Theresa Iker ’14

by Robert Bradford

Theresa Iker with Professor Matt Delmont

Project: Gals Getting “Reno-vate”: Gender and the Reno Quickie Divorce Industry
Major: History
Grant: Mellon Undergraduate Research Grant
Faculty Sponsor: Matthew Delmont, associate professor of American studies, co-coordinator, intercollegiate program for American studies

In a small house on the outskirts of Scottsdale, Arizona, Theresa Iker ’14 sat in a room with 88-year-old Marilu Norden and learned firsthand about a unique chapter in American history.

Norden recalled her experiences at one of the divorce ranches in Reno, Nevada, in the 1950s. While divorce during most of the 20th century in America was a long, painstaking process that could take years, Reno offered a much quicker path. Before 1931, anyone could become a Nevada citizen and divorce within the state after six months of residency; after 1931, couples could have a divorce finalized in a mere six weeks. Reno soon became the divorce capital of America.

But Iker learned couples rarely came to the ranches—the vast majority was women, alone and occasionally with children, who took up residence at a ranch while their soon-to-be ex-husbands worked in the suburbs of New York or San Francisco. These ranches, Norden explained to Iker, became at once places of sadness, camaraderie, and transformation, and the experience of interviewing some of the women who lived on the divorce ranches had a profound effect on Iker.

“You see them laugh and cry. You become a much more empathetic historian—it’s a deep human connection,” Iker says.

Iker’s journey to Reno last summer was made possible in large part by Matthew Delmont, associate professor of American studies at Scripps. Iker had taken several courses with Delmont, and she was interested in studying the patterns of divorce as a cultural phenomenon.

“I had always been drawn to divorce and families, but I had a bunch of ideas that were somewhat unfocused,” Iker says.

“I encouraged Theresa to look at different kinds of evidence and primary sources to guide her,” says Delmont. “She came upon some oral histories on divorce and the ranches in Reno.”

From there, the research project took off. Bolstered by Delmont’s encouragement and the initial oral histories she read about Reno, Iker applied for and received a Mellon Foundation research grant to travel to Reno and collect her own oral histories. At the end of the summer, with a great deal of work completed, she contacted an editor at the Huffington Post in Los Angeles to talk about what she learned and see if she could get a story published. The editor was initially reluctant, Iker recalls, but told her to submit something and see what would happen. It caught the editor’s attention, and her piece on “Reno-vating” was published in August 2013.

“Stories like Norden’s remind us divorce is not a recent social crisis, and perhaps it isn’t even a crisis at all,” Iker concluded in her Huffington Post essay. “Nostalgia for the good old days, when families stayed together and marriages lasted, doesn’t quite fit with the reality of the thousands of women who got divorced Reno-style. Among them were women like Norden, who lost their husbands but found themselves along the way.”

Delmont says that at the end of her project, Iker will know as much about the divorce ranches in Reno as any scholar in the country. “That’s why oral histories are so valuable—you get to live in the moment and in the past with people,” says Delmont. “It’s so unusual for undergraduates to have these experiences; Theresa has done an amazing job on the project.”

For Iker, Delmont provided important support as she ventured to Reno to conduct her interviews. She was uncertain at times, going to remote places to talk to older women she didn’t know. “Professor Delmont was always just a Skype call away,” Iker says. “We would talk about the approach and questions, and he lifted my confidence.”

After conducting her interviews, Iker spent a week visiting the Nevada Historical Society in Reno, the Nevada State Library and Archive in Carson City, and the University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections. She says she made many important—and sometimes surprising—discoveries at these archives as she scoured through personal correspondence from divorcées to divorce ranch owners; correspondence from Nevadans to governors; business correspondence of divorce attorneys; photographs; petitions regarding the residency requirement; and fragments of diaries of divorcées.

After she graduates from Scripps, Iker plans eventually to attend graduate school to pursue her interest in history. However, she wants to work in politics or journalism for a few years to continue experiencing firsthand the complexities of American culture.

The time she spent interviewing women in Reno will stay with Iker for the rest of her life. She recalls the quiet power and strength of Norden as she confronted the reality of life at the ranch: “I think it was very helpful to me,” Norden told Iker on that hot summer day. “I knew I was on my own. I had to do something.”