By Ken Zurski
In 1915, the United States of America held the dubious distinction of having the highest divorce rate in the world. Comparatively, by today’s standard, the rate was relatively low at 10-percent, but at the time it was considered alarming. So much so that changes were made to help save the institution of marriage.
Why 1915? The book Victorian America explains that divorces increased fifteen-fold at the start of the 20th century and in 1915 reached a peak (the first time the percentage number hit double digits). But there were other reasons why that year in particular was significant. It was perhaps the last year before the world changed in a way in which everything shifted, both socially and culturally.
A war was on overseas and 1915 began with hope that US boys could stay out of the fray in Europe. Attitudes changed however in May of that year when the British ocean liner Lusitania was befallen by a German U-boat torpedo. Americans were among the victims. President Wilson heard the war cries, but still waited. In April 1917, as more American merchant ships were taken out by the Germans, he commissioned Congress to declare war.
Although the US was only in the “war to end all wars” a short time, it still had a significant impact on the nation’s sensibilities. The women’s rights movement had been underway for more than decade but gained footing after the war. Women found a role and acceptance by replacing enlisted men in manufacturing jobs and working in munitions factories. This only emboldened their resolve. In 1919, the 19th amendment was passed giving women the right to vote.
The Roaring 20’s was next.
So one can argue that 1915 was the last conventional year before America and the world changed as a whole. For statisticians, it’s also a good spot in the historical timeline to make a point. And so that year, 1915, according to statistics, was the year more marriages began ending in divorce. It keep going up from there.
So why? Well that’s tricky and more difficult to pinpoint. Until then, getting a divorce was a process, often embarrassing and difficult for women who were dependent on a man to leave.
Getting married, however, now that was easy.
Men’s attitude especially towards sex usually led them to ask for their ladies hand in marriage sooner than later. “The moment you taste the happiness of the marriage union, you will curse yourself a fool, that you lived so long without it,” one frisky male suitor wrote to another in the late 1800’s. He wasn’t talking about chess pie.
It’s not that couples weren’t having premarital sex, but negative sentiments by more morally conscious women were hard to change and oftentimes carried down through generations. In many instances, out of necessity, women married men they did not love or find attractive. Some women abstained from sex due to fear. Once married, the desire was even less.
So just as quickly as marriages began, the physical relationship was strained. This led to more drinking and straying. So divorce became a tool that was fueled both by the liberation of women as much as it was the chauvinism of men.
According to Victorian America in 1915, “one out of every seven marriages ended in divorce in the nation at large.” And in some larger cities like San Francisco, one in four.
To counter this disturbing trend, marriage legislation was passed that raised the age of consent and called for stricter requirements to prohibit certain types of common-law, polygamous, even interracial marriages. Many states also strengthened rules for divorce by requiring longer stay of residence before petitioning for divorce and stricter guidelines by which a couple could legally be granted one. In most cases something criminal or abusive needed to be proven. Only two states, New Mexico and Oklahoma, allowed a divorce simply on the grounds of incompatibility.
In addition, separate courts were established to help families cope with problems that often led to a rift in marriage, including unfaithfulness, desertion, spousal or child abuse and alcoholism.
All this seemed to help keep marriages together, but due to the number of immigrants flooding the country and the increase in population, marriages in general increased and the number of divorces nationally remained high.
Today, due to the addition of annulments, property divisions and child custody laws, the divorce rate hovers around or just below 50-percent.