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The Divorce Act of 1898 : Equality of Marriage Rights

The Divorce Act of 1898 was a part of the greater women’s equality movement, the Act stemming from campaigns and calls for equality in marriage, divorce and life. The Divorce Act made the grounds for divorce equal across both parties, making divorce more accessible for women in particular.

Prior to the amendment to the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 1867, the grounds for divorce were unequally applied across man and wife. For example, husbands could sue for divorce on the grounds of proven adultery by the wife, while the wives had to prove not only adultery, but also cruelty or desertion by the husband to sue for divorce. The Act levelled the playing field in that it allowed both husbands and wives to petition for divorce upon the grounds of adultery. This Act also expanded the grounds for divorce beyond mere adultery to wilful desertion without cause for over five years, being a habitual drunkard for four years or more, cruelty, and attempted murder of the spouse. As said by Brown, the Act “responded to the criticisms of the sexual double standard relating to adultery.”[1]

Titled “For Better, or for Worse”

The allegorical figure of justice holds a rolled up copy of the divorce extension bill while a vicar gainsays her. In the foreground a man drags his wife by the arm. She holds their baby in the other.

Extended Title – Justice – I demand that this unhappy woman be released from her contract. Her husband is making a hideous mockery of her life. The church – No, my dear madam, they are husband and wife, and to part them would be unscriptural.’ Divorce extension bill. Ticket of leave.

New Zealand observer and free lance (Newspaper). Cartoonist unknown :For better, or for worse. New Zealand Observer and Free Lance, Saturday, 14 May 1887 (page 8).. Ref: J-065-026. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22826607

The grounds for desertion could be applied rather liberally at times. One of the first divorce rulings under desertion was the Simons v. Simons case. Dr Simons petitioned the court to grant him a divorce under the grounds of desertion. However, upon closer examination of the case, it was discovered that Mrs Simons had never left her home. She “simply deprived her husband of her society from 8 pm to 8 am.”[2] The court was in favour of granting desertion under this case, as the wife “showed herself determined to no longer be bound by the matrimonial tie, and thus matrimonial life was brought to an end.”[3]

The wheels of change often turn slowly, and in this case, it took thirteen years from the introduction of changing the amending Divorce bill for it to pass through both houses in 1898. “After thirteen years agitation, the legal standard of morality in New Zealand has been made the same for both sexes”[4] This period also saw other innovative legislation passed that affected women’s lives in New Zealand. Women’s Suffrage was passed in 1893, the Industrial Conciliation and the Arbitration Act in 1894 and the introduction of old-age pensions in 1898.

A minister marrying a mature couple who are making vows to themselves, rather than to each other. Refers to an attempt by the Womens’ Political Associations to gain equal rights in marriage for women. Other Titles – The Womens Political Associations of New Zealand have petitioned Parliament in favour of ‘Equality of marriage rights’

Captioned:

The Women’s Political Associations of N.Z. (Chch. and Gisborne) have petitioned Parliment in favour of “Equality of Marriage Rights.”

Both – “we do most solemony swear that we will love, honour, and obey ourselves, etc., etc, till the court doth us part. s’elpme.”

New Zealand Graphic and Ladies’ Journal. Izett, A Pattle, fl 1895 :”We do most solemnly swear that we will love, honour and obey ourselves the court doth part, s’elpme” … New Zealand Graphic, 5 January 1895, page 9.. Various artists :Collection of newspaper clippings, photocopies and bromides of cartoons by Fox (A-313-2), T Ellis – ie Thomas Ellis Glover (A-313-3), J. C. Blomfield (A-313-4) and John McNamara (A-313-11). Also folders of cartoons by various artists published in New Zealand Free Lance (A-313-6), in The Guardian (A-313-7), in Xrays (A-313-8), in the New Zealand Observer (A-313-9), in The Standard (A-313-12) and in various publications (A-313-1).. Ref: A-313-1-007. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23081559

The politician’s Hon John MacGregor, Mr Robert McNab and Robert Stout were massive campaigners of the divorce reform of 1898. In addition, women’s organisations such as The National Council of Women, led by president Amey Daldy with support from vice presidents Marion Hatton, Ada Wells and Kate Sheppard, supported the reform of the Act, as it removed the double standard of the current wording of the law. The ‘White Ribbon’, a publication by the ‘Women’s Christian Temperance Union New Zealand’, also expressed support for the Act. The Gisborne Women’s Political Association circulated a petition in 1894 demanding equality in marriage and divorce. The petition demanded parliament “to alter the law of divorce only in as far as to put the husband and. wife on precisely the same footing as to a. dissolution of the marriage tie.”[5] The petition provided support for the divorce reform of 1898 and signalled a strong call for equality.

New Zealand Graphic and Ladies’ Journal. Cartoonist unknown :Very awkward for the cow. New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Home Journal, 25 August 1894 p. 177.. Various artists :Collection of newspaper clippings, photocopies and bromides of cartoons by Fox (A-313-2), T Ellis – ie Thomas Ellis Glover (A-313-3), J. C. Blomfield (A-313-4) and John McNamara (A-313-11). Also folders of cartoons by various artists published in New Zealand Free Lance (A-313-6), in The Guardian (A-313-7), in Xrays (A-313-8), in the New Zealand Observer (A-313-9), in The Standard (A-313-12) and in various publications (A-313-1).. Ref: A-313-5-003. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23110824

A train labelled ‘Divorce Amendment Act’ driven by the New Zealand premier Richard Seddon, is powering down a railway track labelled commonsense. The primate of the New Zealand Anglican church is standing in protest on the line with a cow labelled ‘church opposition’.

Extended Title – In a very well known story of George Stephenson, the father of the locomotive, it is related that on one occasion he was asked by a noble lord, ‘What, Mr Stephenson, would happen to your locomotives if a cow got on the line?’ …with a twinkle in his eye, ‘Well, ma lord, it wud be vara awkward for the cow.’

As with all significant changes, there was also opposition to counter the support. For example, the Anglican Church opposed the Divorce Act. After the Act passed, the Anglican church refused to remarry any divorced person during the lifetime of their previous spouse. The divorce bill was a feature part of the women’s equality movement. It gave women further mobility and equality. The bill reflected growing calls and support for women’s equality and the strength groups such as the ‘national council of women’, the temperance union, and other women’s political organisations.


Emma Lyes
Emma Lyes

I’m Emma, a book-devouring, history-loving feminist who got involved with WHNZ when I was looking for a volunteering opportunity. WHNZ seemed like the perfect fit for me and I loved the idea of being able to research and write about women in New Zealand’s history. Too often history is recorded solely from the point of view of men and I’m proud to be a part of a team that has decided to correct that oversight.

Recommended Further Reading:

Archives New Zealand. “Divorce Laws in New Zealand” Accessed July 17, 2021. https://archives.govt.nz/search-the-archive/researching/research-guides/identity/life-events


Brown, Hayley Marina. 2011. “Loosening the Marriage Bond: Divorce in New Zealand, c.1890s – c.1950s” PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington. https://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/xmlui/handle/10063/1768?show=full


“The New Divorce Law” White Ribbon, October 1, 1898. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/periodicals/WHIRIB18981001.2.8


“EQUALITY OF THE SEXES DEMANDED” Clutha Leader, December 21, 1894. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/CL18941221.2.10

Bibliography:

Archives New Zealand. “Divorce Laws in New Zealand” Accessed July 17, 2021. https://archives.govt.nz/search-the-archive/researching/research-guides/identity/life-events


Benjamin, Ethel R. “THE INEQUALITIES OF THE LAW REGARDING MEN AND WOMEN.” Evening Star, April 30, 1898. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD18980430.2.39.26


Brown, Hayley Marina. 2011. “Loosening the Marriage Bond: Divorce in New Zealand, c.1890s – c.1950s” PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington. https://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/xmlui/handle/10063/1768?show=full


Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 2018. “Women and the vote” Accessed July 17, 2021. https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/womens-suffrage/national-council-of-women


“National Women’s Council” New Zealand Times, April 26, 1898. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZTIM18980426.2.10


“The New Divorce Law” Otago Daily Times, October 13, 1898. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ODT18981013.2.15


“The New Divorce Law” The Press, October 7, 1898. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/CHP18981007.2.17


New Zealand Acts as Enacted. “Divorce Act 1898 (62 VICT 1898 No 42)” Accessed July 17, 2021. http://www.nzlii.org/nz/legis/hist_act/da189862v1898n42167


“The New Divorce Law” White Ribbon, October 1, 1898. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/periodicals/WHIRIB18981001.2.8


“EQUALITY OF THE SEXES DEMANDED” Clutha Leader, December 21, 1894. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/CL18941221.2.10

Reference List:

[1] Brown, Hayley Marina. 2011. “Loosening the Marriage Bond: Divorce in New Zealand, c.1890s – c.1950s” PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington. https://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/xmlui/handle/10063/1768?show=full


[2] “The New Divorce Law” Otago Daily Times, October 13, 1898. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ODT18981013.2.15


[3]  “The New Divorce Law” Otago Daily Times, October 13, 1898. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ODT18981013.2.15


[4] “The New Divorce Law” White Ribbon, October 1, 1898. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/periodicals/WHIRIB18981001.2.8


[5] “EQUALITY OF THE SEXES DEMANDED” Clutha Leader, December 21, 1894. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/CL18941221.2.10

Image Bibliography:

Image 1: “The Proposed Amendments to the Divorce Law. ‘whoso god has joined together let no man put asunder”

New Zealand observer and free lance (Newspaper). Cartoonist unknown :The Proposed Amendments to the Divorce Law. New Zealand Observer and Free Lance, Saturday, 25th August 1894 (page 7). Paperspast https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/TO1894082


Image 2: “For Better, or for Worse”

New Zealand observer and free lance (Newspaper). Cartoonist unknown :For better, or for worse. New Zealand Observer and Free Lance, Saturday, 14 May 1887 (page 8).. Ref: J-065-026. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22826607


Image 3: “The Womens Political Associations of New Zealand have petitioned Parliament in favour of ‘Equality of marriage rights”

New Zealand Graphic and Ladies’ Journal. Izett, A Pattle, fl 1895 :”We do most solemnly swear that we will love, honour and obey ourselvesl the court doth part, s’elpme” … New Zealand Graphic, 5 January 1895, page 9.. Various artists :Collection of newspaper clippings, photocopies and bromides of cartoons by Fox (A-313-2), T Ellis – ie Thomas Ellis Glover (A-313-3), J. C. Blomfield (A-313-4) and John McNamara (A-313-11). Also folders of cartoons by various artists published in New Zealand Free Lance (A-313-6), in The Guardian (A-313-7), in Xrays (A-313-8), in the New Zealand Observer (A-313-9), in The Standard (A-313-12) and in various publications (A-313-1).. Ref: A-313-1-007. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23081559


Image 4: “Divorce Amendment Act”

New Zealand Graphic and Ladies’ Journal. Cartoonist unknown :Very awkward for the cow. New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Home Journal, 25 August 1894 p. 177.. Various artists :Collection of newspaper clippings, photocopies and bromides of cartoons by Fox (A-313-2), T Ellis – ie Thomas Ellis Glover (A-313-3), J. C. Blomfield (A-313-4) and John McNamara (A-313-11). Also folders of cartoons by various artists published in New Zealand Free Lance (A-313-6), in The Guardian (A-313-7), in Xrays (A-313-8), in the New Zealand Observer (A-313-9), in The Standard (A-313-12) and in various publications (A-313-1).. Ref: A-313-5-003. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23110824

Published: December 7th, 2021

Last modified: December 7th, 2021

Cite as: Emma Lyes, “The Divorce Act of 1898 : Equality of marriage rights”, Womens History of New Zealand, Last modified December 2021, https://womenshistorynz.com/the-divorce-act-of-1898–equality-of-marriage-rights/

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