Tighsolas Homepage: about a Canadian Family in 1910
What the Montreal Council did in 1912
More Social Problems of 1910 era Montreal
The Montreal Council of Women on
Adultery and the Social Evil
In 1909, The Montreal Council of Women was made up of 36 societies, representing many thousands of women. I got a hold of some archival material, preserved in the gorgeous Bibliotheque Nationale archives on Viger across from the old Viger Station. Four boxes and about 20 file folders didn't hold much about the 1910 era, but what they did hold was very interesting.
In 1909 the Moral and Social Reform Council of Canada was pushing for legislation to make co-habitation out of wedlock illegal. They lobbied the Montreal Council of Women (in a letter to Carrie Derick). Their Resolution was entitled "Adultery and the Social Evil." <Whereas we have learned that adultery and living together as husband and wife when not married is not unlawful in Canada; Whereas many Canadians and persons from other countries are availing themselves of the license afforded by the present lax state of things; whereas the sanctity of marriage, the purity and peace of the home, the virtue of the nation are seriously imperiled and the traffic in women made more easy; Therefore we humbly pray your Honorable Body to Amend the Criminal Code, without delay to protect Canadian society and its morals against this grave peril.> Carrie Derick and the Montreal Council of Women dealt with them thoughtfully and skeptically. I couldn't help but be impressed by the measured response of the MCW to the Moral and Reform League.
The Council and famous first President Grace Julia Parker Drummond sought outside opinionů "Dear Lady Drummond," wrote an advisor: "Any law such as proposed is ridiculous on the face of it: A law should apply to all alike, not particular offenders who may be selected as scapegoats by a self-constituted committee. It seems to me that a cure for the evil is found in other countries by making cohabitation for any given length of time constitute a legal marriage. Any man living with another woman for such a time would be ipso facto committing bigamy, for which there is a penalty."
The Council assumed that this law was aimed at immigrants --so it was unfair. "The Moral and Social Reform Council of Canada speaks of the prevalence of immorality among immigrants and the tremendous risk of allowing such pollution as the very source of our population... Environment is more a tangible factor," the Council wrote. "Will it not require the united efforts of all, Church, social organizations but above all, the schools to cope with the masses of all creeds, entering in Canada. If the law could erect a barricade to stave off the grossest elements of the Tide of Immigration, if such a goal is asked for in this petition, would it purify the whole social fabric? Is this the remedy? Has the result of work in the direction of this city been thus to warrant this conclusion?" YOU CANNOT MAKE PEOPLE GOOD BY PARLIAMENT. The Council did want to protect children born out of wedlock by making the fathers pay for their upkeep up until age 16. They also sought to give married women priority in custody disputes upon divorce. Divorce could only be decreed by an act of Parliament apparently. They also wanted fathers held as accessories after the fact, if a women killed her illegitimate child. (Ah, the good ole days :)
The Council also wanted to protect women from falling into prostitution, by raising the age of consent to 18 (couldn't be done) and by increasing penalties and not letting pimps get off with mere fines. They wanted procurers whipped, actually. They wanted compulsory education for girls up to age 14: "The question arises, what are girls who leave school at 9 or 10 doing, as they are not permitted in factories. Are they serving as inefficient nursemaids or little domestic drudges. Are they at home, helping overworked mother, or are they acting like little mothers themselves, taking care of children as their mother is out working to help earn the daily bread?
The Council also gave a nod to the new immigrant wife out West by saying "It is desirable to protect the wives of settlers on uncultivated lands who have faced the hardship of such a life in the hope of creating a home which might later reap benefits. The value of every homestead in many cases is due as largely to the thrift and industry of the wife as the enterprise of the husband. It is unjust that the husband has the right to dispose of it without her consent."
Lady Drummond enquires about Canada's Divorce Laws: It seems to me from reading this correspondence that most couples 'living in sin' at the time involved at least one person married to someone else (adultery) and not young singles 'on a trial marriage' so to speak, (co-habitation.)
A letter to Lady Drummond 1909 shows she asked about the divorce laws of the period likely in response to the proposed legislation of the Moral and Social Reform Council: "Dear Lady Drummond, Your understanding of the law as it stands today is quite correct. The infidelity of either consort is considered by the senate as sufficient grounds for a divorce. (Divorce could only be granted by an Act of Parliament.) In the case of separation from bed and board, the law makes a distinction between the husband and the wife. The latter can't affect a decree unless the offence has been committed in the conjugal domicile, or unless the husband's delinquencies are so public and flagrant as to amount to a grievous outrage. The Council decided that morality cannot be legislated and that many people consider 'the breach of the 7th commandment a personal matter." They thought that 'to place marital infidelity on the criminal list is to preclude the power of forgiveness.'
So, in 1912, a woman could petition for divorce on the grounds of infidelity, but she couldn't get a legal separation, unless her husband flaunted his affair. I wonder why?