Shortly after my third wedding anniversary one year ago, I wrote in the Guardian about the gendered risks associated with my decision not to work while I finished my degree. I had become a de facto housewife, even though I was working toward my career as an economist rather than doing the more traditional housewife work of raising children or supporting a husband.
Ten days after my feminist economic analysis of being a housewife was published, my marriage unexpectedly ended. In the months that followed, I went through the process of divorce and seeking a settlement that would not only support me as I finished my dissertation, but also addressed the inequality in my marriage that was reinforced by traditional gender roles. Going through this process has made it clearer than ever: Women need to move beyond this narrative of a bitchy ex-wife punishing her husband by seeking support and consider that they are owed monetary compensation for the gendered economic effects of marriage and divorce.
The concept of alimony dates back to ancient times and is based on the financial commitment of marriage extending beyond the marriage itself. Although it was originally based on the idea of wives as property of husbands, it can be reimagined as a way to compensate women for the negative economic consequences and unique vulnerability they face in marriage once divorce happens.
It’s no secret that marriage tends to have negative economic consequences for many women, from a marriage pay penalty to the tendency for women to relocate for their husband’s careers more than the other way around (as is the case for academic couples). But these consequences also extend to the aftermath of divorce, where women face negative and prolonged economic consequences. Sociologists Karen Holden and Pamela Smock argue that these negative consequences are only superficially related to the actual divorce event itself. Instead, they’re a result of, as they it put in a co-authored paper, “the division of labor during marriage, lower wages paid to women both during and after marriage, and the lack of adequate post-dissolution transfers.”
In effect, women are hurt by marriage’s gender roles, economic discrimination against women, and a legal system that fails to adequately address either one.
Although the cultural perception of alimony paints women as vengeful bitches bleeding their ex-husbands dry, in actuality the system does not go far enough. This is acknowledged by Holden and Smock; they claim that there are no adequate financial transfers to women after divorce. The system is based on maintaining the ex-wife’s standard of living before divorce, but it does not take into account the broader economic disadvantages associated with marriage for women.
In my own divorce, I sought a settlement because emotionally it was easier to just get it over with rather than keep up ties through alimony or maintenance. Also, alimony and maintenance would be only temporary until I could support myself, yet requires more work to go through in the legal system.
But this process did not take into account that my relationship had shaped where I went to grad school and my decision to stop working while I finished my dissertation. It also didn’t take into account the ways in which gender influenced those decisions. Men are less likely to take time away from their careers compared to women, which may explain why he was unwilling to follow my career. (Although the difference in labor force attachment between men and women is declining, it still maintains women’s labor force participation at a lower rate than men’s.)
My decision to leave the labor force was easier to do as a woman. Since it’s so much more common, I didn’t get much judgment from others, and I didn’t feel as much pressure to be a breadwinner as he did.
The primary lesson I learned from all this is that no matter what, a woman—even a feminist economist—loses financial stability when she leaves the labor force. No one plans to get divorced, but it happens; a single earner could also lose their job, unexpectedly die or suddenly get sick. But this is why we need to rethink divorce by acknowledging how gender structures shape marriage. Women shouldn’t shy away from bargaining hard for fair support. To do so doesn’t make a person a freeloader—just a person who recognizes structural sexism.
Kate Bahn is the co-editor of the blog Lady Economist and has a PhD in Economics at the New School for Social Research. She has also worked as a researcher for the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. Her research and writing focuses on the role of gender in the labor market in the United States.