Sunday, September 4, 2011

"Those Alimony Grabbers" - 1925

By PROF. E. R. GROVES, Of Boston University

FULL TEXT: IN getting equal rights with men American women are losing their special privileges. Many a working woman who returns from her labor at night and finds herself standing up in the street car while men sit wonders whether her present equal rights are worth as much to her as the courtesies she once received.

Even a woman cannot eat her cake and still have it. As she approaches closer to the status of equal opportunity, the American woman is discovering that her new position carries with it unexpected liabilities.

Nothing that has happened in recent years has shown that the new order of things, means losses as well as gains for the woman so clearly as the recent decision of Judge Strong of the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court with reference to alimony.

A woman’s right to financial support from her husband when she has successfully divorced him has been taken for granted so long that we have assumed its justice as a matter of course. Alimony in the first place was an attempt to give protection to the woman who left her husband and under the handicap of her sex tried to make her own way in the world. In those days when matrimony was the only vocation for women it seemed fair that the woman driven from her husband’s protection by his misdeeds should receive from him maintenance in proportion to his income as a substitute for the support which he promised her at marriage and which she was now losing through no fault of her own.

Since those days women have gone into competition with man in every kind of industry and matrimony is no longer entered upon by them as a means of support. We have countless women in. this country who can earn more than their husbands. It is even true at times that a wife can find employment when her husband cannot.

Judge Strong’s decision recognizing the new situation, according to the press reports, was expressed in no uncertain terms. “Everything considered, he said, “I believe alimony should be discontinued because it keeps certain women lazy, gratifies their revenge, makes men miserable and serves no good ends.”

Now we have Judge H. Taulane, of Philadelphia, following the lead of his New York colleague and making a decision that brings, consternation to the professional divorce lawyer. In the case before Judge Taulane the husband was accused of contempt of court for not complying with an order made last November that he pay to his wife $35 Counsel fees in her divorce suit against him and also $6 a week alimony pending the outcome of the case.

Judge Taulane in discharging the husband stated that he believed “that when a woman has been separated from her husband for ten years, as this woman has, and then concludes to sue for divorce, she is not entitled to alimony while her action is pending, regardless of what her allegations may be. It would seem as though she wanted to create a fund to pay the expenses of her suit.”

Alimony has so long been the practice of our courts that these decisions which attempt to do justice to the new relationship of men and women are almost revolutionary. The idea that a woman has a just claim upon her former husband for continued support in the case of a divorce came slowly. Is it to go quickly as a result of the modern changes in the status of men and women?

By the savages women were regarded as merely the property of their husbands and their future maintenance got little consideration from their former masters when they were driven forth. When a husband among the Ibos of Nigeria decides to divorce his wife, he simply orders her to leave the house or pushes her out, throws her a cooking pot and a few of her personal belongings. Leaving her children, who have always been the property of their father, she departs with her basket containing her cooking pot and her few household articles to live as best she can.

She is thrown aside like a worn out coat. If, however, she should find any other man willing to marry her, her original husband immediately demands full dowry money for her from the new candidate for matrimony. Alimony originated to protect women from the cruelty of being divorced at the whim of the husband and being left helpless without means either of protection or support.

The ancient Arabs in their provisions for divorce recognized the need of alimony for the woman and decreed that maintenance should be given “by the wealthy according to his power, and the straitened in circumstances according to his power.”

If a Babylonian “put away” his childless wife he had to make good to her. The dowry she had brought him and give her a sum of money equal to her marriage settlement; if there were children the divorced wife received also the income of the husband’s field, garden and goods to enable her to bring up the children until they were full grown, when the father would give them property, part of which they must give to their mother, who might remarry.

In the early history of the American colonies it was so difficult for either man or wife to be self-supporting without the help of the other that couples who separated were sometimes publicly commanded to take up again then: life together, lest either of them become a burden on the community. Often the man was ordered to live with his wife or else give her a definite sum of money, or a certain number of. pounds of tobacco, or bushels of corn and wheat per year for her maintenance.

In 1699, one Southern husband-was required to give his wife furniture and clothing and something toward her yearly support, because of her complaint that he was so “cross and cruel” that she must have a home of her own where she would be “secure from danger.” Colonies not permitting divorce frequently granted alimony, lest the deserted wife become a public charge.

The allowance of insufficient alimony of failure to enforce the decreed provision was criticized by New Englanders in the middle of the last century as provocative of a marriage system more unlicensed than that of Oriental countries. It was pointed out that whereas in those countries no man may have more wives than he can support, “we relieve our polygamists of the necessity of supporting more than one wife at a time.”

It was asserted that men who did not want a second wife sometimes got a divorce simply in order to cut down their expenses, the payment of a slender alimony being far cheaper than the continued support of wife and children.

So long as women were social dependents with no means of support except wifehood, alimony was not only just but a public necessity. No woman, however cruelly treated, would attempt to get a divorce if this left her socially stranded, a candidate for the almshouse. Without the possibility of alimony the right of divorce was a mere farce.

Now that women compete with men in almost every field, why should a wife who has no children and is perfectly capable of earning a living when she gets a divorce ask the court to order her husband to support her for the rest of her life?

In such cases must we not consider alimony a punishment to be inflicted upon men whose marriage ventures prove unsuccessful – a sort of matrimonial fine?

If alimony is to be a means of penalizing the man whose wedded life goes bad has turned a legal provision for the protection of once defenseless women into a means of getting even, and t h u s the court instead administering justice is made the tool of a woman’s spite.

If the prospects of alimony were ruled out the professional divorce lawyer, would often be less keen in urging a divorce, knowing that even were the decree granted it would not be followed by a series of payments to the wife, a substantial part of which he could expect to fall eventually into his own hands in the form of fees charged for his services.

Anything that decreases the profit of divorce, either for the woman whose only concern is to salt down a goodly  pile of the wherewithal for her parasitic life, or for the lawyer who skillfully steers her through the legal obstacles in the way of her purposes, will tend to discourage the adventuress in matrimony and the lawyer who is in the business of handling this form of legal shoddy.

Will the refusal of the court to give alimony to divorced women who have no children and are capable of earning their own living tend to discourage marriage?

Surely not, for the only women likely to be influenced by the new attitude of the court will be those willing to gamble in matrimony with the expectation that their marriage failure can be so highly capitalized as to make it possible for them to spend the rest of their lives in comfort without having to work or to shoulder any responsibilities incident to marriage.

For those who do not seek marriage on a purely commercial basis it will react as a safeguard and lessen the stigma of unavoidable divorce.

[E. R. Groves, “Those Alimony Grabbers: Professor Groves Explains What Women Will Lose and Gain If a Stop is Put to the Widespread Practice of Making Divorce a Highly Profitable Business,” syndicated (Johnson Features), The Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Ut.),  Nov. 22, 1925, Magazine Section, p. 2]


For more revelations of this suppressed history, see The Alimony Racket: Checklist of Posts


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