New Haven Divorce Law, 1655

“And if any man marrying a woman fit to bear children, or needing conjugal duty and due benevolence from her husband, it be found (after convenient forbearance and due trial) and satisfyingly proved, that the husband neither at the time of marriage, nor since has been, is nor by the use of any lawful mean, is like to be able to perform or afford the same, upon the wife’s due prosecution, every such marriage shall by the court or magistrates, be declared void.”

When examining the dynamics of the family and how the double standard emerged due those dynamics it is important to understand where it all began. This New Haven Divorce law was written in 1655 and may seem like a liberal idea even for today. Colonel America was talking about sex, it had to be a topic because of the need to produce mass numbers of children in order to keep your farm alive by employing the free labor of your children.  Pleasing your wife was a duty that husbands were required by law to perform. This acceptance of both parties role in marriage creates a more equal dynamic.

This law emerged during what is seen by some as the golden age for women, a time in the 17th century where the male to female ratio gave woman a voice in their family dynamics. There was competition for getting a wife, and women were making economic contributions evidently recognized by their husbands(1). Women were needed for reproduction as large numbers of children were necessary for family economics.

Having mutual responsibility changes the dynamics of marriage. In this period men would agree to not engage in sexual activity with their wives so they would not have to get pregnant again due to the dangers of pregnancy. This is a more equal relationship than we see later on, as the number of children needed decreased it made one of women’s jobs less vital. This lack of necessity is a contributing factor to inequality and the double standard within marriage. Men could now belittle the jobs of women because their work wasn’t making a direct contribution to lessening the man’s labor burden.

Sources: “New Haven Divorce Law” 1655, Week 3 Lines 17-20

  1. Carol Berkin. “Women in Colonial and Revolutionary America”, in Clio In The Classroom: A Guide For Teaching U.S. Women’s History, ed. Carol Berkin et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 12.
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2 thoughts on “New Haven Divorce Law, 1655

  1. Is it important that this is not necessarily over whether or not someone can father children or not? What is the “failing” here? And how might it not be about children at all?

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