Court set high bar for women seeking divorce

“A North Carolina case in 1822 provided a typical example [of Southern] women’s powerlessness before the bench….The husband had not only contracted venereal disease from a prostitute, but also had transmitted the illness to his wife.

“The high court refused to grant the wife a divorce. Only when a ‘husband abandons his family, or turns his wife out of doors, or by cruel and barbarous treatment endangers her life’ was the state authorized to intervene, ruled the justices. In this instance, they could find no evidence that the husband had done anything hurtful, and therefore his misdeeds — appropriately deplored — were not covered by ‘positive law.’ Besides, upon learning of the his wife’s illness he had commendably ‘expressed his sorrow in tones of unfeigned remorse.’

“Enjoining friends of the alienated couple to bend all efforts toward their reconciliation, the court censured ‘her relations’ … for fomenting a separation ‘which might have been avoided’ but for their ‘whispers’ and ‘intrusion.’ ”

– From “Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South” by Bertram Wyatt-Brown (2007)

 

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