After reading, The Woman They Could Not Silence, I became fascinated by one idea in particular – where would a miserably married woman obtain a divorce? In the mid to late 1800s, Sioux City, North Dakota was an easier answer for those seeking divorce, especially women.
From a historian and senior editor at Atlas Obscura, a fascinating account of the daring nineteenth-century women who moved to South Dakota to divorce their husbands and start living on their own terms
For a woman traveling without her husband in the late nineteenth century, there was only one reason to take the train all the way to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, one sure to garner disapproval from fellow passengers. On the American frontier, the new state offered a tempting freedom often difficult to obtain elsewhere: divorce.
With the laxest divorce laws in the country, five railroad lines, and the finest hotel for hundreds of miles, the small city became the unexpected headquarters for unhappy spouses—infamous around the world as The Divorce Colony. These society divorcees put Sioux Falls at the center of a heated national debate over the future of American marriage. As clashes mounted in the country’s gossip columns, church halls, courtrooms and even the White House, the women caught in the crosshairs in Sioux Falls geared up for a fight they didn’t go looking for, a fight that was the only path to their freedom.
In The Divorce Colony, writer and historian April White unveils the incredible social, political, and personal dramas that unfolded in Sioux Falls and reverberated around the country through the stories of four very different women: Maggie De Stuers, a descendent of the influential New York Astors whose divorce captivated the world; Mary Nevins Blaine, a daughter-in-law to a presidential hopeful with a vendetta against her meddling mother-in-law; Blanche Molineux, an aspiring actress escaping a husband she believed to be a murderer; and Flora Bigelow Dodge, a vivacious woman determined, against all odds, to obtain a “dignified” divorce.
Entertaining, enlightening, and utterly feminist, The Divorce Colony is a rich, deeply researched tapestry of social history and human drama that reads like a novel. Amidst salacious newspaper headlines, juicy court documents, and high-profile cameos from the era’s most well-known players, this story lays bare the journey of the turn-of-the-century socialites who took their lives into their own hands and reshaped the country’s attitudes about marriage and divorce. from Hachette Books
Throughout the book is woven the glaringly obvious theme: a happy marriage is one that you choose to be in. Without that choice, and the option to leave, an unhappy marriage must feel like, shall we say a life sentence in an asylum?
Throughout history, wealthy and powerful men have been able to walk away from marriage with their reputation, money, and children untouched. For others, options to divorce were limited at best. North Dakota, as a pioneer state in the early late 1800s, had a residence requirement of only 90 days. This small amount of time combined with more lax laws for divorce made Sioux City a veritable hot spot for those seeking an easier means to divorce. The eastern most city in North Dakota had easy access from rail travel, hotels, and a whopping 38 law firms. Before long, it was dubbed “The Divorce Colony,” and the drama of it all transfixed the nation.
For the next 20 years, the divorce rate in North Dakota was not incredibly higher than in the rest of the nation. America, however, acted like the very basis of humanity was being torn apart right there in Sioux City. Perhaps this is because, unlike the majority of divorce seekers, the newspapers reported largely on the rich, famous, and scandalous divorces. Because these were publicized, they are also highlighted in April White’s book. Who can fault White. Women rarely merited mention in newspapers or historic documents, so the only recorded divorce seekers would be those reported on by the national news or who were linked to those deemed “newsworthy.” Still, I was left wanting to know more about the everyday women who traveled long distance to sever the legal ties to their husbands.
Predictably, organized religion had a firm opinion on the impact of dissolving sacred marriage vows. Episcopal Bishop Hare worked tirelessly against the option of divorce and blamed accidental death, suicide, miscarriage, and any unhappiness as being squarely earned by those who sought divorce. The cycle of polarization felt as familiar as the current post Dodd discussions and the overblown “partial birth” abortion commentary.
Society, politics, religion, and the law all conspired to try to remove the option of divorce. While Alice Roosevelt accepted that one could marry without a lifelong commitment, Teddy thought there should be a statute limiting the reasons for obtaining a divorce. At a time when women could not even vote, it seems scandalous to many men that women would want to leave one marriage only to enter into another. It begs the question of how any of them would feel being completely dependent on someone else.
My home state of Illinois did not have a no-fault divorce until 2016. This invaluable option allows couples to divorce without claiming specific basis. I can only imagine how much easier it is to heal from a divorce if you don’t have to come out swinging with accusations simply to begin the process.
The Divorce Colony is an insightful piece into the lengths women were willing to go in order to severe legal ties to their husbands. As we argue about what women can do to their bodies or the clothing required to be worn on the house floor in Missouri, it feels like legal options that we have are not always guaranteed. Remembering the history of these rights is, now, just as important as it always has been.
Tell me, please! Do you ever think of legal privileges we have now that women of the past did not?