Divorcist Reads Books about Divorce: The Divorce Colony

Header image of woman's lap with book and tea

We’re reading books about divorce

The Divorce Colony. We love reading books about divorce and OMG, dear readers, this was a fun one. As a fan of divorce, women doing it for themselves, and history, The Divorce Colony hit all the marks for me. My kudos to author April White who, as a senior editor at Atlas Obscura, is no stranger to finding fascinating stories in interesting places. 

When “going to Sioux Falls” meant something

The first thing you need to know is that there was once a time in American history when to get divorced, all (or “all”) a person–even a woman!–had to do was establish residency in Sioux Falls, Dakota (now South Dakota) for three months. Then a hop and a skip to the local courthouse was all you needed to make it official. The late 19th Century held a promise unlike any other for women in unhappy relationships. It was actually possible to take control of one’s life and dissolve one’s marriage. Spouses didn’t even need to show up. It was that simple!

Four women show us how

Author April White profiles four women of different socioeconomic backgrounds (all white, of course…women of color, as always, had more to overcome) with humanity and a bit of humor. It’s fascinating to read their stories. Their husbands were not so different from the husbands of our time: They carried on, had affairs, were boring, and murdered. Le plus ce change, oui?

Maggie, Mary, Blanche, and Flora

And the women? They weren’t so different from today, either. Maggie and Flora were rich and privileged. Mary was fairly upper crust but politically unhelpful for her husband’s family. And Blanche? Oh Blanche was a whole mood. “The murder’s wife” as she was referred to at the Cataract Hotel in Sioux Falls, has the most interesting story while being, for me, anyway, the most relatable. In a letter to her father, Flora wrote of Blanche that she “took the most dreary possible way of burying her sins.” Once divorced from the acquitted murder suspect, she “married a dreadful little man just to be virtuous for the first time.”

Who among us hasn’t been there, right? Virtue isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We can learn from Blanche and her fellow divorcees in many ways. Particularly obvious is that the ones who jumped straight into new relationships seem, then as now, to have found the least happiness.

But what really shines through in this book isn’t the similarities the people of this time period have with the unhappy couples of today, it’s that that old, even more fundamental truth: it’s always, always better to be rich when getting divorced.

Suffragette city?

Indeed, it was NOT! I loved White’s exploration of what key players in the women’s rights movements thought of divorce. She writes: “The question of divorce had vexed the women’s rights movement for decades. Though there was near-universal agreement among activists that the statutes governing the relations between husband and wife should not be shaped by men alone, there was little consensus on what those laws should say.”

Emma Cranmer, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of South Dakota, was of the opinion that divorce was “a menace to public morals.” Women like Emma who were against it were so in part because easy divorce meant that husbands could abandon their wives without a second thought for their familial responsibilities. No divorce meant that women were at least protected in this. Books about divorce often cover the pro-side of it; we seldom see voices like Emma’s represented.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, on the other hand, was all for women leaving bad marriages when and how they could. She spoke passionately about a friend who was in an abusive relationship: “I impulsively urged her to fly such a monster and villain, as she would before the hot breath of a ferocious beast in the wilderness.” (Try that line the next time you’re side eyeing your friend’s new boyfriend.) She recalled that her friend “did fly, and it was well with her.”

Always one for drama when it came to making a point, Elizabeth wrote in 1890, “The States which have liberal divorce laws are to women what Canada was to the slaves before Emancipation.”

Moral failings

It’s fascinating, too, to see that the Church was divided as well, even in small town Sioux Falls. Bishop Hare preached that easy access to divorce was like handing someone a gun in the heat of passion. Meanwhile at the Unitarian church down the road, Rev. Andrew offered a sharp retort to those who were against it: “For any man in this ange and country to claim that divorce is morally wrong for any one bone reason–that neither cruelty, desertion, crime, indignity, or any other grievous cause is sufficient to justify it–has abandoned his conscience to the tyranny of a moral superstition.”

Take that. 

Agreeing to disagree

Then as now, divorce wasn’t always contentious. But unlike now, there was no “no fault” divorce. Some couples risked collusion charges by agreeing to get divorced and pretending that one of them was the injured party. The risk, for the most part, paid off.

Man put asunder

The Sioux Falls loophole didn’t last forever and soon states began cracking down or loosening up on their own divorce laws. White’s tale comes to a close as laws change and Sioux Falls sunsets its reputation. Books about divorce aren’t always optimistic. But this one is. It’s a worthy and oddly comforting read. Sure it’s a little depressing to read of the people who struggled before us and reconcile ourselves with the knowledge that people will struggle with divorce long after us. But then as now, people have tried to do what is best for family. Sometimes completely wrong, but they’re trying. It’s comforting to know it’s getting better. We’re not there yet, but it is getting better. It’s nice to witness the eternal struggle of applying the law to the heart get a little less oppressive. We can be optimistic knowing that there was a way out, at least for some, and the opportunity for divorce and happiness is available to more and more people, regardless of status, state residency, or anything else that once posed a barrier to it.