Divorce and the Family in America

A social critic argues that divorce poses no threat to the institution of marriage

Until the middle of the nineteenth century in England and the United States, grounds for divorce were pretty much confined to adultery and cruelty. Divorces, moreover, had to be granted by legislative enactment. These provisions, making money and political influence requisite to divorce, effectively limited divorce to members of the upper classes; and except in rare cases, to upper-class men, eager for one reason or another to get rid of their wives. The new laws, still in effect today in most places, substituted judicial for legislative divorce and broadened grounds of divorce to include desertion. Both of these provisions, particularly the second, show that women were intended to be the principal beneficiaries of the change. That was certainly the result. Ever since the liberalization of the laws in the mid-nineteenth century, divorces have been easier and easier to obtain, and more and more of them have been granted to women.

But those who see in these statistics a general dissolution of morals and a threat to the family misunderstand the dynamics of the process. The movement for earlier divorce owed its success to the very idea which it is supposed to have undermined, the idea of the sanctity of the family. Indeed, it is somewhat misleading to see divorce-law reform as a triumph even for women's rights, for the feminists could hardly have carried the day if their attack on the arbitrary authority of husbands had not coincided with current conceptions of the family—conceptions of the family which, in the long run, tended to subvert the movement for sexual equality. It was not the image of women as equals that inspired the reform of the divorce laws, but the image of women as victims. The Victorians associated the disruption of domesticity, especially when they thought of the "lower classes," with the victimization of women and children: the wife and mother abused by her drunken husband, deserted and left with children to raise and support, or forced to submit to sexual demands which no man had a right to impose on virtuous women. These images of oppression wrung ready tears from our ancestors. The rhetoric survives, somewhat diluted, in the form of patriotic appeals to home and motherhood, and notably in the divorce courts, where it is perfectly attuned, in fact, to the adversary proceeding.

Judicial divorce, as we have seen—a civil suit brought by one partner against the other—was itself a nineteenth-century innovation, a fact which suggests that the idea of marriage as a combat made a natural counterpoint to the idea of marriage as a partnership. The combat, however, like the partnership itself, has never firmly established itself, either in legal practice or in the household itself, as an affair of equals, because the achievement of legal equality for the married woman depended on a sentimentalization of womanhood which eroded the idea of equality as easily as it promoted it. In divorce suits, the sensitivity of judges to the appeal of suffering womanhood, particularly in fixing alimony payments, points to the ambiguity of women's "emancipation." Sexual equality, in divorce as in other matters, does not rest on a growing sense of the irrelevance, for many purposes, of culturally defined sexual distinctions. It represents, if anything, a heightened awareness of these distinctions, an insistence that women, as the weaker sex, be given special protection in law.

From this point of view, our present divorce laws can be seen as faithfully reflecting ideas about women which, having persisted into the mid twentieth century, have shown themselves to be not "Victorian" so much as simply modern, ideas which are dependent, in turn, on the modern obsession with the sanctity of the home, and beyond that, with the sanctity of privacy. Indeed, one can argue that easier divorce, far from threatening the home, is one of the measures—given the obsession with domesticity—that has been necessary to preserve it. Easy divorce is a form of social insurance that has to be paid by a culture which holds up domesticity as a universally desirable condition: the cost of failure in the pursuit of domestic bliss—especially for women, who are discouraged in the first place from other pursuits—must not be permitted to become too outrageously high.

We get a better perspective on modern marriage and divorce, and on the way in which these institutions have been affected by the "emancipation" of women and by the "sexual revolution," if we remember that nineteenth century feminism, at its most radical, passed beyond a demand for "women's rights" to a critique of marriage itself. The most original and striking—and for most people the least acceptable—of the feminists' assertions was that marriage itself, in Western society, could be considered a higher form of prostitution, in which respectable women sold their sexual favors not for immediate financial rewards but for long-term economic security. There was "no sharp, clear, sudden-drawn line," they insisted, between the "kept wife," living "by the exercise of her sex functions alone," in Olive Schreiner's words, and the prostitute. The difference between prostitution and respectability reduced itself to a question not of motives but of money. The virtuous woman's fee was incomparably higher, but the process itself was essentially the same; that is, the virtuous woman of the leisure class had come to be valued, like the prostitute, chiefly as a sexual object: beautiful, expensive, and useless- in Veblen's phrase, a means of vicarious display. She was trained from girlhood to bring all her energies to the intricate art of pleasing men: showing off her person to best advantage, mastering the accomplishments and refinements appropriate to the drawing room, perfecting the art of discreet flirtation, all the while withholding the ultimate prize until the time should come when she might bestow it, with the impressive sanction of state and church, on the most eligible bidder for her "hand." Even then, the prize remained more promise than fact. It could be repeatedly withdrawn or withheld as the occasion arose, and became, therefore, the means by which women learned to manage their husbands. If, in the end, it drove husbands to seek satisfactions elsewhere, that merely testified to the degree to which women had come to be valued, not simply as sexual objects, but precisely in proportion to their success in withholding the sexual favors which, nevertheless, all of their activities were intended to proclaim.

The defenders of the conventional types of prostitution, meanwhile, did not fail to see the connection between prostitution and respectability; in the words of William Lecky, the historian of European morals, the prostitute was "ultimately the most efficient guardian of virtue" because she enabled virtuous women to remain virtuous. "But for her the unchallenged purity of countless happy homes would be polluted, and not a few who with the pride of their untempted chastity think of her with an indignant shudder, would have known the agony of remorse and despair." The same reasoning, as we have seen, led to the nineteenth-century reform of the divorce laws. The purity of the home demanded just such outlets as prostitution and divorce if it was to survive intact and "untempted."

The central features of this system of sexual relationships persist into the twentieth century essentially unchanged. Courtship is more than ever a "sex tease," in Albert Ellis' words, and marriage remains something to be managed—among other ways, by the simultaneous blandishment and withdrawal, on the part of the wife, of her sexual favors. Let anyone who doubts the continuing vigor of this morality consult the columns of advice which daily litter the newspapers. "Dear Abby" urges her readers, before marriage, to learn the difficult art of going far enough to meet the demands of "popularity" without "cheapening" themselves (a revealing phrase); while her advice to married women takes for granted that husbands have to be kept in their place, sexually and otherwise by the full use of what used to be called "feminine wiles." These are prescriptions, of course, which are not invariably acted upon; and part of the "sexual revolution" of the twentieth century lies in the increased publicity which violations of the official morality receive, a condition which is then taken as evidence that they are necessarily more frequent than before. Another development, widely mistaken for a "revolution in morals," is a growing literal-mindedness about sex, an inability to recognize as sexual anything other than gross display of the genitals. The sexual advances of the respectable woman, accordingly, have come to be more blatant than they used to be, a fact predictably deplored by alarmists, themselves victims of the progressive impoverishment of the sexual imagination, who erroneously confuse respectability with the concealment rather than the withholding, of sexuality. We should not allow ourselves to be misled by the openness of sexual display in contemporary society. The important thing is the use to which sexuality is put. For the woman, it remains, as it was in the nineteenth century, principally a means of domination; for the man, a means of vicarious display.

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