History 248 Reading Guide

Strains in Middle-Class Family Life in the Late Nineteenth Century

  • Robert Griswold, “Divorce and Legal Redefinition of Victorian Manhood,” in Mark Carnes, ed., Meanings for Manhood (1990), 96-110.  (e-reserve)
  • Lawrence M. Lipin, “Burying the ‘Destroyer of One Happy Home’:  Manhood, Industrial Authority, and Political Alliance Building in the Murder Trial of Ira Strunk,” Journal of Social History 28.4 (1995), 783-800.  JSTOR


  • What can studies of dysfunctional marriages and “irreparable tensions” within marriage show us about the changing definitions of manhood and womanhood in Victorian America, about changes in “patriarchy,” about changing expectations about “family life”—and about the difficulties of meeting those new expectations?
  • According to Griswold, what role did the legal system play in redefining manhood and womanhood in the late nineteenth century?  What values—or “new cultural boundaries”—was the state trying to uphold or assert in divorce court cases?  What were the legal consequences of those redefinitions, for men, for women, and for families?
  • Lipin’s case study offers a sensational 1885 story about the convergence of gender tensions and class tensions.  What did the “sanctity of the home” mean in this court case?
  • What kinds of changes in American society set the stage for the divorce court cases and the murder trial in the latter years of the nineteenth century?