The National Divorce Reform League's Influence on Divorce Legislation in the Late Nineteenth Century
In the late 1800s, divorce rates in the United States increased. The National Divorce Reform League (NDRL), a group of conservative religious men, advocated strict divorce laws and supported conservative social causes in an effort to combat the increase in divorce. This paper examines the life of the NDRL and its efforts in opposing divorce, against the backdrop of the women's movement and the changes in American society at the end of the 19th century.
States began to experiment with their divorce laws in the early 1800s, many adopting a more liberal approach by expanding the available grounds for divorce or relaxing residency requirements. The most liberal divorce law of the 1800's arose in Connecticut which amended its divorce law in 1849 allowing for "general misconduct" as grounds for divorce. By the late 1800s, divorce rates in the United States had increased. The first campaign for strict divorce laws was led by Theodore Woolsey, president of Yale, and a Doctor of Divinity, and a group of clergymen who successfully lobbied the Connecticut legislature to repeal the general misconduct provision after persuading the state legislature to gather statistics on the divorce rate, which showed that divorce had doubled since the adoption of the provision. Woolsey then joined with Samuel Dike, a Congregational minister from Vermont, to form the NDRL.
The NDRL claimed that the tradition of the family was breaking down due to social and economic changes of the late 19th century. Many of these changes affected women's legal rights and opportunities outside of the home, giving them greater autonomy. For the NDRL, this autonomy threatened the stability of the tradition of family, and divorce was linked to the instability of families.
The NDRL's first national success came in 1887 when Congress approved funding for a national study of divorce. The study, entitled the Wright Report, showed a steady increase in divorces from 1867 to 1886. While the NDRL recognized that many complex social factors were responsible for the increase in divorce, they also believed that strict uniform divorce laws would lower the rate of increase. Critics of uniform divorce laws believed that congressional regulation of divorce would either force Congress to compromise on a more liberal divorce law or risk the possibility that more liberal states would ignore a strict divorce law. The response from women's rights activists was mixed.
In 1892, with the support of the NDRL, Congress considered a joint resolution to amend the Constitution to provide federal jurisdiction over marriage and divorce laws, but rejected the resolution in committee. The NDRL continued its efforts, advocating the formation of state commissions that would study divorce laws and voluntarily enact strict uniform laws. Eventually, thirty-two states formed commissions that met for several years and proposed uniform laws, but only one state ever adopted a proposed law. The NRDL was successful in influencing Congress to impose a stricter divorce law on the District of Columbia. The amendment to D.C.'s divorce law, passed in 1901, permitted absolute divorce only on grounds of adultery, and allowed legal separation in cases of drunkenness, desertion, and cruelty, with only the innocent party given the right to remarry.
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