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

A Feminist Perspective on Divorce
June R. Carbone

The Gendered Division of Family Responsibilities

For women, assessing the impact of divorce starts with an examination of the gendered division of responsibility within the family. This division of labor has two important consequences upon divorce: (1) it increases disparities in earning capacity and (2) it encourages mothers to develop closer relationships with their children than fathers do.

Recent changes in the status of women have been overwhelmingly characterized by the large-scale movement of married middle-class mothers into the labor market11 but not by a corresponding increase in fathers' participation in homemaking. Bergmann estimates that working women averaged 28.1 hours of "unpaid" family work per week to their husband's 9.2 hours and that husbands of wives with full-time jobs averaged about two minutes more housework per day than did husbands in housewife-maintaining families.12 Combining paid and unpaid labor, Fuchs concluded that, between 1960 and 1986, women increased their total hours by almost 7% while men's fell by the same proportion.13 Wives, whatever their work force participation, still assume an overwhelmingly greater share of the responsibility for the family's domestic needs than do their husbands.14

This gendered division of labor within the family has consequences for women's earning capacity. Economists attribute the "wage gap" that Mason characterizes as the single "most consistent observation about women in the labor force"15 to a combination of discrimination (including channeling women into low positions segregated by gender),16 differences in human capital,17 and family responsibilities. While economists differ considerably in the relative importance they attribute to each factor,18 they agree that each contributes to the wage gap and that each factor reinforces the other.19 Economists Blau and Ferber note that "even a relatively small amount of initial labor market discrimination can have greatly magnified effects if it discourages women from making human capital investments, weakens their attachments to the labor force, and provides economic incentives for the family to place priority on the husband's career."20 Such patterns reinforce, in turn, employer prejudices and gender role stereotypes and may thus affect women who never marry and never have children.21

Apart from the earnings gap between men and women generally, there is substantial evidence that married women, because of family responsibilities, experience a drop in earning capacity with life-long consequences. First, human capital theorists posit that interruptions in labor participation have a major effect on earnings. Polachek finds that, while levels of educational attainment are comparable for men and women, women experience more labor market interruptions than do men and that approximately half of the wage gap between all male and female workers can be explained on the basis of those interruptions.22 Second, studies show that income varies with family status. Blau and Kahn note that, in the United States during the late 1980s, single women made 95.52% of what single men made while married women made only 59.44% of what men made.23 By the age of 40, married women make only 85% of the wages per hour earned by unmarried women while married men earn more than unmarried men at every age.24 Finally, a comparison of age earning profiles for men and women demonstrates that, while women's earnings lag only slightly behind men's during women's early years in the labor force, women miss out on the rapid increase in earnings men experience in their late twenties and thirties, the peak childbearing years for women.25 Taking these factors together, Fuchs concludes that "I do" has a very different price for women than for men.26

The differences between men and women and between single and married workers magnify the disparity between husbands' and wives' financial prospects at divorce. Maccoby and Mnookin found that, where both spouses worked during the marriage, the women, on average, earned only half as much as the men.27 Fuchs's 1985 data show that, where both spouses worked outside the home, three of four husbands had hourly earnings greater than their wives, and for half the couples, the wife's wage was less than two-thirds that of her husband.28 Adding the fact that married women work fewer hours outside the home, Hewlett emphasizes that, on average, married women earn less than half the amount earned by married men.29 Women's greater participation in the labor force has not meant participation on the same terms as men.

While there is little dispute that, at divorce, women, on average, face bleaker financial prospects than their husbands and that the division of responsibilities within marriage contributes to the financial gap, there is less recognition of the other major difference between divorcing couples-mothers' greater, and qualitatively different, attachment to children.30

Until Becker's article, the taboo was particularly strong among feminists and particularly strong in the legal academy.31 With the first wave of modern feminism focused on the workplace, feminists feared that, by acknowledging the special role of motherhood for many women, all women would be defined exclusively in motherhood's most restrictive terms.

As Becker documents, there is a growing literature that suggests substantial differences in the way mothers and fathers relate to their children, with important implications for divorce policy. Although this literature is necessarily more subjective than that assessing financial factors, the empirical data that exist supports Becker's assertions. She notes two studies in particular. Genevie and Margolies, who interviewed a representative sample of mothers, report that more than 90% feel that mothers' love is different from other forms of love.32 They describe it as more intense, involving a greater feeling of identity, "a feeling that one's child is part of oneself."33 The mothers surveyed overwhelmingly believed that fathers are less emotionally involved with their children than mothers are, and a "shocking 50 percent . . . did not think much of their husbands as fathers, describing them, in varying degrees, as uninvolved and overly critical."34

While the Genevie and Margolies study interviewed only mothers, a study of what the researchers term "dual-mother families" —families in which both husband and wife "mother"—reports similar results. In this study, both parents identified themselves as the "primary caretaker" and performed at least 35% of the child care. Nevertheless, both mothering mothers and mothering fathers in this study reported that the mothers were more emotionally involved in their children's lives and felt the connection between self and child as sharper and more unconscious, more "primary." The researchers found that both mothers and fathers agreed that it would be the mothers who would actually be more devastated by the actual loss of a child.35

The studies that Becker cites are inherently limited.36 Nonetheless, the study results correspond to literary attempts to capture the experience of mothering37 and to much observed behavior. At divorce, mothers are much more likely to seek physical custody of their children than are fathers, and noncustodial mothers are more likely to remain in contact with their children than are noncustodial fathers.38

As with financial disparities, there is little dissent regarding the fact that gender differences exist in parents' relationships with their children; at the same time, there is considerable controversy over the cause and the implications.39 Radical feminists emphatically reject the attribution of observed gender differences to women's "true" preferences; they maintain that it is impossible to know what women would prefer in the absence of the patriarchal system which now exists.40 Liberal feminists fear that any emphasis on the way in which women "mother" differently from fathers will resurrect an ideal of motherhood that precludes women's access to status, power, and independence;41 therefore, they prefer, as a matter of strategy, not to call attention to such differences. Only cultural feminists, or feminists of difference, have been willing to address the issue directly.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to address divorce policy without considering the implications of differences in the way parents relate to their children. Fineman, whose work marks the emergence of the feminism of difference within family law, stresses the importance of defining feminist methodology, not in terms of grand theory, but in terms of the concrete impact on the lives of women.42 Central to that impact, Fineman maintains, are the material and emotional circumstances that arise from women's greater connection to their children, culturally determined or not. She invokes Fuchs43 to explain that it is not the fact that women raise children which places them at a disadvantage, but "that, on average, women have a stronger demand for children than men do, and have more concern for children after they are born."44 Fineman concludes that taking women's concern for children into account is essential to effective divorce reform, and that "[c]ontemporary custody discourse trivializes women's emotional investment in their primary caretaking relationship with their children. It is perhaps on this level that reformist discourse has been least sensitive to women's reality."45

Feminist perspectives on divorce, in assessing the impact on women and children, proceed from the two important differences men and women experience at divorce: different financial prospects and different perceptions of their relationship to their children. The feminist critique of divorce policy, despite the disagreement on objectives, focuses on the ways in which existing law fails to take those differences into account.