The 1950s are heralded as a time of the perfect American family – when men were men and women were women, when mothers stayed home with the children and parents didn’t divorce. But alas gentle Americans – Leave it to Beaver was not a documentary. Many unhappy couples simply didn’t get divorced due to societal pressure, and very few women could afford a divorce and often times women were denied or forced to jump through a series of hoops over months.
This is a fascinating feature story from NPR on a group of Nevada women in the 1950s and 60s who, when denied for a divorce, stayed at the “divorce ranch” to declare residency. It’s a little complicated. Here are the fascinating points about this story:
1) This story reveals a hidden female world of women working together to overturn the patriarchy.
2) It challenges our nostalgia for the myth of the perfect 1950s America: divorce, adultery, and unhappy marriages
Here are portions of the article “Sisters Tell Tales From the ‘Divorce Ranch'” from NPR. Listen to the story or read it in its entirety here.
Beth Ward and her sister, Robbie McBride, grew up on what was known as a “divorce ranch” in Reno. Women who were denied the right to divorce could live in these hotels to establish residency, then file for divorce in a Nevada court.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Ward and McBride lived on their family’s Whitney Ranch, whose customers were mainly women from New York and New Jersey who had headed West for what was known as “the Reno cure.” Nevada had passed a law in 1931 that made it the quickest state in which to get a divorce — just six weeks, the time to establish residency.
“At the end of their six weeks, mother would go to court with them and testify that they’d been a resident at the ranch and she had seen them every day,” says Robbie McBride.
And as Ward remembers, it was a duty that their mother took seriously.
“Many of them said, ‘Well, you can just testify that I was here the last two weeks,'” she says. “But she’d say, ‘Oh no. Oh no.'”
“Mother liked to have things nice and smooth, and no fussing and fuming,” McBride says.
“…most of the people who came there, they wanted a divorce, so it wasn’t an unhappy time for them,” Ward says. “They just thought it was great that there was someplace they could come to get one.”
And as for life after divorce, McBride says, “An awful lot of them had plans for after their six weeks.”
Some of the women even brought along the people they were making those plans with: men who were often referred to as cousins.
“They had somebody in the other room, waiting to walk down the aisle with,” Ward says. “And six weeks later, of course, they were married.”