Dora Montefiore Justice 1910

Problems of Divorce


Source: Justice, Our Women’s Circle, p. 5, March 5, 1910;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


Although the Royal Commission which is at present to take evidence and report on the reform of our divorce laws in England has more especially to attack the problem of how to bring relief through divorce into the poorer and less privileged homes of this country, yet there are no direct representatives of the people on the Commission. There are an archbishop, an earl, several knights and M.P.’s, the sister of a duke, and the wife of the Parliamentary Secretary of the Board of Trade. Church interests, legal interests, the interests of privilege and of patronage, will all be heard, but the voice of the people will be, as usual, silenced.

And for this exclusion the people have more or less to thank themselves. As long as they persist in believing that they are in some subtle way made of different clay than “their betters,” so long as they do not force the hand of the Government to give secular, primary, secondary, and university education free to all who desire to profit by it; so long as they do not insist on the democratisation of electoral machinery; so long as they are content to stand outside Labour Bureaus, advertising to every passer-by their pitiful need — just so long will the privileged and governing classes take them at their own valuation, and legislate for them as an inferior and contemptible class, unable to manage their own affairs.

There are, in this question of our divorce laws, problems intimately associated with the lives of the workers, especially of the working-class mother. They only are able to realise what the stress and struggle under capitalism is for the widow left with young children to fight the world alone; and they alone know the legal difficulties and consequences that meet the working-class woman who is forced to demand a legal separation from her husband. Technically the husband is ordered to pay her an allowance for the support of herself and her children; practically, the husband can move to another part of the country, where, by a change of name, he is lost sight of by the authorities, and escapes all responsibility. If the wife, deprived of her promised allowance, appeals to the Poor Law authorities, her only chance of having her husband found is for her to break up her home, and, with her children, go into the workhouse. The Guardians find it sometimes worth while to advertise then, and set the law in motion to find the delinquent, and, if he is in work, he is made to pay for the support of his family. But at what a cost? The home of the mother and the children has been broken up. That home for which, when it is a poor one, capitalism has so little respect! That home which we are continually being told Socialism is working to destroy!

What is our remedy as Socialists for all this life misery, this breaking up of the decent homes of tile workers, this branding as paupers of innumerable mothers and children? Our remedy is the State maintenance of child-bearing and child-rearing mothers. We say that mothers, in bringing healthy children into the world, and rearing them for useful citizens, are fulfilling a State function; they must, therefore, inasmuch as they cannot during that period work industrially for the community, be maintained by the community, so that the health of the mother and the inviolability of the home may be assured! It is just this principle that needs to be brought forward in the discussions of the Divorce Royal Commission.

Evolution affects public opinion and social morals as regards this question of divorce as it affects every other question. At a period when the sanctity of human life was not held in great consideration, the rough-and-ready way of dealing with the offender against the moral code set up by marriage was his or her execution; and before the Reformation many were executed for what was then a criminal offence. It was only in the 14th century that the theory of the indissolubility of marriage was set up by the Church in order to increase her power to bind or to release. By degrees the richer among the community obtained changes in the civil law which released them from unsatisfactory unions; but even in those cases women could not obtain divorce on equal terms with men. This is now, thanks to the suffrage agitation of middle-class women, to be remedied; and the presence on the Commission of the aristocratic and middle-class women is a guarantee that our interests will be represented. But the case of the working woman, who has no dower and no settlement, requires entirely different consideration. As a proof of how she may be ground between the upper and the nether millstone, one has only to cite Lord Guthrie’s interpretation of the existing law, which enacts that a wife can only sue for divorce if she either pays her own costs or gets an order for her husband to pay; and that if her husband earns more than 30s, a week she is not allowed to sue “in forma pauperis.” The cheapest undefended London divorce case costs from 40 to 45; a provincial case (and all provincial cases have to be tried in London) costs at least 10 extra. Defended cases may cost anything from 80 to 500 and cases sued “in forma pauperis” cost at the least 10. It is only right, and according to the trend of evolution, that divorce should be made easier and cheaper for all classes; but, as working women under existing industrial conditions are so heavily handicapped, Socialist women should petition the Commission to establish in any proposed changes of the law the principle of the State Maintenance of Motherhood.

Trade Unions and Electoral Reform.

When the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress sent a deputation to Mr. Asquith last week, one of the demands the deputation voiced was that “the franchise should be extended to all adults, male and female.” Mr. Asquith’s reply to this demand was that “this was a matter on which his party were not unanimous.” Adult Suffragists should note that there are many other subjects on which the present Prime Minister’s Party are not unanimous; but that there are means at the disposal of politicians for obtaining unanimity in a Cabinet on any given subject. Legislation does not represent principle or conviction on the part of legislators, but pressure of public opinion from outside, which thus forces the unwilling hands of legislators. Let the people show unmistakably that they desire as human beings, and not as owners of property, to have a voice in the making of the laws, and it would not take many weeks or days to make the Cabinet unanimous on the subject.

D.B.M.