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.
The book Victorian America explains that divorces increased fifteen-fold at the start of the 20th century and in 1915 reached a peak. 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, and when conquered, even fewer liked it. 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 man.
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.
By Ken Zurski
On Feb 18 1915, the first screening of a major motion picture took place inside the walls of the White House. President Woodrow Wilson instructed it at the request of a friend Thomas Dixon Jr., author of The Clansman, a radical novel published in 1905, which skewed the Reconstruction era by heroizing the Ku Klux Klan’s efforts against an illicit uprising by former slaves in the South.
Dixon’s book had just become a film version, retitled “The Birth of a Nation.” and directed by D.W. Griffith.
Wilson was familiar with the book and its subject matter.
For months, in letters, Dixon had set up the President’s role in promoting the film: “I have an abiding faith that you will write your name with Washington and Jefferson as one of the great creative forces in the development of our Republic,” he wrote. Wilson was flattered, responding: “I want you to know Tom, that I’m pleased to do this little thing for you.” Dixon and Wilson had been law students together at John Hopkins in the 1880’s.
In asking, Dixon was disingenuous at best: “What I told the President was that I would show him the birth of a new art – the launching of the mightiest engine for moulding public opinion in the history of the world.” Dixon was hoping to spread the message of white southern attitudes in the North. This, he explained, was”the real purpose of the film.” In securing a screening, however, Dixon stressed the importance of advancing the medium rather than the content. Wilson took the bait, or as one writer expressed, “fell into a trap.” An assessment, one can argue, was hardly befitting the President’s reputation at the time. In addition, the President had recently lost his beloved wife to illness. He was in no mood to go – or be seen – in a public theater.
So the film came to him.
Dixon set it all up. He along with a projection crew steamed by rail from California to Washington D.C. and lugged twelve reels of film from Union Station to Pennsylvania Avenue. On a chilly February evening the President, along with his family and several cabinet members, viewed the film in the East Room of the White House.
Historical facts get sketchy at this point, especially Wilson’s reaction.
A magazine writer claimed Wilson liked the film enough to contribute an ambiguous quote: “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all terribly true.”
A Wilson biographer, however, disputes these claims, reporting some sixty years later, that the last living person to view the film that night told a vastly different story. Wilson left early before the movie was over, this person recalled, and didn’t utter a word.
In retrospect, what likely happened is this: It was late, the film was long, and Wilson stepped out to retire to bed.
None of this mattered at the time. Just screening the controversial movie in the White House was awkward enough. And regardless of what Wilson did or did not do, having his presence in the flickering light of the projector prompted Dixon and Griffith to proclaim the film had a “presidential seal of approval.”
For Wilson it was another political embarrassment and solidified the views of many that the President had policies that were designed to separate rather than mix the races.
When the sharp protests began, Wilson was stuck. He tried to remain indifferent, but that was impossible. The NAACP demanded an explanation. Wilson wrote a few letters, eventually disowned any words attributed to him, and left it at that. He had other matters to attend to.
In March of 1915, The Birth of a Nation opened to positive reviews and large crowds. The NAACP’s attempt to get the film banned, some professed, failed because the “mostly white” film board ignored their pleas.
Wilson was too busy to care.
Less than three months later, the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania was attacked by German U -boats, killing 124 Americans and ratcheting up calls for the President to act.
In April 1917, Wilson declared the U.S. entering the Great War.