes come from the “Report of the National Divorce Reform League” dated October 1885. The “New England Divorce Reform League” was founded on January 24, 1881 to lobby for more restrictive divorce laws and practices. This organization later changed its name to the “National Divorce Reform League” on February 16, 1885. The organization ultimately collapsed in 1908.

From this October 1885 report certain statistics of increased divorce are given such as:

“Some facts will best show this. Connecticut granted 91 divorces in 1849, or, it is estimated, 1 to each 35 marriages of the year. In 1878 the annual average for fourteen years, as given officially, had become 445, or one to 10.4 marriages. Vermont divorces increased from 94 in 1860, to 197 in 1878 ; those of Massachusetts in the same period, from 243 in 1860 to 655 in 1883, and the ratio from 1 to 51.4 to 1 to 27.8; of New Hampshire from 107 in 1860 to 315 in 1884, or 1 to 10.5 marriages; those of Rhode Island from 162 in 1869 to 273 in 1880, or 1 to 10.2 ; while Maine for the four years ending with 1882, averaged 534 annually, with a ratio of probably 1 to 11, or possibly 1 to 10.”

Also from this October 1885 report:

“Such statistical material as we have been able to gather goes to show also a serious increase of crimes against chastity in many sections of the country, of illegitmate births and connected evils, and a decline in the marriage and birth-rate in some of the states. There is reason to think that these evils have contributed much more to the causes of crime, insanity and poverty than is suspected by most people. The official authority on the subject puts the crimes due to licentiousness in England as equal to those caused by intemperance. And some other European authorities give remarkable figures concerning the prevalence of crime and suicide among divorced .persons. Without attempting exact estimates, we do not hesitate to say that defective conditions in American homes join with divorce and licentiousness in vastly swelling the volume of crime and intemperance. Statistical inquiry must be pushed in this direction.”

And lastly from this October 1885 report:

“To meet these needs we have been strangely unprepared. The loosest of marriage and divorce laws disgrace the statutes of many of our states. Their variety is almost endless. Their conflict is serious. And the ways by which they have often come into being, and been continued and administered are a disgrace to the good name of the American people. But worst of all is the public sentiment that has tolerated them and encouraged their abuse to the alarming degree now prevalent, and which has made almost all efforts at their reform slow and laborious, and often made inoperative all laws designed to protect the moralities and other interests of the Family. We have encouraged the desertion and abuse of wives by these laws and by our neglect to punish crimes against the Home, and have made the Family rest on a mere partnership, often practically dissoluble at the will of one or both parties.”

It is strange how much I agree with what is being said here, what was being said here in 1885! This is before women’s suffrage; women gaining the right to vote in 1920. This is shortly after the end of coverture, the Married Women Property Acts signaling the end of the prior coverture system that maintained stable family life for hundreds of years. This is long before “women’s liberation” of the 1960s and modern feminism of the 1970s.

1885 looks like a paradise of family stability and strong morals compared to today but back in 1885 conservative religious observers could see the family and societal moral standards declining and degenerating right before their eyes.

In 1867 there were 10,000 divorces and 357,000 marriages for a divorce rate of 2.8%. In 1885 there were 23,000 divorces and 507,000 marriages for a divorce rate of 4.5%. In 1890 2.2% of white married women worked, in 1900 3.0% of white married women worked. In 1917 the out-of-wedlock birth ratio or illegitimacy ratio was 1.3% among whites.

In 2010 there were 1,103,000 divorces and 2,096,000 marriages for a divorce rate of 52.6%. In 2010 61.0% of married women worked. In 2010 the out-of-wedlock birth ratio was 29.0% among whites.

I picked 2010 as my year of comparison for a reason because that is when these fundamental social indicators were at their worst. Things have actually improved since 2010 regarding these social indicators.

In 2017 the divorce rate was 42.4%, the proportion of married women in the workforce was 58.2%, and the illegitimacy ratio among whites was 28.4%.

Could the men of 1885 have imagined what America would become in the year 2019? Women being “equal” to men, individuality and “freedom of choice” being the primary moral outlook, religion being very weak? Homosexuality being normalized and being treated as equal to heterosexuality with so called “gay marriage” imposed upon the whole nation by Supreme Court edict?

On the one hand surely the world of today is unimaginable for the men and women of 1885 but on the other hand the concerns they expressed about the rising rate of divorce and accompanying related social problems that were happening in their own time sound amazingly like the problems we see today 134 years later.

Coverture lasted for hundreds of years and was stable; as soon as coverture was overturned by the first elements of feminist reform immediately the family started to deteriorate in the form of rising divorce rates and rising numbers of women entering the paid formal workforce. The very first moves towards “empowering” women led immediately to women being abandoned in the form of higher divorce and a greater expectation that women work.

What is “normal”? Is women being obedient to men and being taken care of by men “normal” or is the strong independent “equal” woman who don’t need no man “normal”? Is a 3% probability of divorce when getting married “normal” or is a 50% probability of getting divorced “normal”? Is your wife working “normal” or is your wife working something to feel very ashamed of, a sign that you are a real loser as a man? Is having children out-of-wedlock OK, not such a big deal, or is it a major failure, a major sin? In short is the world of 1885 normal or is the world of 2019 normal?

Does feminism match what is best for human beings to thrive and be happy and be functional in their lives or does patriarchy match better with how human beings are supposed to be?

As a man I want to be worthwhile and good as a husband and as a father; I want to be of value to women and children and to be loved and admired by women and children. Clearly and obviously patriarchy is the better route to follow from the point of view of being valuable as a man because patriarchy is based on contribution to a woman and contribution to the family. Under patriarchy I can make a romantic relationship work and I can make a family work. Under feminism I am being shoved away from taking on responsibility towards others, I am made weak, set up to be abused and attacked, and the woman is placed “in charge” of things where she will then mess things up.

On a societal level patriarchy leads to order, feminism leads to chaos. Male authority creates order so of course if you get rid of male authority you will get rid of the order that male authority provides, thus leading to chaos in family life.

What to do given the world we are in? I say make your family situation as authentically normal, as traditional, as patriarchal as possible. Find a traditional woman, make sure to establish your dominance over that woman, and then take care of that woman and the children you have with her as fully as possible in as many different ways as you can placing your duty of full financial support of your wife and your family as the first most basic way that you “take care of” your family.

Then as an expansion of your purpose as a patriarchal traditional man you can teach and lobby for more conservative patriarchal moral values in the culture and the law to try to rebuild family functioning in the community at large beyond just what you are doing for your family.

I do believe American culture can be rebuilt, that the damage that has accumulated during these past 150 years can be undone. I like to think that I am part of this process. The amazing improvement that has finally been seen in some of the most basic social indicators since 2010 is very encouraging in this regard.

Related articles:
Marriage is Masculinity and Coverture
Whose Fault is Feminism?

Sources of Statistics:
100 Years of Marriage and Divorce Statistics United States, 1867 – 1967
1900 Census Special Reports: Statistics of Women at Work
Vital Statistics of the United States 1940 – Part 1
National marriage and divorce rate trends for 2000-2017
Bureau of Labor Statistics – Data Tools – Employment – Labor Force Statistics
Births: Final Data for 2010
Births: Final Data for 2017

About Jesse Powell TFA

Anti-Feminist, MRA, Pro-Traditional Women's Rights Traditional Family Activist (TFA)
This entry was posted in Cultural History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Divorce Crisis in the United States in the Late 1800s

  1. Anette Andersen says:

    So desperately sad and what it does to children. It makes you wonder why the parents had children at all if they can’t be bothered with them. It just isn’t possible to have it all why do we women expect we can? It seems a rather spoiled view of the world. Men have to make choices too, working hard to support their family which means they don’t get to see much of their children.
    A very interesting and informative article. Going back to 1885 would certainly create major changes in society. Is it even possible to make them? I don’t know – but what i do know is that something has to happen. So much chaos, so many children and husbands being neglected. Women have been protesting and gained a lot of power for years. Now it’s men’s turn to reclaim their rightful dominance – patriarchy!
    I used to see everything from a feminist perspective, I’m afraid, never thinking of the other side. Now through having read a lot on this website, and many others too, my eyes have truly been opened. Suddenly so much makes sense. A cloud has lifted. Many years of brainwashing is disappearing.

  2. This comment is very gratifying for me to read, thank you. My hope is always that what I write helps people, helps people to do better in their family life and in their personal romantic lives. It is good to know that I am “getting through”, that what I write is persuasive and informative and helps people to understand things better and more quickly.

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