03 July 2012

Book Review: The Great Divorce

Ilyon Woo is an American scholar who lives in New York City.

Perhaps you wonder why I am writing a review about The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times. In the broadest sense, this book falls within the sexuality and gender studies genre of books I review. I decided to review this bok because  among the RH bill, proposals to legalize divorce, thoughts on same-sex marriage, and the TomKat divorce, I thought that it would be worth posting here. And, I just finished reading it.

Eunice Chapman, the subject of this book, was the only woman to ever directly obtain a divorce from the New York state legislature. New York state was the last American state that allowed for no-fault divorce and that is one of two innovations in family law made in the last ten years in New York state. The other was allowing same-sex marriage.


You see, in the U.S., divorce for a very long time was similar to a criminal proceeding. The petitioning spouse would have to prove that the responding spouse had done some bad thing -- adultery being the only bad thing that permitted a divorce in New York state for a long time. Until recently, couples that had no animosity between each other that wanted a divorce, were required to hire professional perjurers who would lie either as the home-wrecker or witnessing adultery! In a "no fault" divorce state, no blame is assigned and the marital property is divided equally between the parties (what constitutes the marital property and what doesn't is slightly different in every state). Some states that have no fault divorce maintain the divorce for cause, while others don't.

However, in the early 1800s, in New York state, there was no divorce really. When a woman married a man, she became dead legally. Her property became the property of her husband and their children were also his property. This was known as a law of coverture (coverture in a convoluted way refers to a married woman being 'covered' as opposed to single)!

Mrs. Chapman happened to marry a man more than ten years her senior. She had three children by him. But the chemistry was not there and although she resisted his proposals for marriage and then submitted -- only because in her mid-20s, she was starting to enter into 'old maid'hood. Well, her independent personality and his deadbeat personality clashed and he eventually found God in the Shaker variety.

The Shaker religious sect, also known as a the Shaking Quakers (as in Quaker Oats), believed in celibacy, living in communes and sublimating that pent up sexual energy into dancing (originally ecstatically and then ritually) and making fine woodworks like furniture and boxes. They invented some very useful and very common things like clothes pins (for drying washed clothes), wheel-driven washing machine, circular wood saws, cut nails and putting planting seeds in envelope packets for trading and selling.

Anyways, Mrs. Chapman's husband became a Believer and left his wife and chlidren destitute (actually, I think it was the other way around) but the outcome was the same. Mr. Chapman wanted the wife and kids to come with him into his new found paradise. The Shakers were very progressive in gender issues. The founder of the religion was a woman and the leader at the time of Mr. Chapman's becoming a Believer was also a woman. It is likely that Mrs. Chapman might have become a Believer herself except that the part of the Shaker beliefs that their founder was really the second coming of Christ, was too much.

When the Shakers wouldn't accommodate her non-Believing ways, they trying to give her the Amish treatment. And legally, that would have been the end of it. She had no legal existence or standing and her children were his property. But she couldn't accept that -- not for her children.

The book is then how she went about eventually obtaining a divorce from the New York state legislature. You see, when we say divorce law, we are referring to a general law of a state that permits a mechanism for anyone to go through a procedure to obtain a divorce under the proper conditions. But what Eunice got was a special law that simply divorced her from her husband. She was able to use the sexist, misogynistic understanding of women and coverture against the system to obtain the divorce. But she also used the eccentric beliefs of the Shakers against the Shakers and her husband and that is the most interesting aspect of it all. She used the Shaker's own challenges to patriarchy as a means to mount her own successful challenge to patriarchy.

Those who campaign for no fault divorce laws or same-sex marriage laws ought to read this -- especially in a country like ours that is politically dominated by right-wing religious hysterical clerics. Of course, our own jurisprudence includes the story of Alejandro Estrada v. Soledad Escritor which puts the same ideas into play.

The version I read was a 416 page hardcover published by Atlantic Monthly Press (August 10, 2010), ISBN-13: 978-0802119469. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was used at abebooks.com

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