About 20 years ago, a legal historian named James Snell wrote a study called Marital Cruelty: Women and the Nova Scotia Divorce Court, 1900–1939. Today it’s relatively easy to get a divorce and this look back at a time when laws were written by men and for men, with women as an afterthought at best, offers a shocking contrast.

Prior to 1867, no province other than Nova Scotia had adopted cruelty as a ground for divorce. In all other jurisdictions, adultery was the sole grounds used. And even in Nova Scotia, abuse and cruelty were rarely successful grounds for a divorce. Not until the government reformed divorce law in 1968 did cruelty become an acceptable reason for most Canadians to seek a divorce.

In Nova Scotia legal history, there are two notorious cases that contributed to the change. In both cases, there were allegations of abuse and adultery. Lawyers focused on the adultery because courts generally weren’t interested in, or prepared to deal with, abuse.  

The first example of this is the story of Dorothy Lawson, who married a widower with two children in 1899. Soon after their marriage, he began a pattern of devastating mental and physical abuse. She reported being dragged across the room, her face smashed into a door post. In this environment of “threatening, abusive, slanderous, and obscene language,” she asked for a divorce in 1902.

She tried to have her solicitor to use explicit examples of the terrible abuse but he refused, telling her this probably would not meet the legal tests of the times. (And sadly, he was likely right.) To get the divorce, she had to amend her petition to include an allegation of adultery. Then the judge granted a divorce, without citing the abuse at all.

Betty Mulholland was another victim of those laws. In 1894, she married a man much older than her. He violently assaulted her multiple times, trying to drown her once and pulling a gun on her in another instance.

She left him in 1900 and petitioned for a divorce in 1906. Her case is remarkable because the judge actually expressed concern over the abuse she endured. “I think he was of a cruel nature. He was violent tempered and used abuse and threatening language to her. And, as she as she was only 14 years old  when she married him, this fear of him is not to be wondered at.”

But even after that, the judge only awarded a “judicial separation,” not the divorce she sought.

Today it’s far easier to leave an abusive marriage, yet it’s important to consider how far we’ve come and how such abuse continues in Nova Scotia.

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