New York comes to its senses

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, June 17, 2010 22:03 EDT
google plus icon
  • Print Friendly and PDF
  • Email this page

It’s important not to listen to Marcia Pappas about anything—her version of feminism doesn’t resemble our Earth’s version. She, for instance, suggested that Barack Obama was basically a rapist because he campaigned against Hillary Clinton. Not an authority, but sadly, treated like one in the press, because she heads up New York NOW. And therefore, creates these awful situations where people get the mistaken impression that at least some feminists are saying X, when usually it’s just Marcia Pappas.

Latest example is this whole thing with New York becoming a no-fault divorce state. Because Pappas has this important title, she’s been able to convince the press that “feminists”—at least some feminists of importance—are angry about this. The reality is that feminists were the ones who pushed no-fault decades ago, and feminists who deserve much of the credit for the relative ease of divorce today. This is because feminists saw what is still true, which is that women are more likely to be unhappy, treated unfairly, or abused in marriages, and more likely to want out. Even thought it’s evened out more that it used to be, women still file for divorce more often. Even when you have no-fault divorce, it’s still shockingly easy for an abusive husband to use the court system to make it impossible for his wife to get a clean break. Many abusive men get with those “fathers’ rights” groups and learn tactics from each other on how to come up with increasingly silly lawsuits over child custody and other issues in order to break a woman emotionally and financially and maintain your power over her. The effects of abuse by court are nothing to sniff at, as this woman who was rendered homeless because of it can attest.

No-fault is hardly the end-all, be-all, but it’s a big improvement over a system where abusive spouses can stop the divorce itself, as well as file one frivolous lawsuit after another. Simply knowing that you can get out easily can often make it easier to leave sooner, when an abuser has his hooks less into you. As this post at Salon indicates, this is nothing to sniff at—the introduction of no-fault divorce leads to a 30% drop decrease in domestic violence. As this lawyer explained:

I’ve practiced in two states with radically different no-fault laws, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told a controlling, psychologically abusive spouse, “No, Mr. Jones. You can’t make her stay married to you if she doesn’t want to be.” (I also can’t tell you how many times, while teaching a pro-se divorce clinic, I hear the question, “Can I take back my name from her?” But that is another story for another time.) Fault-based grounds usually include mental cruelty, but true mental cruelty has a psychological component that can make it very difficult for the abused spouse to articulate that abuse. More to the point, the abused spouse may be terrified to describe the relationship on paper and testify about it in a court. And of course, a controlling spouse will always choose the path of most resistance to whatever it is that the other spouse wants.

I say we need to go a step further than no-fault and sever as many rights that a person has over their ex-spouse as possible. There’s a lot of talk about tort reform in this country, but almost none of it addresses what is probably the single biggest abuse of the courts, which is the constant bullshit lawsuit filing done by angry, abusive men who can’t let go. Why not limit the number of times you can sue an ex-spouse, or put a statute of limitations on it? These men will tie women up in court for years, sometimes decades.

Pappas’ excuse for her stance is that fault-based divorce systems protect housewives. That’s always struck me as a stretch of an argument, since someone can just leave you in the lurch without formally divorcing you if you’re dependent. At least formal divorce systems do try to make sure that someone’s in-marriage investments count for something, even if it’s not much in practice. Certainly, that’s how the lawyer they consulted at Broadsheet saw it:

Does unilateral divorce favor the spouse holding the purse strings? Not really. “It benefits the spouse who wants out of the marriage the most. That’s not always the ‘moneyed’ spouse. In fact, research suggests that it is more often the wife,” she says.

Pragmatic issues favor no-fault, but so does the simple ethical principle that feminists call “enthusiastic consent”—the belief that all sexual relations should only occur if all parties are not just conceding, but wanting to be there. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that a marriage should be glorious every minute of the day in order for it to be a real relationship. But if one person is genuinely not happy and has truly withdrawn consent to be in the relationship, holding them in it against their will is a violation of their human rights. There’s something creepy about Pappas’ image of housewives getting some kind of pointless revenge on husbands who leave by making it harder to dissolve the formal relationship. It’s admittedly difficult to sympathize with a man who convinces his wife to become dependent on him and then abandons her, but even in this worst case scenario, I fail to see the value in keeping a zombie relationship alive instead of just ending it already. And the vast majority of divorces aren’t anything like that. So good on New York for finally coming to their senses.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
By commenting, you agree to our terms of service
and to abide by our commenting policy.