I posted two of my previous "reflection papers" for MacKinnon's Sex Equality class here ("Am I a Woman?") and here ("Reflecting on My Marriage"). This is a third paper in the same series. It raises issues that have nagged at my brain for sometime now. I am not entirely happy with this paper from several perspectives. Primarily, it does not resolve the tension that exists, at least in my own mind, between what I perceive as society's failure to achieve equality between the sexes and an individual's role in that. Perhaps that is too much to ask for so short a paper -- or from someone so intimately involved in the situation. Although this paper is very personal to me, I invite you to read it and think about the issues it raises. We have a problem in this society. Women are undervalued in many regards -- and there is a clear connection between divorce and poverty in women. What role do individual husbands play in correcting that imbalance? Is there a better solution? Ms. MacKinnon argues that, on the whole, there is an inherent sex inequality at play here (and, clearly, there is). What remedy? Does the 14th Amendment have a role? Alimony -- through court order -- is arguably state action.
[UPDATE] - Interesting, related article here (Tampa man upset that he has to pay alimony to his ex-wife who has transitioned to being a man).
"There can be no question that the biggest engine toward the impoverishment of women is marriage and raising a family." -- Catharine A. MacKinnon - 9/13/06
When I was 21, I married a bright young woman, Sarah, 23. Sarah already had a Master’s degree and a year of work experience; I was a high school drop-out, just out of the Navy. She had very definite ideas about the relationship between the sexes -- which I shared -- neither of us would be subordinate to the other. This was in 1976, and the women’s movement was finally beginning to gain traction.
From the outset we shared everything. We had joint checking accounts; our cars and our homes were titled jointly. We both changed our last names to a common, hyphenated name. After six years of marriage (during which time we both worked full-time and I also went to college), we decided to have children. Sarah’s plan had initially been to take a maternity leave only and return to her career. Prior to the arrival of our first child, however, she approached me with a new idea. She wanted to be a “stay-at-home” mom, and she wanted to home school our children. Although this would be a dramatic change in our roles toward the “Cleaver” model we had earlier rejected (as well as a complete shift of the financial burden of supporting the family onto my shoulders), I agreed. This was what she wanted and I wanted to give it to her. Moreover, I was raised in a culture that said this was what men did. I was trying to live as a man at the time and it seemed, therefore, that it was my role to assume.
Ten years and three children later, and despite 17 years of harmonious marriage, we separated. It was entirely her decision to separate, for a number of reasons not relevant to this paper. It was then I began to realize the true cost to me of Sarah’s choice to stay at home -- my children and I had not developed the intimate bond that comes from daily care, as I instead worked long hours to provide the financial resources for my family. There was no question that they would continue to live with (and be raised by) their mother, and life for them was practically unchanged. I was on the outside looking in.
 Now, more than a dozen years after our divorce, and with our children all grown, I see even more clearly this trade-off as marginalizing me (and possibly other “bread-winning” fathers) in the lives of the children.
After our separation, Sarah returned to school to refresh her education, and rejoined the workforce. Before our divorce became final, she was re-employed as a schoolteacher earning approximately $38,000 per year, as compared with my $75,000 per year salary. I did not contest her desire for primary residential custody of our children and willingly paid the statutory child support payments (approximately $15,000 per year, in after-tax dollars). This left us with approximately the same after-tax income. But it was clear to us both that she had a greater burden, with the children living with her. We therefore agreed that I would pay an additional $6,000 per year to her in alimony until the children were emancipated. However, she changed lawyers and her new lawyer threatened me with termination of my parental rights if I did not agree to a dramatic increase in alimony – to permanent payments of $15,000 per year (unless Sarah were to remarry, or one of us should die). The real risk of losing that which I cherished the most was more than I could stand, so I agreed to the terms. This put Sarah’s disposable income at a much higher level than my own at the time, and tied our economic futures together indefinitely.
Sarah expressed to me that she felt she was “entitled” to this higher, permanent payment. I can only guess at her reasons. I suspect she may have felt that, because of our divorce, her lifestyle would not improve along with my career earnings, as she had hoped and planned, and her own earnings would be relatively stagnant. However, I, personally, had little or even nothing to do with Sarah’s choice of career and attendant earnings opportunity. Sarah arguably had a “male biography.” She was a gifted, intelligent woman raised as an only child in a middle-class family to parents able to put her through college to pursue a career of her choosing. Nevertheless, perhaps for ingrained cultural reasons unknown even to her, or perhaps simply because she had a desire to make a difference in people’s lives, she chose a career that was dominated by women – elementary education – and therefore historically underpaid as compared to those professions historically dominated by men. Moreover, it was her choice to stay at home to raise and school the children, further diminishing her economic opportunities, in exchange for the emotional rewards she derived therefrom.
Nevertheless, I was a participant in this arrangement, and (at that time) a member of the dominant class. To what extent, then, do I bear responsibility for her post-divorce economic well-being, and for how long? At the societal level, is alimony helpful or hurtful to the goal of sex equality?
On one hand, a woman who assumes the role of “homemaker” -- and especially if she bears children -- front-loads her investment into the marriage partnership. She forsakes her earnings opportunity during the years when they are in the important formative stages. Alimony addresses the economic consequences of the resulting impaired earnings ability, and rightly so. Although it is the choices made before and during marriage that create the economic dependence of women that is the root of post-divorce poverty, the husband must “step up” to bear the responsibility of the inequality until society itself does so.
On the other hand, permanent alimony (as distinguished from temporary alimony) perpetuates the stereotype of woman as helpmate, dependent, inferior. The clause that terminates alimony on the basis of remarriage is especially egregious in that regard. Underlying the whole concept of alimony is, in this line of reasoning, the idea of woman as property. The former owner is obligated for maintenance until a new owner takes over. Further, it could be argued that permanent alimony creates or perpetuates a feeling of dependence and inferiority in a woman who might otherwise benefit from being able to “stand on her own two feet.”
What is the right balance between breaking a cycle (and psychology) of dependence that is fostered by permanent alimony, and addressing the feminization of poverty resulting from women’s traditional role in marriage and the disparate treatment of women in society? Perhaps each case must be judged on its own, and in mine – while I have mixed feelings about it – I think the balance tipped too far toward dependence and undermined the goal of equality that the marriage itself was originally intended to achieve.
 Often, women bear the brunt of working two jobs – the job that she gets paid for (assuming she is even able to work, given the responsibilities of child-rearing and the costs of day-care), and her job at home doing the majority of the “house” work and child care. This second job detracts from the first, both in terms of the available jobs that have sufficient flexibility to accommodate parental responsibilities, and the limited time and energy the woman can devote towards “moving up”, i.e., the “mommy track.” This has significant long-term impact on women’s earnings.