Tuesday, November 27, 2012

LIFE, No. 2: Women in Chains

More than any other bit of social commentary the 1906 editors of LIFE magazine keep returning to the issue of divorce and remarriage.
Now I have no idea whether this truly was a heated debate in the summer, autumn, and winter of that year. Certainly if the editors are to be believed the American wife was little more than a chattel slave six years into the new century. The theme of the woman chained to a wastrel husband, or a lecher, or a brute turns up again and again, whether in graphic form:
On the editorial page, or, here, both terribly and delightfully, in verse:
I really can't tease you with just a single page from this beauty. So here is "In re Remarriage" from the LIFE poetry series Ditties on Divorce;

Bill Baker bought a thoroughbred
And hitched her to a cart;
He overworked, and underfed,
And broke the poor beast's heart.

The Rev. Dr. Boner1 ran
To the S.P.C.A.
And made them send around a man
To take the horse away.

Bill Baker next was roundly fined;
They sold his trembling mare
To Mr. Brown, the good, the kind,
Who promised gentle care.

Now this Bill Baker had a wife
Who saw, with much remorse,
The she'd endured a harder life
Than had Bill Baker's horse.

She'd been his serf for years and years -
He sought elsewhere his pleasure;
He made her weep, then cursed her tears,
And beat her for good measure.

So now she called on Dr. Boner2
And told him of her plan:
"You found our mare another owner,
Get me another man."
The preacher grew aghast, aghaster;
He cried, "Are you insane?
How dare you thus address your pastor?
Oh, have I praught3 in vain?"

"I've thundered till my throat was hoarse
At justice's miscarriage.
The world's worst evil is DIVORCE,
Except one worse - REMARRIAGE."

"God chastens whom He loveth well,
You husband does the same.
If he's unfaithful - who can tell?
Perhaps you are to blame."

"Go home and pray, and if Bill smites,
Just turn the other cheek.
Preserve the best of Woman's Rights -
The right of being weak."

"And then if Bill does not repent
After a year's probation,
Perhaps we'll graciously consent
To legal separation."

"But howsoever you're estranged,
Think twice before you travel;
Our wedding goods are not exchanged,
However they unravel."

"At least, unless the Lord at last
Should summon Bill above;
Then, if you also have not passed,
You're allowed another love."

"In fact, as fast as husbands die,
As long as you've endurance;
But while one lives, it won't apply;
It's something like insurance."

"Body-and-soul, you are Bill Baker's
On this side of the tomb.
It's not my job, but an undertaker's
To mitigate your doom."
These words the woman did astound.
She gasped, "Is this religion?
To trap the rabbit for the hound?
To snare and cage the pigeon?"

"I ask for food, you offer a stone.
If I leave his hateful bed,
You send me out in the dark alone,
Childless, unloved, unfed."

"In barren travail's discontent,
Not widow, maid, nor wife,
Such liberty were banishment;
The Wandering Jew's free life."

"What crime have I done, thus bereft?
Does Heaven so abhor it.
That first I must endure the theft,
And then do penance for it?"

"Forbid the divorcee remarry?
Why not take just one more step,
And force the wretch to hari-kari
Upon her husband's doorstep?"

"Why did you rescue our poor mare
Before poor Bill was dead?
Must I go homeless, just because
I'm not a quadruped?"

The parson stammered, "Can truth be hammered
Into a woman's brains? -
However spouses grow unenamored,
The sacrament remains!"

"As for the horse - well, it's a horse,
A woman's but a woman;
The devil's self-devised divorce,
Remarriage is inhuman."

"Good-day, madame!" - accenting "dame"
The visit to determine -
He gave the door a dulcet slam,
And went back to his sermon.

~ John Lomax
1Based on the lack of actual humor visible either elsewhere in the verse or the illustrations accompanying it I have to assume that Mr. Lomax was either unaware of the childish jape implied by his fictional clergyman's name or was some sort of Ragtime Era zen master of deadpan humor.

2OK, I think have to concede it; Lomax just didn't get the joke here.

3Praught caught me cackhanded; WTF? But apparently the word was used sparingly as the past-tense form of the verb "preach" instead of "preached" (as "taught" is for "teach") but was never accepted; its use here smacks to me of a rather pathetic attempt at erudition from the inventor of the Rev. Dr. Boner.
A heartrending little vignette, isn't it? I think that was the idea.

The odd thing about all of this hoo-raw is that I simply can't find any source of controversy or discussion of the issue of divorce and remarriage for this period outside of LIFE magazine. Try it yourself; Google any of these subjects and you'll find all sort of recent tracts on the subject from the usual suspects - it seems comical and sad that after all these years there are still bible-beaters and Christopaths (and orthodox Jews and docrinaire Muslims...) fighting this rearguard action.

But as a remarried divorcee myself, I may be a trifle biased on the subject, yeah?


Lisa said...

Very interesting. It is interesting how much we forbear -- how much we are taught to forbear -- in the name of good social praxis.

At the time of this writing, VD's were rampant among these upright married men, who then brought it home to the unsuspecting wives, adding insult to injury, and is it any wonder women received the diagnosis of "hysterics", or any wonder doctor's got their jollies off of "relieving them their duress via genital "massage"?!?

Chattel are goods, but one wonders then why they were not seen as fungible, and able to be transferred to another? Perhaps that would allow the woman too much agency over her own being (in the selection and rejection process.)

FDChief said...

I think because of the "sanctity" of marriage, Lisa: "God" decreed that you were his property until death do you part. So if he wasn't dead, then your condition was irreversible.

Lisa said...

Sanctity, indeed. Inviolable for women, but not men. For some reason, "Stairway to Heaven" creeps into mind: "oh, it makes me wonder" ... what means anything to anyone, hypocrites that we are?

Oh, sorry ... Walt Whitman relieved us of those parochial strictures: "I am large, I contain multitudes ..." A psychiatrist recently told me of his response to a women who asked how her husband could cheat on her when he tells her he "loves her" : "He loves you and he cheats -- they are not mutually exclusive."

Hmmm ... if you're married, they should be (unless you have a "West Coast" type of agreement. Just a joke :))

FDChief said...

Well...I think it's POSSIBLE for someone to emotionally "love" someone else and not be physically faithful. The human genitalia have no conscience, our long history of shattered marriages and fallen empires because someone couldn't stay out of someone else's pants testifies to that.

But...IMO that doesn't balance out breaking the promise that the cheater made. It's one thing to desire someone else - it's entirely another to ACT on that desire after you've made a promise NOT to.

So, yes; if you've promised to love someone "forsaking all others", then you need to keep that promise. And just because you still love them too doesn't excuse the offense.

So although I agree with the shrink, IMO that's a factoid that doesn't really affect her position. She still needs to decide how important her husband's attitude towards that broken promise is. If it's a dealbreaker, and, frankly, it should be in my opinion, then it doesn't really matter if he does love her; he has shown that he considers his own satisfaction a higher good than his own honor and hers.

Pack your bag, Jack...