In 1935, Time magazine ran an article titled “Maniacal Wives.” It actually focused on ex-wives, who were allegedly bleeding their former spouses dry out of a mix of greed and vindictiveness. According to the author, 69 percent of the ex-wives he studied were “suffering from psychoses bordering on sadism.”
Spend a few minutes trolling through the blog posts of New Jersey divorce-reform activists, and you might conclude that vengeful women are still taking hapless men to the cleaners. The problem with this idea is that it’s not true. As in earlier eras, such claims speak to an animus against women — especially those in the workforce — rather than to the realities of gender and marriage in the United States.
The divorce controversy in New Jersey centers on permanent or “lifetime” alimony, which reformers want to eliminate. Massachusetts changed its laws to end lifetime alimony last year, tying payments to the length of a couple’s marriage and the finances of each ex-spouse. Florida’s Legislature is considering a similar measure, and activists in at least five other states are pressing for comparable reforms.
In New Jersey, lawmakers are considering a bill to establish a blue-ribbon commission on divorce to “bring New Jersey into the 21st century” on the issue, as the measure’s supporters put it. Lifetime alimony is a relic of a bygone era, they claim, when few women worked outside the home. Now that women are gaining parity in the labor force, the argument goes, they should support themselves instead of relying on their ex-husbands.
Let’s leave aside the matter of gender equality in the modern workplace, where women still earn less than men on average. The big surges in American divorce and alimony have occurred at times when women were entering the labor force, not leaving it.
During World War I and the early 1920s, the nation witnessed sharp increases in female employment as well as divorce. “The woman with the wage envelope has broken the lock from wedlock,” one New York writer quipped.
Between 1900 and 1922, the share of divorces granted with alimony nearly doubled. Alimony recipients became favorite targets of angry exposés, especially as the prosperity of the ’20s gave way to depression in the ’30s. Newspapers depicted men languishing in “alimony jails” while their ex-wives lived high on the hog.
In the 1960s, women’s workforce participation as well as divorce spiked again, and similar charges crowded the national media. To one commentator, alimony was a “medieval hangover which robs men, turns women into drones, promotes greed and damages innocent lives.” Another writer called it “licensed extortion practiced by women too lazy to earn their own living.”
Second wives got in on the act, too, annoyed by their husbands’ payments to former spouses. “Send us $1 to help get your ex-wife a job. Or a husband,” declared a fund-raising pitch by a group called The Other Woman Ltd. An accompanying cartoon showed an ex-wife eating chocolates in front of the television, the very picture of decadence.
Listen closely and you’ll hear echoes of these complaints in the contemporary divorce-reform movement. In New Jersey and Florida, activists have spotlighted men who are suffering from dementia and still have to provide alimony to able-bodied ex-wives. Another common story has men bankrupted or even imprisoned for failure to pay up.
It’s easy to forget that only 15 percent of divorces involve alimony at all, and that most of the sums involved are small. For the past century, however, the big cases have drawn all the ink. “Almost daily one reads that this socialite got a multi-million-dollar property settlement and that movie star is asking for several thousand a month alimony,” wrote a Los Angeles official in 1957, when alimony awards in the city were an average of $35 a month. One observer noted that such sensationalist journalism “produces the American myth of the ‘bleeding’ husband and the successful peroxide blond who can now vacation in Miami.”
Today, about 95 percent of alimony recipients are female. So alimony can conjure our worst stereotypes about gold-digging women who supposedly use their beauty to ensnare wealthy husbands — and their lawyers to bilk them afterward.
Are some alimony awards unfair? Of course. Judges typically have enormous discretion to set alimony amounts, which can yield hugely inconsistent results. In a recent survey of Ohio judges who were asked how much alimony a housewife divorcing a doctor should receive, the answers ranged from $5,000 a year to $175,000.
That’s why states such as Pennsylvania and New York have established mathematical formulas to calculate alimony. If New Jersey creates a divorce commission, I hope it follows their lead.
But I also hope the commission lays to rest the misogynist myth of avaricious women robbing their beleaguered exes blind. Then we can see our way to a better future.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a historian with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and teaches history and education at New York University. He lives in Narberth. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).
This essay was originally published on Philly.com.