Framing American Divorce: From the Revolutionary Generation to the Victorians

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University of California Press, Feb 1, 1999 - History - 258 pages
Divorce has become one of the most widely discussed issues in America. In this innovative exploration of the phenomenon of divorce in American society, Norma Basch uses a variety of analytic perspectives to enrich our understanding of the meaning of divorce during the formative years of both the nation and its law, roughly 1770 to 1870. She provides a fascinating, thoughtful look at divorce as a legal action, as an individual experience, and as a cultural symbol in its era of institutionalization and traces the powerful legacy of the first American divorce experiences for us today.

Using a unique methodology, Basch fragments her story into three discrete but chronologically overlapping perspectives. In Part I, "Rules," she analyzes the changing legal and legislative aspects of divorce and the public response to them. Part II, "Mediations," focuses on individual cases and presents a close-up analysis of the way ordinary women and men tested the law in the courts. And Part III, "Representations," charts the spiraling imagery of divorce through various fiction and non-fiction narratives that made their way into American popular culture during the nineteenth century.

The composite picture that emerges in Framing American Divorce is a vividly untidy one that exposes the gulf between legal and moral abstractions and everyday practices. Divorce, Basch argues, was always a focal point of conflict between the autonomy of women and the authority of men. Tracing the legal, social, and cultural experience of divorce allows Basch to provide a searching exploration of the limits of nineteenth-century ideals of domesticity, romantic love, and marriage, and their legacy for us today. She brings her findings up-to-date with a provocative discussion of the current debate over fault or no-fault divorce.
 

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Contents

Prologue
1
RULES
13
Inaugurating the Rules 17701800
19
Refining the Rules 18001850s
43
Contesting the Rules 1850s1870
68
MEDIATIONS
95
When Women Go to Court
99
When Men Go to Court
121
REPRESENTATIONS
141
Divorce Stories
147
Epilogue
187
Notes
193
Index
227
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About the author (1999)

Norma Basch is Professor of History at Rutgers University, Newark, and the author of In the Eyes of the Law: Women, Marriage, and Property in Nineteenth-Century New York (1982).

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