Not a Matter of Choice
San Diego Women and Divorce, 1850-1880
By Susan Gonda
Winner of the Second Prize, Judge Jacob Weinberger Award for Legal History, and the Jane Booth Award, Women in San Diego History, in the 1989 San Diego History Center Institute of History.
On November 1, 1878, Thomas Young "rudely, violently, and angrily took hold of [his wife, Sallie Young,] while she was sick, he swore at her and . . . kicked her and violently carried her up stairs [sic] and so alarmed and wounded and frightened her, that through fear she jumped out of the upper window of the house and fled to a neighbors for protection." The following January, after more than a year of abuse, Sallie Young obtained a divorce.1 In 1873, Sophie Ferree spent twenty dollars for surgical costs after her husband "struck her with his fist, choked her, and attempted to strike her with a chair." She feared "if she continued to live with [her husband] he would . . . murder her." Sophie received a divorce in January, 1874.2 The Young and Ferree cases were two of the sixty-three divorces filed in San Diego County between 1850 and 1880. Forty-one cases were filed by women -- seventeen of them on grounds of physical cruelty.3
Divorce documents are among the few primary sources available to study the day-to-day lives of women in history. They are uniquely rich with details about the lives of women from a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds. The purpose of this study was to document San Diego's first divorces, to discover why women filed for divorce, and to compare these findings with those of historian Robert Griswold, who studied divorce in Northern California during the same period. Based on evidence from Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, Griswold made generalizations about divorce and women's role in society which he applied not only to all of California, but to the entire country.4 He suggested that by "studying the family life of individuals in rural areas, we examine the residential experience of most American men and women in the nineteenth-century."5 Divorce, said Griswold, was an option for women as a means of independence -- from their husbands and from the middle-class social organization that historians call the "cult of domesticity" and the "cult of true womanhood." In drawing his conclusions, however, Griswold did not consider the diversity of the women nor the frontier's influence on their lives in California. The ideals of true womanhood were established in the more urban Eastern states.
Griswold's generalizations prompt a need for examining other divorces in this period, and for re-evaluating the use of California divorces in conjunction with male and female role expectations to learn about women's lives. This study shows that in San Diego, women like Sallie Young and Sophie Ferree represented the vast majority -- eighty-eight percent -- of the women filing who had no choice but to file for divorce if they were to have a chance for happy and successful lives. They had either been deserted or were victims of physical abuse by their husbands. They were not seeking, and for the most part did not achieve, independence.
* * *
From 1850 to 1880, San Diego had little in common with the established cities in the eastern United States. It had a mild climate and a lovely view of the ocean, but it was hardly a paradise. It was a dusty town where people built their homes and businesses around a bare brown lot called "The Plaza."6 In 1850 the total population in this multi-cultural community was 798 and Anglo-Americans were just beginning to settle. Within a decade the town had increased by more than five times to 4,324 people, and by 1880, the population doubled to 8,618.7 By then residents were clamoring for a solution to prostitution, gambling, and general lawlessness.8 Accordingly, carrying a gun was considered a necessity in some parts of town. The court dockets were backlogged, and by the time of hearing, witnesses had usually disappeared. The constables felt it was useless to arrest anyone, and law enforcement and protection was a townsfolk effort as often as not. Two divorces describe how the timely interference of a neighbor prevented women from additional bodily harm from their husbands.9
As the population increased, so too, did the rate of divorce. There were eleven divorce cases filed in San Diego between 1850 to 1860, but during the 1870s fifty-two people filed for divorce. As Robert Griswold points out, by 1850 Americans throughout the country were more willing than in the first half of the century to obtain a divorce. Ironically, during a time when Victorian morality stressed family values and domesticity, the country experienced a "divorce crisis."10 The ratio of the rise in divorce to the rise in population across the country was dramatically disproportionate. The population rose 30.1 percent from 1870 to 1880, while the divorce rate rose 79.4 percent. From 1880 to 1890 the population rose by 25.5 percent, and divorce rose by 70.2 percent.11 In San Diego, the dramatic increase came during the 1870s, when the divorce rate rose by 89 percent over the previous decade, despite an increase of only 13 percent in the population.
California's divorce statutes made it relatively easy to obtain a divorce. The laws stated that after six months' residence in the State of California, a person could sue on grounds of adultery, extreme cruelty, willful desertion or neglect, natural impotency, habitual drunkenness, fraud, and conviction for a felony. There were amendments to broaden the law, and by 1872, the definition of cruelty included mental, as well as physical cruelty.12
Robert Griswold studied 401 divorces filed between 1850 and 1890 in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, California. Based on his findings, he concluded that the cult of true womanhood did not make women captives in the home. On the contrary, when husbands failed to live up to the "proper" gender role dictated by society, women were able to obtain a divorce and "find alternatives to a life of constant submission and obedience".13
A discussion of true womanhood and the ideology of separate male and female spheres in the nineteenth century will follow below, along with the problems these models present when evaluating women's lives. But first we must address Griswold's thesis. He stated that "the divorce court had become an effective means by which wives could gain independence from their husbands." 14 It is obvious that women gained independence from their husbands -- they were severing all ties. But that women achieved independence in general as a result of divorce was absolutely not true in the vast majority of the cases filed in San Diego. Griswold found in his study that some women experienced a greater measure of independence, but he does not give a convincing argument to prove this was true as a rule. He described 172 women who mentioned support from employment, family, or friends, suggesting a dependence on new individuals in the women's lives. Furthermore, he could find no financial information for 299 cases.15
Most of the women in both studies were not of independent means. They "depended upon the charity" of family, friends, and other relatives. In some instances, women earned their livelihood as live-in housekeepers for room and board and minimal pay. Others did whatever was available to get by. In San Diego, Nancy McEntee's husband deserted her after one month of marriage in 1872. She supported herself by "nursing, washing, working, and sewing" -- anything she could find. Rhoda Ann Kolb complained of nonsupport and adultery when she filed for divorce in 1872. She had eight children, six of whom were minors. She and other witnesses said that her husband was gone four or more months at a time, and the younger children often went naked. She made "a living for herself by spinning, knitting and washing," while her husband sporadically lived away with an Indian woman named Phoebe. (Interestingly, William Kolb's cohabitation with Phoebe was on the farm of John Place. Place's wife, Maria, a Mexican woman, divorced him twelve years earlier in 1860 after he beat her and took her property and animals in Temecula. This decree returned the land to Maria and, although she was free to marry again, it was ordered that John would not be allowed to marry until Maria was dead.)16
These cases exemplify the fact that some women attempted to eke out a living from their homemaking skills since they received no support from their husbands. They were not setting themselves up for some form of independence; they were surviving. They had been beaten or abandoned; divorce was their only option. Many of the women who said they worked this way described themselves as "poor" or "indigent," and said they relied on family and neighbors despite their earnings. The majority of the documents that mentioned support involved women dependent upon charity or upon others for their livelihood. Furthermore, only three women in the sixty-three cases studied received alimony.
For most women, this new post-divorce status, then, was far from independent. It was a new state of dependence, and one perhaps as difficult as the marriage left behind. Some women were uncertain as to their ability and to what extent they could survive on their own income. They had new rules and new individuals who defined their lives. They had no more independence, and perhaps less, than in marriage. Furthermore, independence was not a desirable option for most women in Victorian America. Society considered marriage to be women's most satisfying, acceptable situation. Women knew it was economically the most secure option, since few opportunities existed for women unless they came from wealthy families and were of independent means. Contrary to Griswold's generalizations, the San Diego divorce records reveal that the majority of the women obtained a divorce out of absolute necessity. The women had been deserted, they failed to receive support for themselves and their children from drunken husbands, or they were victims of domestic violence. As Figure I indicates, a total of twenty-nine cases (forty-six percent) were filed for desertion and nineteen of these twenty-nine were filed by women. Seventeen women filed on grounds of cruelty, all but one of which involved physical violence. The difference between the divorce cases of the Counties of Santa Clara and San Mateo and San Diego County is striking. Historians must use caution in making generalizations about women since settlement in the West offered different opportunities and difficulties for couples and individuals alike.
Robert Griswold used the divorce records to study marriage and family in terms of male and female roles and the expectations of husbands and wives for marriage. He used the model of "true womanhood," first described by historian, Barbara Welter, in 1966. True womanhood was the belief that men and women lived and worked in separate "spheres" due to the different "natural" qualities of men and women. The "cult of domesticity" was women's half of this partnership -- the home and family. Women were considered the moral guardians of family and society. The men's sphere was the tough, outside world of business, economics, and politics -- the intellectual undertakings. Society -- clergy, social leaders, and the like, encouraged true women in middle and upper-class America to perfect the four important virtues believed inherent in women's nature: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.17
Griswold also discussed the "companionate ideal" in marriage to analyze the divorces. The companionate ideal was a partnership between husband and wife that created domestic equality. He said that a new emphasis on the equal importance of the wife's role, (albeit one secondary to the husband's) gave women a new power which raised their status to a true partnership in the marriage. He cited some of the extensive literature of the time that stressed the importance of women's role in the domestic sphere. He found that the divorce documents were resonant with this companionate ideal "that offered powerful ammunition for unhappy husbands and wives." Divorce due to failure of the ideal had become an outlet for wives to gain independence from their husbands.18 However, when addressing marriage and divorce in nineteenth-century California, he did not consider the difference between couples' expectations in the established Eastern United States and those on the American western frontier. Historians, Elizabeth Jameson and Katherine Harris, have suggested that a concept of true womanhood underwent a transformation in the West during the settlement years.19 The ideals of true womanhood had come from an elite class of women with leisure time in an established society in the East.
On the frontier it was difficult for men and women to maintain the separate spheres which formed the structure for true womanhood, if, indeed, they had ever done so. Couples had to change their ways on the trail and in the West to adapt to settings without the comforts of home. On the frontier, working for the necessities of life left little leisure. In addition, the delineation between men's and women's work was less clear, and there was a good deal of role sharing. Men and women ranched and farmed together. Men might take responsibility for childrearing, and some women handled the cattle ranching.20 Three San Diego divorces exemplify how the "spheres" overlapped. Jefferson Borden had a jealous wife, and much as he tried to please her, she shunned him and verbally abused him. He filed for divorce, describing how she "refused to permit [him] to nurse or caress the child, alleging [he] would think more of the child than he did of her." (He was the only individual to file solely on grounds of mental cruelty in this period.) Hannah Jacobs was the mother of a woman who received a divorce in 1856. Hannah was a wife, mother of twelve, and property owner, registered her own cattle brand in the shape of an "H." She was a woman of many talents, and her husband was fully supportive of her ranching activities.21 When their daughter, Fanny, received her divorce on grounds of desertion, the family wished her mazeltov for the start of a new life.22 Hannah Mannasse, also a shrewd businesswoman, filed for divorce in 1863 on grounds of desertion by her husband. She had to protect her financial gains from any claim by him later, for he had already returned to town once -- penniless and apparently angry because of her success and his own mining failure.23
There are obvious problems, then, with Griswold's analysis using the separate spheres ideology. Earlier historians found that it served as a convenient framework for discovering the ways women worked together to achieve agency in society. Feminist historians began with the understanding that all women have a distinct culture arising out of their common bond of social and political oppression in a patriarchal society. After pathbreaking studies by Barbara Welter, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, and Nancy Cott, a "woman's culture triad" of true womanhood/separate spheres/woman's culture became the paradigm for studying nineteenth-century women.24 Despite its usefulness to the understanding of women, this model has recently been critiqued for being centralized within white middle-class America. Working-class women and women of color were marginalized or excluded. There were benefits and pitfalls to universalizing women's experiences this way, but historians' new emphasis in the last decade on women's diversity has begun to give balance to the earlier body of work. Griswold's research was published in the early 1980s, just as the focus began to change. He, like other historians before him, used the metaphor of separate spheres to describe "an ideology imposed on women, a culture created by women, [and] a set of boundaries expected to be observed by women."25 The ideology, culture, and boundaries were those of white middle-class women. The research, therefore, denied the very different realities of lower class and immigrant women. Within the working class, the experience of black women was not the same as white; among immigrant women, the experience of the Irish was not the same as Mexican or other non-English-speaking women.26 In the case of California women, the model falls apart in light of the extreme diversity of the women, coupled with the challenges of the frontier. This study proves that white, Anglo, protestant, urban, middle-class values were not the norm in a state as ethnically diverse as California. For example, the first San Diego divorce was filed by Maria Silvas, who was supported by the Mission. The divorce of the successful Hannah Mannasse, a Jewish woman, was granted in District Court by Judge Pablo de la Guerra.27
In the West, then, as couples adapted to the new workloads necessary on the frontier, women were less restricted to a domestic sphere than their counterparts in the East, but at the same time, they depended on family and friends for survival.28 True womanhood and prescribed roles could not have had an influence on divorce in the way Griswold claimed -- certainly not as a motive for independence.
Furthermore, the companionate ideal of the middle-class should not be taken too literally. Men and women did not share the same status in society. Literature in the nineteenth century did, indeed, promote the equal importance of women's domestic role, but contrary to Griswold's claim, equal importance of women's duties did not mean equality between husband and wife. Women were clearly subordinate in the relationship. Victorians believed that the qualities inherent in women included moral superiority but intellectual inferiority to men, a low sex drive, and physical weakness. Women's lower intellectual and physical capabilities, they believed, left them wholly dependent on men, who were designated as their protectors.29 Prescriptive literature such as women's magazines, religious literature, and newspapers, made this clear by describing the "true woman" to American women. A true woman ensured that her husband stayed on the right path. She absolutely could not fail in this and her other duties without disturbing the stable order of society.30 As John Ruskin, author and English critic, lectured to his audience, a woman "must -- as far as one can use such terms of a human creature -- be incapable of error. . . . She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good; instinctively, infallibly wise -- wise, not for self-development, but for self-renunciation: wise, not that she may see herself about her husband, but that she may never fail from his side." 31
It is clear that despite common promotion of what Griswold called a companionate marriage, a woman was not expected to have individual needs and desires, but rather live through her husband and family. This was not domestic equality.
Occasionally we see that these ideals of true womanhood did influence the women of the West who filed for divorce, but not in the pursuit of independence described by Griswold. The divorces show that women put up with miserable relationships in part because of the advice to be submissive and to endure misery in silence. We must remember that according to the cult of true womanhood, any wife who filed for divorce was by definition a failure; a true woman would find a way to mend the situation, or endure it.32 We cannot know how many women internalized this advice and felt like failures for ending the marriage. Worse, women may have endured cruelty or hardships without protesting or attempting to improve their situation by seeking outside help. Some heartbreaking cases in San Diego indicated the latter. Lois Moore filed for divorce on grounds of cruelty in June, 1878. She described severe verbal abuse and incidents in which her husband choked her, pulled a gun on her, and threatened to kill her. Despite this, she dropped the case and went back to her husband because he had promised "future kindness." The following March she refiled her case because her husband continued to beat her in jealous rages. She divorced him and received custody of their five-year-old son.33 If Lois Moore was willing to go back to her husband after such abusive treatment, one wonders how many women endured similar circumstances in silence. It is a question social workers continue to confront today.
True womanhood ideals were reflected in other ways as well, but no broad conclusions can be made from these situations. In two cases women failed, or appeared to have failed in their duties or virtues and became vulnerable to scandalous divorce proceedings. Rachael Hoke was a troubled woman who turned to a neighbor for help, and her disclosure was used against her. In 1871 Jacob Hoke sued his wife, Rachael, for divorce on grounds of adultery. Sufficient evidence confirmed that Rachael and Mr. Lionida Babs went camping in Julian and had engaged in trysts in Old Town after visits with her mother. Babs was her stepfather and had been sexually abusing her since she was a child. A frightened Rachael turned to her neighbors for help during the marriage, and told them that Babs was jealous, and "that this criminal intercourse between herself and Lionida Babs commenced when she was only ten years old." The neighbor testified as proof of adultery on the husband's behalf. Witnesses attested to Mr. Hoke's integrity, the divorce went uncontested, and he received a judgment in his favor. That judgment slammed the door on Rachael's chance for a normal life. There were no criminal proceedings listed in the court records against Lionida Babs.34
The four virtues of true womanhood -- piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity -- were documented in this divorce. Rachael failed at all of them; she could not place her husband above all else. Babs had absolute control over Rachael, as her husband angrily testified -- more control than he himself had, and Babs lorded this over him. Because of this control, Rachael had been doomed to a failed marriage and social unacceptability at the age of ten.
The belief that women were basically asexual and morally superior created a double standard in cases of adultery. Although adultery was not socially acceptable, men could be expected to periodically give in to their passions due to their uncontrollable sex drive. On the other hand, scientists and the religious communities rallied to the idea that women's low sex drive "elevated them in the hierarchy of nature and identified them with moral purity." 35 They published abundant "proof" of women's lack of sexuality. Ironically, at least one San Diego case proved how this "high status" could be used against the wife during divorce, while at the same time proving that asexuality was not the reality for women.
In the messy 1879 divorce of John and Jennie McFatridge, John complained that his wife was "constantly cold and distant." He described in detail that his health and sanity were failing as a result of Jennie's loss of affection. Her heart clearly belonged to "Pierce Bevington, an unmarried man." Jennie inflicted mental cruelty to her husband by telling him (according to his complaint) "that she cannot and will not live with him, that she loves the said Pierce Bevington, and that she will never again be to plaintiff a wife. . . . I will not kiss you, but I would kiss Pierce Bevington if he wished me to do so." Substantial evidence of adultery came from hotel owners and clerks, even from a "rumor report" in the San Diego News.36 Jennie cross-sued, also on grounds of adultery. John had a penchant for more professional sex partners, and evidence was produced that he visited houses of "ill fame" up the coast.
The couple had originally agreed to divorce peaceably; John would file for mental cruelty only, and Jennie would get custody of their two-year-old daughter after the judgment. John changed his mind. He wanted his daughter. Despite evidence of adultery by both parties, the divorce came in favor of John who won custody. The double standard weighed in John's favor.37
Jennie's sin was not only adultery, but that she made no attempt to conceal her impropriety. It was her duty to be a moral pillar in society, but failing that, she should at the very least have employed a facade of virtuous character.38
The circumstances of the Hoke and McFatridge cases show that attorneys and judges, more than the spouses, relied upon the prescribed roles for husbands and wives to determine the outcome of the cases. Griswold found that women internalized their role, but based this and other conclusions on the language used in the divorce documents. This type of analysis is misleading. Griswold pointed to testimony of spouses' virtues and failings "remarkably similar" to those found in the prescriptive literature of the time.39 He gave examples of standard language used to describe the behavior of husbands and wives. He did not, however, take into account that the parties to the suit and their witnesses talked with lawyers before giving statements. Complaints for divorce were written by attorneys who used the statutes and the accepted prescriptive cultural standards of the time to win their cases.40 Therefore, word choice in the complaints and much of the language in the testimony came as much from lawyers as the parties or witnesses. This is obvious when comparing the language in the complaints with the language used by witnesses, some of whom were uneducated. A perfect example is Eliza Fowler, who filed for divorce on grounds of cruelty, adultery, and intemperance. In the testimony, Eliza, her father, and her brother all used exactly the same words to describe the defendant husband when asked about his character: "He drank and abused me," "he was always abusive when he was drunk," "he was drunk there, and very abusive," "he was also drunk and abusive," "he was profane and violent," "he was profane, rough and violent." Her brother used the first expression twice to be sure he got it right. They could have used different or more descriptive wording. They knew that among other things, Bill pulled a knife on two or three occasions and threatened to cut his wife's throat. Yet they all used the same terms and were never specific.41
Lawyers directed the details used in the lawsuits. This obviated any "slip" of unsolicited, or undesirable, information harmful to the success of the case by witnesses, and it left any further detail up to the attorneys' discretion. The witnesses all gave a consistent story. This is not to say the testimony contained lies, or that the documents were not revealing. The circumstances of each case, rather than the standard language used, revealed the realities of women's lives. Word choice was only revealing about the individuals of the divorce when it was different from the standard divorce format. The language similar to popular cultural norm was a matter of form and should be studied as a separate issue of the court's, or the public's, use of true womanhood.
Attorneys also had specific phrases which they used routinely in the documents. For example, as we have already seen, any woman who claimed cruelty by her husband must also have proven herself to be a dutiful and devoted wife. This showed a lack of provocation, or mental cruelty, on her part, and therefore every attorney would include those phrases. A typical phrase in a wife's complaint was that she "has faithfully performed her duties as a wife to defendant, and has always sacredly and without reproach discharged all of the obligations of the said marriage relations." 42 Griswold, too, admitted that a wife who did not prove she had all the virtues of a true woman would not get her divorce.43
Did women claim cruelty because they would have a clear-cut case for divorce? Can these women be believed? Facts, even in documents drawn up by attorneys, can be sorted out because of the colorful, non-standard phrases. The attorney's words were clear in the Elliot divorce: The defendant husband applied "abusive epithets to her, until her life became a burden." But was the wife's story true or contrived for a divorce? On June 15, 1874, she said her husband struck her twice in the face, threw her on the floor, rubbed her bloody nose all over her face, called her a fool and said "he wished her and her family were sunk so far in hell that the resurrection could never reach her."44 The San Diego cases claiming physical cruelty were descriptive and specific. The stories sound genuine.
Nor was cruelty a claim used solely by women. Maryette French, a "stout woman," called her husband, Oliver, a "damned drunken son of a bitch," struck him on several occasions, and refused to live with him, or even let him near the house. She threatened to "shoot plaintiff's brains out" if he came near their home. So he slept in the barn as long as he could, until she came after him there, too, attempting to break into the barn. Oliver got his divorce in 1869. He and his witnesses were also quite believable.45
Filing for divorce was not a matter of choice for thirty-six out of forty-one San Diego women -- eighty-eight percent. These women filed on grounds of physical abuse, had been deserted by their husbands, were protecting their earnings and personal belongings from drunken, nonsupportive husbands, or any combination of these three situations. Forty-one percent of the women filed on grounds of cruelty. Every case involved physical abuse except one, and in that instance, the woman's husband deserted her after years of jealous rages and verbally abusing her and the children. Forty-six percent of the wives were deserted by their husbands. For these women, there was no choice but divorce as protection of property and the ability to remarry.46 A deserted wife was subject to all the same legalities of the marriage contract. She could not own property or hold savings without chancing future claims on them by her husband. 47
Many women sought a divorce because they truly feared for their lives. Catherine McNutt was a 29-year-old mother of three. In 1870 she filed for divorce. Her husband had been drunk and had been beating her for more than a year. On one occasion a neighbor heard a commotion in the house and found Sam McNutt strangling Catherine in her bed. In another case, Mary Mullaly endured every extreme abuse a wife could face before she filed for divorce in 1871. Her husband was "habitually intemperate and . . . squandered [her] earnings." After eight months of marriage Patrick Mullaly began beating his wife so severely that she was sometimes unable to work for a week afterwards. Her washing business was the couple's sole support. Both women received their divorce.48
Some women had no choice but divorce because of unusual circumstances. Loanna Gunning received a shock when she filed for divorce in 1862. Her husband, John, had deserted her nine years before, but an attempt was nevertheless made to find him to serve him with the divorce papers. She received a letter from the Postmaster in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who said that he had known John Gunning for twelve years. For the past six or seven years he lived a few miles away with a woman whom he had married "a few years since." Loanna then received another letter from the "wife" herself, asking that they "become a quanted with each other." [sic] Mrs. Orinda Gunning said she hoped that the notice for John at the Cedar Rapids Post Office was a forgery because, as she said, "it has made a grait talk a bout me in regard to Mr. Gunning . . . ." Loanna received her divorce in January, 1863.49
Jennie Safford's story is much different. She filed for divorce on grounds of cruelty in 1872. She complained that when her husband, Anson, asked her to marry him, he "falsely and fraudulently represented that he was physically competent to marry the plaintiff and concealed from the plaintiff his real physical condition." But, she said, he was actually "afflicted with Syphilitic disease." Six months after their marriage, Jennie left their home in Tucson and came to San Diego -- pregnant. The baby son died fourteen months after birth, and Jennie said her own health was "permanently impaired." There was no divorce judgment, and no other papers on file, and we would lose Jennie's story at this point were it not for some brief articles in the San Diego Union. Mr. Anson Safford was the governor of Arizona. There was no mention of the syphilis nor any derogatory stories about him. Jennie was a San Diegan and Governor Safford was championing causes for the Southwest states in Washington, D.C. The couple was therefore treated kindly by the San Diego press. A year after Jennie abandoned her divorce suit in San Diego, the Arizona legislature granted Anson Safford a divorce. Jennie remarried one month later. Jennie said in her complaint that Anson had been living with a woman named Juanita. Perhaps the couple reached an agreement not to serve the papers on the governor, thereby avoiding a scandal.50
These cases exemplify that "cruelty" could mean several things. Despite this, not a single woman in the thirty years studied filed solely on the grounds of mental cruelty, even with the broader interpretation of the word in 1872. Griswold, however, found many cases of mental cruelty. Some were women who were unhappy or disillusioned with their marriage and used mental cruelty as grounds for divorce. To back up his contention that judges believed in the companionate ideal, Griswold cited an 1857 California decision which was meant to expand the conditions of cruelty under which a woman could sue for divorce. In an effort to help and "protect" wives, the judge echoed the ladies' magazines in support of true womanhood. But Griswold missed the distressing lack of concern for brutality against wives, or even an awareness of what the judge was implying: "To a lady of delicacy of feeling, purity of thought and refined sensibilities, I can conceive of no greater cruelty than by falsely charging her with prostituting her person. . . . She would readily forgive a blow, when her pride and virtue could never permit her to overlook or forebear the aspersion and defamation of character."51 True womanhood was so firmly foremost in the judge's mind, that he was certain a woman would prefer to be struck than be called a prostitute. Ironically, the same beliefs that allowed women new circumstances for divorce reinforced the notion that women were by nature able to endure physical abuse by men who could not help themselves in moments of passion. This belief was a byproduct of the cult of true womanhood. Despite the liberal interpretation of mental cruelty, in San Diego there was only one case filed solely on grounds of mental cruelty before 1880. It was filed by a man.
Griswold's generalizations based on the divorces in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties begged further interpretation. The information derived from San Diego's divorce records contradicts his conclusions. Griswold found a strong link between divorce and prescribed roles of men and women in Victorian America, and indeed, the circumstances of many San Diego divorces revealed that people, particularly lawyers and judges, believed in some aspects of these roles. However, clearly not all people believed in all aspects of true womanhood. The separate spheres of the East overlapped in the West, and the roles of husbands and wives changed as couples worked together to settle and establish a livelihood. While the language in San Diego's divorce documents parroted the prescriptive literature for proper marital behavior, women did not file for divorce because their husbands failed to live up to the ideal standards. There was no issue of disillusionment due to society's ideal husband and wife roles "that offered powerful ammunition for unhappy husbands and wives" to obtain divorce.52 This was true despite California's laws which made such divorces possible. Rather, women in San Diego obtained divorce chiefly out of absolute necessity, survival, and fear -- all familiar characteristics of the American West.
I would like to thank Professors Dennis Berge, Eve Kornfeld, Susan Cayleff, and Charles Hamilton at San Diego State University for their insightful comments and for sponsoring me at conferences where I presented this material. I am also grateful to Ramona Calderon, Rick Crawford, and the San Diego History Center for help with the details of the divorces.
1. Sallie v. Thomas J. Young, Case 476A, San Diego District Court, 18th Judicial District of California, l879, Research Archives, San Diego Historical Society.
2. Sophie E. v. James I. Ferree, Case 779A, l873.
3. California became a state in l850. The sixty-three cases studied were all filed in the San Diego District Court, California's l8th Judicial District. In l880, the Superior Court took over proceedings in San Diego County.
4. Robert L. Griswold, "Apart But Not Adrift: Wives, Divorce, and Independence in California, l850-l890," Pacific Historical Review 49 (May l980): 265-83. Also, Robert L. Griswold, Family and Divorce in California, l850-l890. Victorian Illusions and Everyday Realities (Albany: State University of New York Press, l982).
5. Griswold, Family and Divorce in California, 3.
6. Iris W. Engstrand and Ray Brandes, Old Town San Diego l82l-l874. (San Diego: Acala Press, l976) and Elizabeth C. MacPhail, The Story of New San Diego and of its Founder Alonzo E. Horton. (San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, l979).
7. Richard Bigger and others, Metropolitan Coast: San Diego and Orange Counties, California (Los Angeles: Bureau of Governmental Research, UCLA, l958), 3.
8. MacPhail, The Story of New San Diego, 82, 83. In fact, Wyatt Earp came to San Diego in l887 and set up three gambling establishments. In San Diego he had a reputation as a legitimate businessman.
9. Catherine v. Samuel McNutt, Case 422, 1980; Eliza v. William Fowler, Case 479, 1871.
10. Griswold, Family and Divorce in California, 2.
11. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Special Reports: Marriage and Divorce, l867-l906 Part I (Washington, DC, l909). Quoted in Griswold, "Apart But Not Adrift," 266.
12. Statutes of California: Second Session, l85l, l86-l87; Statutes of California: Eighteenth Session, l869-l870, 29l; West's Annotated California Codes: Civil Code, Sections l to l92 (St Paul, l954), 337. Quoted in Griswold, "Apart But Not Adrift," 269.
13. Griswold, "Apart But Not Adrift," 283. Note that Griswold acknowledges obedience as a true woman trait.
14. Griswold, "Apart But Not Adrift," 267.
15. Griswold, "Apart But Not Adrift," 274.
16. Nancy J. v. Thomas McEntee, Case 275A, l872 and Case 338A, l874; Rhoda Ann v. William Jasper Kolb, Case 433A, 1872; Maria Antonia v. John Place, Case 35, 1860.
17. Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood, l820-l890," American Quarterly l8 (l966): l5l. Welter coined the phrase, "Cult of True Womanhood," however she said that authors in the nineteenth century often used the phrase "True Womanhood" when discussing the subject of women.
18. Griswold, Family and Divorce in California, 5.
19. For a discussion of True Womanhood in the West, see Elizabeth Jameson, "Women as Workers, Women as Civilizers: True Womanhood in the American West," and Katherine Harris, "Homesteading in Northeastern Colorado, 18731920: Sex Roles and Women's Experience," in eds. Susan Armitage and Elizabeth Jameson, The Women's West (Norman and London: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1987).
20. Harris, "Homesteading," 166-168.
21. Audrey R. Karsh discussed the women in the Jacobs family in "Mothers and Daughters of Old San Diego," Western States Jewish History, (April 1987): 264-268. The record of Hannah's brand reads, ". . . the brand as represented in the margin is a facSimilee [sic] of the Branding Iron owned and proposed by Hannah Jacobs and is the Only One used by her for the purpose of branding stock." "Brands I -- San Diego County Filed From 1847 -1891," 47. Reprinted in Floyd S. Fierman, "Peddlers and Merchants on the Southwest Frontier 1850-1880," Password (1963): 1-17.
22. Fanny remarried and had five children. Francis ["Fanny"] v. Meyer DeHaan, Case 538, 1856. Fanny's sister, Victoria, wrote about the divorce in her diary. Victoria Jacobs, Diary of a San Diego Girl -- 1856, ed. Sylvia Arden, (Santa Monica: Norton B. Stern, 1974).
23. Hannah v. Heyman Mannasse, Case 160, 1866. There was another reason for this divorce -- an attraction to her brother's business partner, who soon became her second husband.
24. The term, "woman's culture triad," comes from Nancy A. Hewitt, "Beyond the Search for Sisterhood: American Women's History in the 1980s," Social History, 10 (October 1985), 301. I have not elaborated on the well-known components of the "triad" because of their extensive use in women's history. However, for purposes of clarity, the description of true womanhood has already been discussed here, and, of course, was first described by Barbara Welter in "The Cult of True Womanhood." Nancy Cott illustrated for us the concept of separate spheres in The Bonds of Womanhood: 'Woman's Sphere' in New England, 1780-1835, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977). Finally, the description of women's culture within their sphere was described by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg in "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America," Signs, 1 (Autumn 1975), 1-29.
25. Linda K. Kerber, "Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History," The Journal of American History, 75 (June, 1988), 17.
26. When historians first researched the history of women based on women's common experiences they did accomplish two important tasks. They established a new branch of social history (albeit one that already existed but had never been accepted by "mainstream" historians) as well as a framework with which to study it. Women's history was then elevated "out of the realm of the trivial and anecdotal." Universalizing women's experience within women's sphere created a window through which historians could study how and to what extent women's activities participated in historical change. This method was particularly important for studying the nineteenth century, a time when the people of this country were self-consciously sorting out what it meant to be American.
27. Maria v. Jose Silvas, Case 621, 1854; Hannah v. Hyman Mannasse, Case 120, 1865.
28. Jameson, "Women as Workers," 159.
29. Barbara J. Harris, Beyond Her Sphere: Women and the Professions in American History, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978), 33.
30. Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood," l74, and Harris, Beyond Her Sphere, 34.
31. John Ruskin, "Of Queen's Gardens," a lecture in his Sesame and Lilies (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co), ll5-ll7. Quoted in Harris, Beyond Her Sphere, 34.
32. The prescriptive literature was filled with advice to women regarding submissiveness. The Lady's Token told wives "if he is abusive, never retort." A Young Lady's Guide to the Harmonious Development of a Christian Character said women should "become as little children" and "avoid a controversial spirit." The Mother's Assistant and Young Lady's Friend published "Rules for Conjugal and Domestic Happiness." The first rule was "Always Conciliate," and the rules ended with the advice, "Do not expect too much." Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney, who was published widely in the mid-nineteenth century, said: "To bear the evils and sorrows which may be appointed us, with a patient mind, should be the continual effort of our sex. . . . It seems, indeed, to be expected of us; since the passive and enduring virtues are more immediately within our province." These publications were widely read by middle-and upper-class women. Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood," l6l.
33. Lois S. v. Daniel Moore, Case 662A, l878.
34. Jacob v. Rachael Hoke, Case 445, l87l.
35. Harris, Beyond Her Sphere, 41.
36. "Rumors -- A lady from the country went off on the steamer two trips ago, and left a baby and husband behind. Rumor says, with another man." San Diego News, 3l October l879, p. 3.
37. John v. Jennie McFatridge, Case 444A, l879.
38. Harris, Beyond Her Sphere, 44.
39. Griswold, Family and Divorce in California, 46.
40. Attorneys represented the plaintiffs or both parties in every case in this study.
41. Eliza v. William Fowler, Case 479, l87l.
42. Marie v. Frank Winch, Case 130A, 1877.
43. Griswold, Family and Divorce in California, 3.
44. S.T. v. Columbus E. Elliott, Case 78A, 1877.
45. Oliver G. v. Maryette French, Case 255, 1869.
46. There was an overlap of those cases where the woman filed under both charges. This was true for three cases.
47. There were two laws in California which protected wives' personal property: The Spanish Sole Trades Act, 1811, and the Act to Defend the Rights of Husband and Wife, passed by the State Legislature in 1850. However, this did not prevent husbands and wives from each claiming rights to community property in the possession of the other in the divorce court.
48. Catherine v. Samuel McNutt, Case 422, l870; and Mary v. Patrick Mullaly, Case 473, l87l.
49. Loanna v. John T. Gunning, Case 081, 1862.
50. Jennie v. Anson Safford, Case 162A, 1872. The San Diego Union, 11 August 1869, p. 2; 7 July 1870, p. 3; 9 March 1871, p. 3; 31 August 1871, p. 3; 25 January 1873, p. 1; 15 March 1873, p. 3.
51. Henry J. Labatt, Reports of Cases Determined in the District Courts of the State of California, I (San Francisco: Whitton, Towne & Co., l858), 52. Quoted in Griswold, Family and Divorce in California, l9.
52. Griswold, Family and Divorce in California, 5.
Susan Gonda is a doctoral student in the American history program at the University of California, Los Angeles. She received her A.B. degree in history from San Diego State University in 1990. At SDSU she received the Andrew Appleby Award for distinction in history. Ms. Gonda has also studied theatre arts at Wayne State University.