Splitting the sheets in Southern Oregon
Women and men and the balance of power.
by Jan Wright
Talk presented at Windows In Time presentations in Medford and Ashland, Oregon
A few years ago, while on my way to a wedding, I stopped off in Salt Lake City Family History Library to search through the Jackson County, Oregon Divorce records. Suddenly I was reading very personal and intimate court records about perfect strangers hurling brutal accusations at each other. Witnesses were brought in to testify that the couples in question truly needed the law to separate them. The children spoken of seemed to hide in the corners while they witnessed the implosion of their worlds. It was a fascinating look into the underbelly of society. The content of those records exist in part because blame (or cause) was a necessary part of dissolution. Today, we have no fault divorce – parties involved do not have to be anything other than incompatible - but in the past, it had to be proven before a judge that someone had an an unbearable burden to bear if they stayed married. Adultery, abandonment, lack of financial support, repeated violence and abusive name calling were all considered and listed as reasons for divorce.
Surface level studies of local history can be very deceiving. Most tidbits of the past we stumble upon are about founders and prominent men and women who constructed buildings and communities, schools and libraries, towers and cabins. But the divorce records were about destruction and disassembling families and shaking up communities. It was about powerful secrets told once to the judge and in many cases, never spoken of again. The records show no hesitancy in discussing private matters, such as sexual relations, naming adulterous partners, criminal activity, gambling, and other social behaviors. The same prominent history -book citizens that built our communities in S. Oregon were touched by these divorces in one way or another. Some families seem to be plagued with divorce, from their first foothold in Oregon to the 3rd and 4th generations.
This talk today is an attempt to explore some of the general and particular divorces in Southern Oregon and their impact on the community. I do not want to be accused of sensationalizing people's worst moments or digging up dirt. My contention is that while it may not be an experience of the majority, it touched every aspect of community life through government regulation, education, medicine, religion, literature, media, employment, economics etc. It had an intergenerational influence, from the grandparents who had to take in the divorced child and to the grandchildren learning vicariously how to relate to ones spouse.
A brief background on divorce laws in America is needed. Though America has always been slightly more lax than Britain, in colonial times divorce was very rare. Religion forbid divorce and the law followed religion – in essence if you accused your spouse of the only valid reason for divorce, adultery, you were accusing them of a crime punishable by death. In the late 1600s, divorces could be granted for adultery, and cruelty on the part of the husband, if you could convince the colonial governor to hear your case. It was so expensive, difficult, and shameful to obtain a divorce that faint of heart never even tried. As a last resort, abandonment or agreed upon separation without legal trappings became a more popular way to deal with extreme marital incompatibility.
Society put pressure on men to take care of and provide for their women . No government wished to (or could) support discarded women and children, so they demanded that men take the marriage vows seriously and support their families. Most marriages were not about romantic love -it was more of an alliance, a survival technique, and a religious duty. Women had no rights to property or to their own children. There were few alternatives to the married state, especially for women. Single females had no self-determination, their fate was in the hands of their fathers, husbands, uncles or brothers. When divorce did occur, remarriage was usually on it's heels.
After the Revolutionary War, attitudes towards marriage and divorce changed very little . Divorce laws were transferred to individual state jurisdictions (including South Carolina who did not permit any divorces until 1949) States defined acceptable grounds for divorce, length of process, how to divvy up the assets and debts and custody issues. Eventually the county courts handled the local dissolution cases as they do now. To offset prohibitive divorce laws, some states adapted inheritance laws which demanded that if the husband died, the bequest he left to his wife had to be comparable to that which he left to his mistress.
Rates of divorce ballooned after the Civil war – (a outcome that is apparently predictable after every war) Soldiers returned to women who had learned how to manage for themselves, children who didn't remember their fathers, fathers who were injured inside and out by war. The nation was so focused on reconstruction – it hardly noticed the changes in the family. Westward expansion and industrialization also played a part in changing attitudes toward marriage. Married men were considered to be more trustworthy in business than single men. Men could not prosper without a wife to support them at home. Women looked the other way when men continued to indulge in public amusements (i.e. frequenting saloons and visiting prostitutes) Women knew their duty – to run the household affairs, and support their husbands in business or bread-winning pursuits.
Women gained social status but actually lost power when they married – they lost the right to their own names, they could not sign contracts, they could not own property after they married – all that accumulated as a married couple belonged to the man. The concept of alimony came about because the man controlled all the financial assets of the family. Often the women who were a not part of the business world, and had no knowledge of the family assets. After divorce, each individual becomes responsible for their own upkeep- a distinct disadvantage to women who had no experience at providing for herself. She was also faced a huge stigma as a failure and often identified herself as a widow rather than a divorcee on census and other records or in their obituaries.
In Oregon the process evolved in much the same pattern as the rest of the states. Except for the important Donation Land Claim act which opened property rights to married women. Abigail Scott Duniway, Oregon's renowned suffragist, said, “ I have never yet met a husband who has failed to make himself an agreeable and respected companion to the wife of his bosom, the mother of his children, if she possessed, in her own right, the home that sheltered them. Nor have I ever known any woman of Oregon, when so situated, to be compelled to sue for divorce on account of “cruel and inhuman treatment, ....” She went on to urge the governor of Oregon to revive the good parts of the DLC act, in securing property ownership rights for woman as a way to decrease the divorce rates.
On the other hand the Oregon Sentinel commented on the large number of divorces granted because, [27 Mar 1858 Oregon Sentinel ] “Men have been in the habit in that Territory, for a number of years past, of marrying, --- not a wife, but a quarter section of land: and it is quite natural that, the land being secured they should soon tire of the incumbrance of it.”
Western states have always had higher divorce rates than the east. The West offered a place to go – a literal venue for desertion. Men sometimes came to S. Oregon having a secret wife and family back in Iowa or Ohio. Migratory divorce laws developed in some states for “quickie” divorces. States such as Nevada with lax residency laws had divorce colonies in which a 6 month residency was all that was required for dissolving a marriage. Women's organizations protested and pushed law makers into expanding the residency requirements which effectively put a stop to the colonies. I was surprised to find many unfamiliar names on the Jackson County divorce records- people who were not permanent residents – who lived here for a year or two & moved on once they obtained a divorce.
Statistically speaking, a recent Mail Tribune article said that Medford has a higher divorce rate than the rest of the state and that Oregon has a higher rate than the rest of the country.
Bethenia Owens married at age 14, had a baby at 16, divorced at 19 from Lagrand Hill who the divorce papers say abused her and her son, George and did not provide for the family. Though her parents were willing to let her and George stay with them and take care of them, she earned her own way by running a millinery and dress making shop. It was not easy, being a single mom in a frontier environment was practically unheard of. After she put her son through medical school, and at the age of 40 she became a doctor with a real medical degree- one of the first women in Oregon to do so. She inspired generations of women to follow their passions regardless of their circumstances. Though in her later years she was associated with the now politically incorrect Eugenics movement to improve the race by sterilizing those considered unfit for parenting, she is still considered one of the great women in Oregon's past.
Susie Allen a seemingly industrious woman whom I had seen mentioned several times but I had no clue about her past until I read the details of her divorce. Her husband accused her of killing the children she bore. She testified of the grief over not being able to carry a child to term. He accused her of sleeping with other men and called her a sow. Witnesses heard him tell her that he would rather sleep with prostitutes than to lie down by her side. Susie proves that we are greater than our worst moments, that we can come back from degredation and hold our heads up in spite of the things our hearts have endured. She stayed in Ashland – he left and was not heard of again and would not be a part of the town's development. She started selling real estate and by 1914 a article published in the Ashland Tidings, considered her one of the leading citizens! They even named a whole block of downtown buildings “Susie's Block”
[More to come - other divorces to be written about in more depth. in weeks to come]
copyright by Jan Wright - no use is authorized without my express permission