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Marriage is a social structure. When couples get married they enter into a relationship that is societally recognized and to some degree societally regulated. Laws, customs, traditions and cultural assumptions are intrinsically involved in defining the path that a marriage will take. In the late 19th century many Americans had to come to terms in some way with the societal expectations of marriage, guided by the Victorian mores. But as the 20th century began these elements began to evolve. As personal expectations became more important societal expectations lost prevalence.

The laws and regulations of the 1920’s succeeded in making it more difficult to obtain a divorce. More conservative states in the East limited divorce to only two or three complaints, adultery or abandonment were the most common. But this red tape did not slow down the rapidly accelerating rate of divorce in the 1920’s. Especially in the more liberal West was divorce becoming a more usual case. The state of California and the state of New Jersey were the center of May’s Great Expectations.

California was settled by Victorians, many of who were European immigrants who moved to California from the mid-West. Other Victorians were native-born white Protestant Americans from the middle class. These men and women believed that independence and self denial would lead to progress. Most of these people were well to do merchants and professionals, who had economic autonomy. This Victorian culture encouraged domestic morality.

During this time there were clearly defined sex roles. The husband served as the sole provider and the wife took care of the home, children and volunteer work at the church. With the high social standards set at this time divorce was a huge reputation killer. But divorce still did occur. Cases against men of the time included: inability to provide for basic needs disruption of domestic life with vices and abuse or cruelty. Cases against women covered: inadequacy in motherhood, not fulfilling domestic responsibilities, and any use of vices.

What changes happened over the next forty years to cause an increase in the divorce rate? One might guess that women became more liberated or that the influx of immigrants may have caused competition for jobs. May proposed the idea that a revolution took place within society, a change that did not include all of the aspects of Victorianism. During this time there was an industrial revolution, a sexual revolution and urbanization. All of these meant that new roles needed to be defined within the home and between the sexes.

In the workplace corporations began to rise and ruin the opportunity for economic autonomy. No longer could a have the pride and power of running his own business, he was now forced to work under someone and in most cases take a pay cut. This also meant many women were almost forced into the workforce. Though many husbands didn’t want their wives to have to work many women were encouraged to go out and get a job. Some women saw this as a new opportunity, which meant more freedom, but many were very unhappy with this idea. This was an accepted claim for divorce in many of the cases in California in the beginning of the 20th century.

As industry began to boom another wave affected the lives of the middle class Americans: consumerism. With a new found abundance of goods men and women became preoccupied with material goods. As families began to move out into the suburbs there was great competition to keep up with the newest in goods. Tension began to grow as men and women became unhappy when they couldn’t afford all of the goods they expected. “After 1900, the communal values of sacrifice, volunteerism, and virtuous domesticity were seriously shaken by the rise of urban culture, which brought altered sex roles and post-Victorian expectations of marriage and family life” (May 49).

Marriage began to grow into something new. Women began to be much more conscious of the importance of their choice in a husband. This idea seemed to give women a sense of power, a power to have choice in their marriage, sex and domestic life. Many women had the goal of finding or catching the perfect man. These women were disappointed when they realized they couldn’t have everything that they saw in the Hollywood movies. This realization ended many marriages of the time in divorce.

The under lying concept in all of these changes was a newfound desire for personal fulfillment. Home became a place to satisfy personal desires, and for the first time private life became cut off from public concerns. Among these desires was the ultimate double standard. Women wanted their men to support their families but also to be their fun loving pal. Men wanted excitement and purity. This reflected the desire for the new vitality and the old morality to co-exist within the home.

During this time period men were granted a divorce for women who became too independent and seemed to enjoy their freedom too much, meaning they were no longer taking care of their duties at home. Other cases centered on women who were unsatisfied with the lifestyle that their husband was providing for them. Some of these cases were granted to the men and other to the women. Women often desired a divorce from husband who tried to force them to go to work. These women felt that their husband was unwilling to simply provide for his family, most of these women were granted the divorces.

Elaine Tyler May did a great job of backing up all of these ideas with many cases from California and a few from New Jersey. This may assume that all California and New Jersey accurately represented America. Perhaps May should have instead sub-titled her book Marriage & Divorce in Post-Victorian California. I am sure that most of these same trends were spread all over the nation but there may have been other causes that May did not touch on.


Great Expectations, Elaine Tyler May

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