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Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994

A Feminist Perspective on Divorce
June R. Carbone

Introduction

In considering "feminist perspectives" on divorce, it is important to note that there is not one feminist perspective, but many. Feminism generally is defined not in terms of a particular position or set of positions, but by an insistence that women's experiences, varied as they are, be taken into account.1 Accordingly, feminist perspectives on divorce focus on the implications of divorce for the lives of women2 and their children.3

The implications of the existing system are stark and relatively uncontroversial. Women generally earn less than men. Marriage increases the economic gap as married women, who bear the overwhelming responsibility for child rearing, earn less than single women, while married men increase their earnings over single men. At divorce, mothers overwhelmingly retain physical custody of their children.

Fineman concludes that, under the present divorce system in which divorce awards neither close the earnings gap nor account for the full costs of child rearing, women are asked to "meet greater demands with fewer resources" than their former husbands.4 Mason terms the result "the equality trap."5 In this era of high divorce rates, children have access to a smaller share of society's resources, and mothers confront more direct conflicts between their abilities to provide for themselves and to care for their children than in earlier generations.6

Although virtually all feminist analysis of divorce starts with this picture, there is little agreement on the solution. "Liberal feminists"7 believe that it is the gendered division of labor itself which ensures women's subordination to men and that, unless there is genuinely shared responsibility for child rearing, equality is impossible.8 "Cultural feminists," or "feminists of difference," believe that the major problem is not that women disproportionately care for children, but that society so undervalues child rearing.9 In between are many feminists who believe that equality requires both greater sharing of the responsibility for child rearing and greater support for the child-rearing role.10

In setting forth feminist perspectives on divorce, this article starts with the critique that animates virtually all feminist writing about the family, that is, identification of the ways in which the gendered division of labor during marriage leads to the effective impoverishment of many women and children, and in which women's greater involvement with their children increases their vulnerability at divorce. The article then examines the failure of the existing system to provide adequately either for child rearing or for greater equality between men and women, and reviews proposals to change the existing provisions for custody and financial allocations in accordance with their proponents' respective visions for the future.