Divorce with a happy ending: a daring 1918 essay

During Women’s History Month, I’ve been thinking a lot about the forgotten women of 1918—not the ones we celebrate for changing the world, but the ones who changed the world just by the way they lived their lives.

One of my favorite women of 1918 didn’t even leave her name behind. All she left is a two-part unsigned article in the January and February 1918 issues of Sunset magazine called “My Encounter with Divorce and Drink.”

Divorce was on the rise, but the idea of ending a marriage because of incompatibility was controversial. A family court judge, writing in Woman’s Home Companion in 1916, told of a “hysterical young wife” who came to the court asking for a divorce. Her husband had been drinking and staying out all night and had threatened to strike her. It turned out, though, that once she stopped her nagging he became a model spouse. The judge wrote that “if young wives, beginning to fret about incompatibility, were to take stock of the things they do to irritate their husbands…then about three fourths of the divorce courts would go out of business.”

Our Sunset narrator has a different take.

I married young. And I married a good man (a very good man) fifteen years older than myself. And oh! how proud I was to have attracted a man of the assured position, both business and social, which my husband possessed.

Differences quickly arose, though.

He was for that old, established order of “corruption and contentment.” And I was a radical! Oh! those were a few of the differences. They were the surface differences. The others were deeper.

The problem, she says, was with the “old marriage platform” itself.

My husband’s mentality did not—could not—dominate mine. Mind you, I do not say that mine was the superior mentality. But then, neither was his. And, because he was a man and I was only a woman, he could not recognize my individual right to be a personal entity, entirely disassociated from him on the mental plane.

It wasn’t a case of right or wrong, she says; they were just wrong for each other.

He should have married a woman who would sing in the choir, go to Wednesday evening prayer meetings, belong to the Ladies’ Aid and Missionary Society, and, as a violent dissipation, play euchre (for a prize!!) one evening every two weeks with a lot of others of the same ilk.

Playing Cards at the Parlor Table, ca. 1906 (Library of Congress)

She suffered through many of these euchre games herself.

They didn’t even play euchre intelligently, these women. But the men played it with an abandoned recklessness and a superb dash that clearly demonstrated the latent strain of “gay dog” that lay sleeping in each breast.

They had two children, but neither survived. If they had, she says, she would have stayed in the marriage, no matter how much it stifled her. She raged silently when her neighbors spoke of “God’s will.”

God’s will! To torture two innocent, beautiful, trusting little children! I would have them in no heaven presided over by such a Deity!

Then her husband met another woman.

Just the right woman for my husband. I knew it before he did. I watched his need for her and her love for him grow. Before they knew it—the blessed innocents—I was thanking the Fates for it.

Church choir, ca. 1910

She is such a nice little thing; although older than I, still she was always a “little thing” to me. Gay and bright, with a sweet soprano that has been leading the “hallelujas” for many a year now, in another small-town choir.

And so they went their separate ways.

I never so appreciated my husband’s generosity, his patience, his real, strong sweetness of disposition, as when we parted. I was never so genuinely fond of him, so grateful for his forbearance (and he needed lots, to live with me) so clearly aware of his many sterling qualities, nor so happy, as when we said “goodby” and I went quietly away and “deserted” him.

She suspects that her husband finds life a little dull without the “ginger which I furnished in his life.” But she knows that he’s happier now.

Bohemian gathering, Greenwich Village, 1910s (New York Historical Society)

And isn’t it funny? They both admire me tremendously. They come, once in a while to visit me. They meet my friends. And get dizzy drunk with the rare, vivified atmosphere of brains which my friends generate. And they are as proud as Punch of me because I enjoy that sort of thing. They think I am wonderfully “advanced.”

 After they make me a little visit, they go home again, quite satiated, to peace, and repose.

 As she concludes her story, she says,

Divorce, to you reading this, may be all wrong. Surely, then, it is wrong for you. For me it happened to be right.

After the divorce, she threw herself into her career for a few years, and then she met another man. He was a drinker, and the second installment tells of how, with her help, he reformed.

But, to me, the more compelling part of her story, and the part that I’m glad that readers of 1918 had a chance to read, is about the marriage that didn’t survive—not because of abuse, or liquor, or infidelity, but because two nice people turned out to be wrong for each other.

And about how, having left the marriage, they each found a happy ending.

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