Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Loosening the Marriage Bond: Divorce in New Zealand, c.1890s - c.1950s

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posted on 2021-11-11, 20:22 authored by Brown, Hayley Marina

Based on a detailed examination of 2,195 divorce case files generated by applications to the Wellington Supreme Court, the study explores the changing frequency and character of the divorcing population in New Zealand between 1898, when the grounds for divorce were extended under the Divorce Act, until c.1959. The end point is set by access limits to divorce case files, the beginning of Marriage Guidance, and the establishment of a 'normal' pattern of divorce following the postwar spike. The study examines how and why New Zealanders divorced in increasing numbers over the period. In particular, it looks at the increase in divorce during and after the two world wars. The rate peaked in the immediate postwar years and remaining at levels about those pre-1914 and pre-1939.The study also looks at how war contributed to an underlying and on going change in attitudes towards marriage and divorce, not solely attributable to the immediate crisis of enlistment. The study explores the social and cultural factors influencing the decision to divorce including gender, class, religion, and the desire for, or presence of, children. Among other factors, it inquires into the reason why those who divorced in New Zealand were primarily working class, in contrast to their English counterparts, reflecting different class-based perceptions of morality and respectability. It will explore the growing emphasis on sexual pleasure and on women's attainment of social and sexual rights as contributing to the increase in divorce. The public nature of divorce proceedings through this period, with cases being heard in open court and few limits on newspaper reporting, operated as a means of social control and public surveillance. The discussion focuses on how the courts contributed to the construction of definitions of normative behaviour of husbands and wives, judged individuals' abilities to be suitable mothers and fathers and awarded custody of children. The court also adjudicated issues of acceptable and illicit sexual behaviour with gender expectations as part of the considerations. Although those who flouted expected marital norms could risk ostracism or public condemnation, the thesis also shows that this power diminished as divorce became more common. The thesis concludes with an examination of marriage guidance as a public recognition both of the potential for divorce and of the belief that marriages took effort to maintain and that advice and guidance support could help 'unstable' marriages regain stability. In the post-World War II period there was also an acknowledgement that some marriages could not be 'saved' with divorce being the only alternative. Regardless, of such interventions, the changes in attitudes about divorce, made divorce an increasingly acceptable solution to unhappy marriages. Divorce, as this thesis will argue, did not 'break' the marriage bonds but rather, loosened them.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Macdonald, Charlotte; Janiewski, Dolores