History of Divorce in America


The history of divorce in America dates back to the seventeenth century. The first divorce in the New World was recorded in 1639 by the Puritans in Massachusetts when Mrs. James Luxford found out her husband was married to another woman. Mrs. Luxford was awarded all of the couple’s property on the grounds of bigamy, and her husband was fined and exiled to England.

History of Divorce in America

Records throughout the colonial years during the 17th and 18th centuries reveal scandals and divorces prompted by interracial adultery and fornication. In the 1770s, Thomas Paine–a political pamphleteer and editor of the Philadelphia Magazine who was separated from his English wife–argued vehemently and outspokenly for divorce reform. Divorces soon become more common and somewhat less stigmatized. Desertion was one of the most common offenses cited in petitions during American colonial years according to Kenneth Jost and Marilyn Robinson in the article “What Can Be Done to Help Children of Divorce.”

Early feminists from the 1800s like Elizabeth Cady Stanton crusaded for the right to divorce. “By 1880 one in 16 U.S. marriages was ending in divorce, already the highest rate in the world” according to Charles S. Clark in the May 10, 1996 article “Is It Time to Crack Down on Easy Divorces?” Concerns about divorce led the anti-divorce group, the New England Divorce Reform League, to do a study about the number of divorces. The report released in 1889 confirmed that “divorce had risen dramatically in the United States; from 9,937 in 1867 to 25,535 in 1886–more than a 150 percent increase,” according to Jost and Robinson.

Divorce in America

From 1880 to 1920, the rise in American affluence paralleled a skyrocketing divorce rate. Scholars have documented a number of economic crucial events during this time such as the increase in standardized industrialization, increased wages, shorter work weeks and an abundance of products that enhanced homes and enriched private lives.

During the 1880s in America, men were clearly the breadwinners of most households, and if a man did not provide for his family financially, his wife had a good enough reason to divorce him. By the early 1900s, according to Elaine Tyler May in the Journal of Social History article “The Pressure to Provide: Class, Consumerism, and Divorce in Urban America, 1880-1920” the reasons for divorce became a little more ambiguous. The increase in consumerism and materialism lead many women married to blue collar workers to get divorces because their husbands could not support them in the manner that they expected to be supported in American society.

In the Roaring 1920s when women won the right to vote and began entering the workforce, they started to openly acknowledge their sexual desires. In Clark’s article, researcher Gilbert Hamilton asserted that “as many as a quarter of Americans had committed adultery.” Then in 1927 John Watson, a psychologist predicted that marriage would end within a half century (Qtd. in Clark). By 1940, the divorce rate was 2.0 per 1,000 population. Then the divorce rate leveled off and actually declined a little during the 1950s; however, it began to increase again in the 1960s (Jost and Robinson).

Divorce Statistics in America

With the sexual revolution and women’s movement in the 1960s, attitudes towards divorce began to change. Although there was still a lot of stigma about divorce in America, social policies became more liberal. The state of California led the way towards enacting the “no-fault” divorce in 1969, and other states quickly followed. Soon after in 1973, the Episcopal Church changed its policy so that a marriage no longer had to be annulled before the church would allow a parishioner to remarry. The Catholic Church was still against divorce, but it did little to lobby in state capitals to change the new divorce laws (Clark).

In 1970 the divorce rate, which had been slowly climbing in the late 1960s, increased by almost 40 percent from 1970 to 1975. The divorce rate in the United States continued to climb, but at a slower rate, for the remainder of the decade. While divorce rates leveled off in the 1980s, experts believe they will hold steady in the future. Statistics show that half of all marriages in America will end in divorce (Jost and Robinson).


Clark, Charles S. Is It Time to Crack Down on Easy Divorces? Marriage and Divorce. CQ Researcher. 409-432. May 10, 1996.

Jost, Kenneth and Robinson, Marilyn. What Can Be Done to Help Children of Divorce? Children and Divorce. CQ Researcher. Volume 1, June 7, 1991.

May, Elaine Tyler. The Pressure to Provide: Class, Consumerism, and Divorce in Urban America, 1880-1920. Journal of Social History. Winter 1978, Vol. 12 Issue 2.