Ilyon Woo's 'The Great Divorce: A 19th-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight'

By Elaine Showalter
Sunday, August 22, 2010


A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times

By Ilyon Woo

Atlantic Monthly. 404 pp. $25

The title of historian Ilyon Woo's provocative book certainly sparks curiosity and debate. Which of our many American divorces merits the epithet "great"? In this case, it's the legislative decree won in New York by Eunice Chapman in 1818, a victory for maternal custody rights in an era when children legally belonged to their fathers. And what about the challenging subtitle? Woo vividly tells the story of the Chapman's broken family, beginning with a dramatic sentence worthy of Stephen King: "Five years after the children first disappeared, it had come to this: a hundred strangers circling the Shaker village, torches lit." It sounds like the villagers marching on Dracula's castle, or the Texas rangers laying siege to the Mormon fundamentalist compound in 2008. In their 19th-century heyday, the Shakers, now nearly extinct and benevolent curators of quaint museums and expensive furniture, were a flourishing radical sect that lived communally, prayed vigorously, saw carnal love as the cause of sin and demanded celibacy from their followers. But they were neither predators nor polygamists. So why did Eunice Chapman have to fight them?

The full story of the Chapman divorce is more controversial than sensational. In 1804, poor and desperately afraid of becoming a spinster, 26-year-old Eunice Hawley married James Chapman, a widower 15 years older whom she found "disagreeable, and repulsive." They had three children, but he turned out to be an alcoholic, a philanderer and a failure. In 1811, James decided to strike out for a new life on his own, selling their home in Durham, N.Y., and abandoning the family. With the help of her relatives and the Presbyterian church, Eunice managed to find shelter and support her children.

By 1812, however, James had a religious conversion and decided to join a Shaker community in nearby Watervliet, which offered to cleanse him of his sins, give him a home and financial security, and bestow "a sense of acceptance and a reason to live." In exchange, he entered a period of probation during which he promised to settle his affairs, make amends to his wife and children, and, if possible, bring them all into the Shaker fold. But Eunice refused. Although the Shaker community was prosperous and immaculate, she did not like their way of life or attitudes about sexuality, maternity and chastity. Eunice hoped to force James to provide child support. Instead, he forcibly abducted the children -- George, 10; Susan, 8; and Julia, 4 -- and took them to Watervliet, where the Shakers took them in.

In a few states, abandoned spouses of Shaker converts could sue for divorce and claim property rights. But in New York, where divorce was granted only on the grounds of adultery, Eunice had to obtain a special legislative act of relief, approved by both houses in Albany and ratified by a higher Council of Revision. She took four years to achieve her purpose, despite exhausting delays, reversals, vetoes and retrials. The divorce, however, did not give her custody rights to the children, who had been secretly moved to another Shaker community; she had to locate and reclaim them by "collecting my forces for a new invasion," using moral and media pressure to obtain their release. By the time she had achieved her goal, the children were "bona fide Believers" who had to be deprogrammed and reconciled to life in the sinful world.

Eunice's triumphant battle, Woo concludes, has continuing resonance both internationally and in the Unites States, where "the competing issues of custody, marital, religious, and state rights persist." But the story Woo tells in nuanced and absorbing detail is far more ethically complex. Eunice's special divorce and custody act was an exceptional case that had little effect on divorce law overall. New York law was not revised until the 1960s. Moreover, the children's rights, needs and preferences were completely ignored by all. Most important. Eunice's tactics left their legacy in American politics, too. She used her personal charm to conduct an anti-Shaker smear campaign, falsely accusing them of child abuse and covert sexual practices, depicting them as "evil captors" rather than generous protectors, threatening them with arson and mob violence and exploiting American anti-sect emotions in the media. Woo calls this divorce "great" because it was accomplished against overwhelming odds, by a mother with fervent belief in her maternal rights. But it is hard to say whether the victory was also unbiased and honorable, let alone exemplary.

Elaine Showalter is a professor emeritus of English at Princeton University and the author of "A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx."

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