Beverly Willett’s piece from over the weekend, “My Fight to Stop My Divorce,” from The Daily Beast just caught my attention, which I’m sure was their intention (I can see the super-market tabloid with a picture of Tiger Woods next to it now). The topic of Willett’s piece centers around how New York State has recently become the 50th and final state to allow couples to file for a “No-Fault” divorce. Marriage and the culture that surrounds it has become a bit of a recent interest of mine, which you can chalk up to the awesome Politics of Reproduction class I took this past winter, or that I am the child of divorced parents. But I think the power of marriage to shape our society has probably been an interest to me for a long time: Most of my early memories surround family, both mine, and the one’s that I saw around me. Before you care about politics or what Kim Kardashian is wearing to the Emmys, you care about the people that you love and idolize.
In her story, Willett explains how her husband had an affair, and decided he no longer wanted to be married (seemingly out of the blue…she actually uses the phrase “Then one day, my husband began having an affair with a twice-divorced lawyer at his new job”, as if he had decided to start buying 2% milk instead of skim). She describes her devastation at his desertion of her and her children, and her jubilance that she lived in a state where she could legally fight against his claims. Because he could not file no-fault, he was left to argue with what she considered baseless claims about her inadequacies.
What Willett entirely fails to recognize in her diatribe against no-fault divorce is the history behind divorce law in this country, and what it has meant for American women. Instead of going on about American moral standards, we should recognize the liberation that divorce has allowed for some women; when first introduced in 1970, no-fault divorce gave women in unhappy marriages a chance to remove themselves from the circumstances without proving that their husband was abusive or unfaithful. At the same time, they were still given the right to receive financial support if they did not have their own profession, something that was much more common at the height of the Second Wave of the feminist movement than it is now. No-fault divorce acknowledged a woman’s role in the home as valuable, and their role in a relationship as equal. Alternatively, it has allowed men the option of removing themselves as the main breadwinner of a family, and choosing not to be in a dominant position in a relationship.
No one is arguing that Willett’s husband is not a jerk. But her piece paints her as one also. Nevermind the fact that it completely baffles me as to why someone would fight for five years to married to a partner who hated them. Willett says, “Governor Paterson commended New York’s legislature for ‘fix[ing] a broken process.’ But no-fault isn’t the answer. It won’t cure our national preoccupation with searching for happiness in greener pastures–the root cause of rampant divorce–any more than a fault-based system of divorce can. We’ve created a happiness culture without understanding what that means or how to achieve it. Ditch your spouse and eat, pray, love your way to the next one.” She fails to recognize that perhaps divorce isn’t the problem — perhaps marriage is. Excellent books like Nancy Cott’s Public Vows and Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History, really put into the perspective how much this institution that we consider so permanent has changed. The meaning of marriage has shifted hugely over time, though its connection in the American mindset with a stable family persists. One only has to read George Chauncey’s short book Why Marriage: The History Shaping Today’s Debate Over Gay Equality (which actually cribs a great deal from Cott’s book as well) to recognize the degree to which people idealize an institution that may be, in itself, inherently flawed.
Willett tries to support her personal relationship problems with inaccurate legal and historical precedent. She ends her piece by saying, “Now, with fault-based divorce eradicated in America once and for all, and no-fault the law of the land, standing up for marriage and family really is an impossible dream.” It seems to me that the dream that she has about what families and relationships look like never really existed in the first place.