Not Just Suffrage: Divorce and the Seneca Falls Convention

Today’s post comes from Caroline Shanley from the National Archives History Office. 

This July commemorates the 175th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. This gathering of prominent White feminists resulted in the Declaration of Sentiments, a list of demands to ensure the legal, political, and social equality of women. While many of these 19th-century women’s rights activists were abolitionists, no Black women were invited to be a part of the Convention or drafting of the Declaration of Sentiments.

The Declaration of Sentiments included a wide range of pertinent issues, calling attention to women’s inability to hold property and, most notably, the lack of voting rights afforded to women. While many remember the Seneca Falls Convention as the defining moment in women’s suffrage, another key issue took center stage: divorce. One line in the Declaration of Sentiments reads:

“He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes of divorce; in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given, as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women—the law, in all cases, going upon the false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.”

In 1848, it was far more complicated for people to obtain divorces than in the modern day. States had fault-based divorce laws that outlined various requirements for someone to begin divorce proceedings. One notable Seneca Falls organizer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was notoriously in favor of making divorce easier, but not every feminist who attended Seneca Falls was in favor of making divorce reform a prominent platform. 

Some feminists worried that elevating divorce as a central demand would be too radical. They thought it would lead to associations with the taboo “free love” movement, which advocated for relationships to exist outside the legal constraints of marriage. In the same vein, suffrage was perceived as a more palatable issue because it did not upset the natural structure of the family unit. Ultimately, the early women’s liberation activists leaned into suffrage as their cornerstone issue that thrust the movement into the national consciousness.

Later in the century after Seneca Falls, two separate factions arose out of the original women who made up the Seneca Falls Convention. Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) became the group more focused on issues beyond suffrage, including equal pay, education, and of course, divorce reform.

While the national movement did prioritize suffrage, men and women across the United States continued to pursue divorce as relief to their marital woes. For example, Congress passed the law permitting divorces in Washington, DC, in June 1860. Because divorce in DC was handled by the federal District Court, you can find records of some of these cases in the National Archives.

Because Washington at this time was still considered an exclusively federal jurisdiction, Congress passed all controlling laws for its citizens. Divorces were only permitted on four grounds: lunacy, adultery, desertion, or cruelty. For disgruntled couples, this meant that they could pursue divorce only if they could prove in a court of law that one or the other committed one of these offenses. This fault-based system stands in contrast to the no-fault system that exisits today. On top of the legal difficulty and the high cost of going to court in this era, women were at risk of being unable to regain their last names, retain property from before their marriage, or get custody over children.

The 1861 case of Batie v. Batie provides a glimpse into the lives of women seeking divorce. The wife, Margaret Batie, contended that she was a loyal spouse to her husband, William, but he “call[ed] her cruel and obscene names and curs[ed] in her presence and in the presence of their friends and neighbors.” Therefore she asked the court to grant her divorce on the grounds of cruelty. Margaret continued, describing the horrible conditions she lived under with her abusive husband. In one case, she was “lying in bed in a very delicate state of health” when “William set fire to the bed” and proceeded to beat her.

Despite additional research, it is not clear whether Margaret was granted a divorce. The records mostly contain her original petition, which is a document written by a lawyer that is submitted to the court to begin divorce proceedings. 

Today, all 50 states and Washington, DC, have some version of a no-fault divorce. This means that couples do not have to prove wrongdoing in a court of law if they want to separate. This development is the result of almost two centuries of women’s rights advocates, beginning as early as the Seneca Falls Convention.

To learn more about Seneca Falls, suffrage, and the 19th amendment, check out NARA’s educator resource page on the topic and the digital version of the Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote exhibit. 

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