Sunday, September 24, 2023
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In the Old Days at Christmas, Women Apologized to Their Husbands for Their Mistakes During the Year

Ted Hurdis sent me this photo yesterday of a quaint little custom that used to be practiced at the turn of the last century – yes, from the 1800s to the 1900s – in which women would traditionally get on their knees at Christmas and beg forgiveness from their husbands for all the mistakes they had made during the previous year.

How lovely. I’m delighted that at the start of the century, when everyone was still rational, they understood that it was only women who made errors and had to apologize.

What happened to this tradition?!? One can only imagine how men in the 1800s and 1900s would be hanging on by their fingernails at this time of year, knowing that there were still around 1 000 000 seconds until their wives begged forgiveness and all would be well again—while they were out gambling, sniffing coke, and shagging hookers.

A woman entering into marriage had almost no rights in the early Victorian era. Her entire estate was automatically transferred to her husband. Her husband received the money from her land even if she owned it.

A husband had the legal authority to confine his wife. She had little legal recourse if he hit her. The law largely disassociated itself from marital interactions.

Married women were classified with lunatics, stupid, outlaws, and children.

According to the law, even her children were not hers. And if a woman left the house to seek sanctuary somewhere else, as Caroline did twice, her husband could lock her out without a court order.

There were only three ways to seek for divorce 150 years ago, all of which were under the jurisdiction of the Church of England, which saw it as an infraction against God’s will, each with a severe punishment.

One was whether the marriage was null and void due to impotence, lunacy, or probable incest.

In such circumstances, the Church allowed divorcees to remarry but declared their children illegitimate.

A second option was available in situations of adultery, sodomy, or physical violence: it prohibited the petitioners from remarrying but allowed for a separation.

A third option was to file for divorce and then sue the spouse for infidelity. If they were successful, Parliament would finally grant the couple a formal divorce that would not render their children illegitimate.

However, as the Church intended, this lengthy and costly process was beyond of reach for virtually everyone.

The new Act shifted authority from Church courts to a new civil court – a premise that gave rise to today’s divorce courts and put in motion the social upheaval that resulted in the current figure of 40% of marriages ending in divorce.

It allowed men to be divorced for adultery and women to be divorced for adultery if there was additional physical abuse, incest, rape, sodomy, bestiality, bigamy, or two years’ desertion.

It also offered women influence over money through bequests and investments, and it was the first break in the wall that prevented women from achieving sexual and financial equality. Conservatives were horrified.

There was still much to be done. Caroline Norton’s bill was expanded upon by the Infant Custody Acts of 1873 and 1886. The Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 granted married women the same property rights as unmarried women, allowing them to keep their money, goods, and salaries.

However, no other reasons for divorce were recognized: women remained second-class citizens. Women had no recourse against violent spouses far into the twentieth century.

A counsel defending a husband against a divorce suit may say that “in Blackburn and Wigan, it is customary for the husband to kick and abuse his wife when he returns home at night.”

The children remained legally the husband’s, and if a couple divorced, the husband had first claim to them, unless he was convicted of assault.

Divorce was remained the prerogative of the wealthy – one-third of marriages in the peerage resulted in divorce in the 1900s.

Only one politician carried the torch for reforming divorce rules during the Edwardian era.

Earl Russell stood up in the House of Lords in 1902 in favor of trial separations, equalizing the legal status of men and women, and granting the impoverished an equal right to divorce.

He said that the legislation was irrational and unfair, and that by denying unhappily married people relief, it fostered immorality.

The Lords responded with horror, voting to reject Russell’s Bill, not least because they thought Russell “had form.”

The Earl, Bertrand Russell’s elder brother, was a prominent barrister who had been imprisoned after being convicted of bigamy.

He had married a harridan who, in the words of the Lord Chancellor, “had poisoned the entire atmosphere in which he lived.”

Russell flew to Nevada to marry an American divorcee Mollie Cooke after he thought he had divorced his wife and obtained a legal separation decree.

There were more divorces in 1918 than ever before, but just half as many in 1919.

Divorce was still frowned upon in stuffy circles, and it was still a matter of honor for the guy to accept the blame in adultery litigation – even if it meant spending a weekend in a hotel with a “lady unknown” to acquire the required proof from a chambermaid.

However, divorces did not become widespread until the 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act, which introduced gender equality in divorce trials and made divorce more accessible to the poor.

Divorce rates increased, and the most revealing disadvantage of divorce was media attention.

The judgement in the 1921 case of Archdeacon Wakeford, accused of adultery at the Bull Hotel in Peterborough, was widely publicized.

However, his British wife had successfully challenged the decision, and when Russell returned to England, he was found to be in violation of the law.

He was sentenced to three months in prison, but at the conclusion of it, his divorce was finalized and his marriage to his second wife became lawful.

The divorce problem was not going away.

While Russell resumed his fight in the Lords, a Royal Commission was created to study divorce law reform.

The atmosphere was shifting. In place of the prim Queen Victoria, Edward VII ascended to the throne, and his succession of mistresses provided a lighter tone to public life. However, the Church continued to object.

The Archbishop of Canterbury condemned divorce as unChristian and expressed concern about “expanding those services to classes other than those who use them presently.”

The Suffragette movement and the surge in contraceptive usage heightened concerns that women and the lower classes were becoming out of control.

The Royal Commission released its report after three years of hearings. The majority of professionals in social, medical, and legal fields supported change.

The Church radicals, a minority, resisted. The subject was deferred by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and it did not resurface until after World War I.

It reappeared in another universe. The battle had made people realize that life was meant to be lived.

Promiscuity was no longer linked with the higher classes; it had descended to the level of a tennis club.

A kiss was no longer a symbol of an engagement. Young people smoked and drank in public, and ladies wore lipstick.

They discussed “companionate marriage,” which amounted to living in sin while being devoted to one person.

It was said that one out of every ten girls in Los Angeles and New York carried a contraception in her vanity case. Progressively, at least among the Bright Young,

Marriage, according to the American viewpoint, was a social custom, not a sacrament.

There were more divorces in 1918 than ever before, but just half as many in 1919.

Divorce was still frowned upon in stuffy circles, and it was still a matter of honor for the guy to accept the blame in adultery litigation – even if it meant spending a weekend in a hotel with a “lady unknown” to acquire the required proof from a chambermaid.

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