Advocates disagree on whether alimony helps or hinders women

November 14, 2014

Family law gavelAlthough it may be moving slowly, you can be sure that alimony reform is coming to your state if it hasn’t already. All it takes is a simple Google search to see that the debate surrounding alimony laws in the United States is passionate and lively, even among people advocating for the same goals.

Most people commenting on the matter agree that the alimony (also called spousal maintenance or spousal support) laws originating in the 1960s and 70s are outdated and ineffective at serving a modern society in which women now make up almost half of the workforce.

But that’s where the agreement ends.

Because this highly-personal and emotional issue is also directly linked to gender and class, everyone has an opinion, and a strong one at that.

While some opinions are obvious (e.g. men who have been doling out alimony for years and are fiercely against it), others offer a more unique perspective. Alimony was once supported by feminists as a way for women to achieve financial equality, but some are now saying that it does the opposite.

In this summer’s “Is Alimony Anti-Feminist?”The Daily Beast’s Keli Goff wrote that traditional alimony “strikes many as outdated and an embarrassment to feminist principles.” She went on to discuss that even though alimony is still predominantly paid by men, women, too, can be expected to support their ex-husbands.

However, she pointed to an article from The Wall Street Journal reporting that men are much less likely to accept alimony even when they qualify for it because of the “stigma of being financially dependent on an ex.” Goff concluded that true gender equality may only exist when more women turn down alimony for the same reason.

In the same article, though, the vice president for family economic security at the National Women’s Law Center said the reality is that women still have not achieved equality in the workplace or the home, so alimony in many cases is a necessity. She explained that it’s women who often put their career aspirations on the backburner in order to raise children and maintain a home — two things that the entire family benefits from.

Forbes contributor and women’s finance blogger Emma Johnson would say that’s not a choice most women should make. In last month’s “Stay-at-Home Mom Facing Divorce? Don’t Expect Alimony,” she wrote that judges throughout the nation are beginning to turn away from awarding alimony in divorce — even in cases where women stayed home to raise children — and instead are expecting self-sufficiency.

Soon after, Johnson argued in “An End to Alimony Would be Good for Women,” that alimony encourages women to make career sacrifices that are not good for the woman or the family as a whole (except in very limited situations). She suggested that families are always better off with two breadwinners in case of divorce or other unplanned life events such as unemployment or disability.

Ending alimony, Johnson said, would encourage women to be “a responsible member” of their families.

As you can see, even women’s advocates disagree on the role alimony should play and whether it is helping or hindering women in their quest to achieve equality. For that reason and others, alimony reform is destined to be a slow and careful process.