Women of divorce in high society

The institution of marriage has been a part of our history for centuries now. Our society still holds the union of two people in high esteem, celebrating the matrimonial oaths as another milestone in our lives. But in some cases, these bonds don’t always last, nor should they if one or both spouses shirk their vows they made to one another. When a married couple grows apart, depending on their situation, they can ask for a separation of the union, an annulment, or an outright divorce. America saw drastic changes in the views and laws governing divorce between the early 1800s and into the mid 1900s. During this time, it was the marriages and divorces of high society that garnered the most attention.

Victorian ideals saw the institution of marriage as the epitome of civilization: upon the union of marriage hinges the respectability of our species. They believed that divorce tears that respectability away from us, forcing the whole of our species away from civilized living[i]. It is within, Women’s Views of Divorce
, published in the North American Review in 1890, that allow us to understand contemporary opinions on the subject. Rose Terry Cooke writes upon the importance of marriage as an institute and warns against the evils of divorce,

‘The family is the unit that is the germ of the state, the seed of civilization: where divorce so rends it and scatters its fragments abroad, can any philosophy, or any stupidity, or the crassest ignorance, deny that divorce destroys and obliterates its integrity.[ii]

Men and women alike believed in this defining civilized trait of what marriage represented. The same sentiment can be seen when reading, The Question of Divorce, written in 1889, a compilation of men’s views on divorce. The family unit is an important aspect of society, as W. E. Gladstone stresses, that, ‘the solidity and health of the social body depend upon the soundness of its unit. That unit is the family; and the hinge of the family is to be found in the great and profound institution of marriage.[iii]’ This illustrates that at the time, both men and women held similar beliefs in the sanctity of marriage; the cornerstone of a family unit and mark of civilized societal living.

With the turn of the century, this belief in the family unit continued, but divorce began to take on a new role. Where some saw divorce as the destruction of these units- others began to believe that divorce, in itself was not inherently evil. In 1913, John Lisle published an article entitled, ‘The Bases of Divorce’, where he describes the ‘ethical justice of divorce’, by defining it as a remedy instead of as the problem: ‘we must look upon [divorce] not as the destruction of a fact, but as its recognition….[iv]’ By changing the outlook on the function of divorce, he identifies this sundering of a union as a recognition of a deeper problem between a couple, not the problem itself. He rationally asserts that divorce should be seen as a solution, not a condemnation.

If then seen as a solution, it was sought after by many of the socially elite in the country. New York city was home to great wealth in America- the Astor’s, the Vanderbilt’s, and the Rockefeller’s- were all families that amassed great wealth and prestige in high society and were the topic of much discussion throughout the country. These contemporary high rollers were the subjects of the media- newspapers constantly ran stories on the scandals that surrounded them- especially divorce cases.

In 1875 Willie Vanderbilt married Alva Erksine Smith. Willie was charismatic, wealthy, handsome and unfaithful. At the time, infidelity of the upper class men was nothing new. As long as they were discreet, society did not condemn them. But Alva fought against such archaic notions, and as the marriage progressed, husband and wife were stuck in a perpetual struggle with one another. As a final means of reconciliation, the two began a ten-month cruise through India in November of 1893. The journey inevitably failed in its intent and in the spring of 1894, Alva asked for a divorce. Family and friends, as well as her attorneys, advised against such drastic measures, but she had had enough. In March of the following year, Alva was granted a divorce, as well as a stipend of $100,000 per year, full custody of her children and continued use of the Vanderbilt name. Now freed from her toxic marriage, Alva had to deal with the repercussions of that freedom. Her once friends within the Newport society turned their back upon her, forcing her out of the country’s socially elite[v].

Members of Victorian society adhered to strict social rules that governed their lives. If one were to break from these rules, they could be thrown out of the respectable community, shunned by their own social class for the improper conduct of divorce. With the ability of upward mobility that silver and gold mining was bringing about in the mid 1800s to early 1900s, these rules became even more important. Elaine Tyler May asserts that the fact that others could enter into the upper crust with changing circumstances, made it apparent that one could easily lose the benefits of their insider status, thus making it ever more dire to follow the social structure laid down at the time[vi].

The fact that Alva’s relatives, as well as attorneys, had advised against the divorce, it is apparent that they understood the scandalous repercussions that could follow. But just as the views on divorce began to change over time, so too did the ramifications of such decisions, especially in the Newport scene. By the end of the 19th century, Newport came to represent the essence of the Gilded Age on an international scale. It was where the wealthy could escape from the stress of the world and it was there that Margaret Tobin Brown moved after her separation from Mr J.J. Brown. [vii].

Margaret Brown’s passion to help the community around her, spearheading multiple fundraisers and social gatherings, kept her in the eye of the public and in the headlines of the Denver newspapers. As her social success grew and recognition of her achievements intensified, her marriage to J.J. began to crumble. On January 24th 1910, the Denver Times published a front page article proclaiming that the Browns had divorced, referencing their diametrically opposed viewpoints of the world as the main cause for the rift. This statement however was untrue. Although the couple was no longer in a harmonious union, they had not fully severed their marital bond; due to their Catholic upbringing and religious beliefs, divorce was out of the question. But Margaret admitted to the papers that the two of them signed a separation agreement in August of 1909, months before the article had been published. The Times retracted their statement in the end but it was too late to stop the wicked gossip that followed. Margaret was given full ownership of the House of Lions and a twenty-five thousand dollar trust fund was set up in her name[viii].

Where once Alva was turned, Margaret’s social equals accepted her as one of their own. Margaret found refuge in Newport when she moved there in 1913. Despite the separation, her and her children became beloved members of its society. By this time, the social elite taking up residence in the area had accepted divorce and separation more so than other parts of the country. For those who could afford it, Newport became a way for wealthy women of divorce and separation to continue living as respectable members of society[ix].  It was their money that provided these women the power and social standing to throw conventional norms out the window. At this time, it was the upper middle class and elite who most benefited from the changing views of divorce.

In 1913, F.P. Walton compared the rates of divorce in the United States with those of other countries. He surmised that countries that had higher rates of divorce could acquire one at little or no cost to the obtaining parties. Places like France, Germany, Holland and Scotland could receive free legal aid in divorce cases- German government even paid for the expense of witnesses. The relation between the two was constant and he believed the most efficient way to reduce the divorce rate was to make them expensive, thus taking them out of easy reach of the working class masses[x].

But it was not only wealth that separated the classes- it was an innate understanding within Victorian American society that saw a divide between its citizens. Not only were the masses socially separate from the elite, they were thought of as less in every sense of the word. Oregon Supreme Court referred to a case of divorce from a lower class couple, proclaiming, ‘we do not divorce savages and barbarians because they act as such toward each other[xi]. Such a proclamation in court illustrates the common opinion of those lower down the social hierarchy. Not only did money bar lower classes from obtaining divorce, so did the social outlook perpetuated against them.

As the nineteenth century came to an end, and a new industrialization of America began, doctors believed that the stress of modern society brought about a disease of the nerves called Neurasthenia. Pioneered by George M Bear, he asserted that upper middle class brains were ill equipped to deal with this new burgeoning metropolitan way of life. Jurists began to agree with Bear- blaming the newfound industrialization as a catalyst for stress and nervous exhaustion found predominantly in upper middle class than in the lower classes. The upper classes’ refinement and mental sensitivity were specified as the cause for this disease, which doctors believed made them more susceptible to cruelty or unhappiness within a marriage. Thus, divorce cases began to take into account the social class of couples, concluding that a person of lower class, and as such, lower moral standing, could tolerate more cruelty from a spouse and should thus be denied a divorce. Whereas, socially elite persons yielded to abuse more easily due to their refined, ethical upbringing, and thus deserved a release from cruel and stressful marriage unions[xii]. Through the lens of this contemporary outlook, it is apparent that social class was specifically viewed as an indicator of that person’s moral refinement and could thus be used as evidence for or against a divorce case.

This class distinction not only afforded the privileged empathy from courts, but also privacy from the media. Although the social elite was the media’s favourite topic, upper class families kept their drama behind closed doors. They did not air their dirty laundry, so to speak, out in public. In Margaret’s case, it wasn’t until news of a false divorce and actual separation was made public that her situation came to a head. Just as Alva’s scandalous divorce and subsequent alienation by her social class, hinged upon the news becoming common knowledge. Victorian elite depended on the privacy that their social classes usually afforded them. Although they were the topic of much discussion in the papers, their wealth and status usually offered them some semblance of privacy. This privacy, especially when it came to divorce hearings, angered those who vehemently stood against such things.

These men and women believed that by making a divorce hearing public knowledge, it would act as a deterrent. Taking the personal lives of a couple and placing it on display for all to publically scrutinize and ridicule would have been a nightmare for the upper Victorian social classes. Livermore was adamant that ‘…every divorce case should be made public; and my own predilection is in favor of granting “total divorce” only by the verdict of a jury trial’[xiii].  Such divorce reformers wanted to take the union between a man, woman and God out of the private, domestic sphere, and propel it into view full view of a society that adhered to already strict social rules- giving power to the masses that otherwise would not have it. Such a change in divorce hearings would ultimately cut off the advantages that families with money and power would otherwise have had.

A reiterating defense, J.P. Bradley cites the sanctity of marriage in direct correlation to the well being of the greater whole, therefore everything in the society’s, as well as the government’s power must be used to defend it. He writes,

‘No jugglery or privacy should be tolerated, however high in station the parties may be. Investigation of the truth should be thorough and open, and should be a matter of public concern, participated in by the public representative of the law…[xiv]’.

Bradley specifically mentions that the advantages afforded to the wealthy elite should be blocked. Their private lives, something held in very high regard in their sphere of life, must be put on show for all to see. Such rifling through of a person’s private life would be seen as an affront to their character and would make for perfect headlines in the newspaper.

Mary A. Livermore suggests a different, yet similar, reform in divorce law. More of a preventative measure for divorce; she suggested that legal marriage should be made harder to obtain in order to stop unfit unions from the outset. Livermore refers to her own experience with marriage in her native city of Boston

‘…there was a legal requirement that all marriages should be published on a bulletin-board in the office of the city clerk during “three successive public days”… People passing and re-passing constantly dropped into the vestibule of the office, where the bulletin board was suspended, and scrutinized the advertisements. In two instances, to my knowledge, this publicity prevented marriages that would have proved disastrous[xv].’

This proposition, although still utilizing the public sphere, would be less of an invasion of privacy. Although, the largest problem with this measure would be that in doing so, the upper crust of American society would be brought down to the level of the working class masses. By deigning they need the approval of lesser moral characters, as implied by the newfound disease Neurasthenia, the socially elite would be admitting they were on par with them. The Victorian social hierarchy was so ingrained in society at the time, that this would never have happen.

During Victorian Era America, the problem that lay in divorce for many, was not just about destroying a sacred bond between two people made in front of God Almighty, it was the fact that such divorced people were able to make such a vow again. The fear was that second marriages would end the same way first ones did, thus besmirching the sacred right of marriage even further[xvi]. Religion was not only used to deny the possibility of divorce, but to also as a means to deny the possibility of remarriage. Gladstone asserts that, ‘While divorce of any kind impairs the integrity of the family, divorce with remarriage destroys it root and branch[xvii]’. Societal views upheld that the marriage bond was the foundation for family, which in turn was the cornerstone of our civilized society. Where as many believed divorce could injure the sanctity and validity of that foundation, remarrying would be seen to knock it down completely.

Just one year after her divorce was finalized, Alva Vanderbilt planned to remarry. Due to the fact both her and her fiancé had previously been married, they could find no priest or minister willing to unite the two under God. They finally had to ask the Mayor of New York, William L. Strong, to officiate. On January 11th 1896, Alva and Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont were married, stunning her peers[xviii].

Gladstone voices the popular defence against divorce by citing religion, ‘The remedy is worse than the disease… that marriage is essentially a contract for life, and only expires when life itself expires… that no authority has been given to the Christian Church to cancel such a vow[xix]’. Even though Gladstone admits that the marriage contract expires when life itself expires, he presses that the Holy Scripture forbids remarrying, referencing the gospels as evidence:

‘That the declarations of the Gospels of St. Mark (x.,4), and St. Luke (xvi., 18), and of St. Paul (1 Cor. Vii., 10) make no exception whatever. That the language of St. Matthew prohibits absolutely the remarriage of a woman divorced or put away… the law of the Latin Church, and also of the Anglican Church, from time immemorial allows of no remarriage[xx].’

Through his words, it could be understood why Alva and her second husband had little success finding a clergyman to marry them, and as such had to ask a civil servant to officiate the union.

Some thirty-five years after Alva’s remarriage, another member New York’s upper crust society rocked the city with their news. In 1911, at the age of 47, John Jacob Astor IV divorced his first wife, Ava Alice. Shortly after, he announced his intentions to marry a then 18-year-old Madeleine Talmage Force. Not only was his divorce a scandal and the talk of all of New York society, his subsequent announcement to remarry straight away worsened the criticism[xxi]. Being part of one of the wealthiest families in the US, the media rushed to cover the juicy news, spreading it across newspapers all over the country. In order to get away from the negative publicity, the newly weds ventured across the ocean, honeymooning in Europe. Margaret Brown and daughter Helen joined them in Egypt during this time.

While abroad, Madeleine became pregnant, prompting the married couple to book passage on the first available ship back to the United States. With the news of her ill grandchild reaching her by telegram, Margaret joined them on the voyage. It was April of 1912, and the three boarded the Titanic in a port of France. The events that followed next rocked the entire world, bringing the Titanic to the forefront of everyone’s mind. John Jacob perished in the sinking of the Titanic, leaving his pregnant wife a widow at the age of 19. With the death of her husband, she inherited a $5 million trust fund, as well as the use of the family homes on Fifth Avenue and in Newport. Such wealth did not come without restrictions though. John Jacob had stipulated in his will, that if Madeleine were ever to remarry, she must give up all that he had bestowed upon her. Being young and beautiful, Madeleine caught the eye of many, and ended up marrying two more times in her lifetime- thus relinquishing her previous fortune in favour of matrimony[xxii].

This conditional generosity was a reflection of the times. Divorce was one thing, but remarriage was an entirely different minefield. Alva Vanderbilt’s second marriage differed from Madeleine’s in that death, not divorce, ended the first marriage. Where Alva’s and even John Jacob’s second marriage was met with scandalous outrage by newspapers and society alike, Madeleine’s might not have been for some. But others held to the radical notion that the finality of death could not break the marriage bond.

Rose Terry Cooke was adamant that remarriage should never be a possibility, ‘…my own feeling is strong against any remarriage after separation by death. I think to a pure, delicate, faithful woman there can be but one marriage in her life… I am aware that this is an extreme theory’[xxiii]. She outright admits that this is an extreme outlook on remarrying. Both Cooke and Gladstone make pointed references to the woman being unable to remarry after the death of a spouse, but fail to mention if the roles were reversed in gender.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the views on divorce in Victorian Era America were slowly starting to change, even if such changes were predominantly felt by the upper classes of the time. Their wealth and status offering them the privileges of a morally sound character lending to their credence for divorce in exchange for the social ridicule newspapers and their own peers, as well as the masses, would heap upon them.

Written by Hannah Maiorano, Hill Education Associate  



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[i] 110, Women’s Views of Divorce

[ii] 127, Women’s Views of Divorce

[iii] 641, The Question of Divorce

[iv]30-33, The Bases of Divorce

[v] 189-190, Molly Brown: Unravelling the Myth

[vi] 22, Great Expectations: Marriage and Divorce in Post-Victorian America

[vii] 179 Molly Brown: Unravelling the Myth

[viii] 165-167, Molly Brown: Unravelling the Myth

[ix] 180-181, Molly Brown: Unravelling the Myth

[x] 540, Divorce in England, the United States and Canada

[xi] 134, The Evolution of the Doctrine of Mental Cruelty in Victorian American Divorce, 1790-1900

[xii] 132-134, The Evolution of the Doctrine of Mental Cruelty in Victorian American Divorce, 1790-1900

[xiii] 113, Women’s Views on Divorce

[xiv] 645, The Question of Divorce

[xv] 114, Women’s Views of Divorce

[xvi] 112, Women’s Views of Divorce

[xvii] 643, The Question of Divorce

[xviii] 189, 190 Molly Brown: Unravelling the Myth

[xix] 642, The Question of Divorce

[xx] 643, The Question of Divorce

[xxi] 8, Molly Brown: Unravelling the Myth

[xxii] 49, Molly Brown: Unravelling the Myth

[xxiii] 124, Women’s views of Divorce