ABC Gets it Wrong on Women and Divorce

This article is bad enough to warrant indignant letters (ABC News, 2/4/11). Where to begin?  Why not with the headline which reads “Women Take Biggest Hit in Divorce, Experts Say.”  The problem with that is that the article makes no such claim.  It’s not a terribly long piece and something like 75% of it consists of quotations from women who’ve been divorced telling how emotionally trying it was.  But while the writer, Susan Donaldson James, quotes some people who may be experts, not one ever says or even suggests that women “take the biggest hit” from divorce.
Of course we’re all aware that divorce can be traumatic.  Few people who’ve gone through one say otherwise, but from reading the ABC piece you’d think that only women suffer.  That’s because the writer neglected to interview any men.  As is so often the case in pieces like this, men are literally voiceless.  And that’s curious because essentially everything the women say could have been said by a man, if of course, anyone cared to ask. Indeed, the opening sentences read

Divorce nearly crushed Kathleen Anderson.  She lost her three children in a custody battle and her finances were devastated by child support.

In short, she experienced what almost every father does in a divorce – the loss of his children and a hefty support obligation.  The only remarkable thing is that the writer managed to find a mother who’d lost primary custody.  If she’d stepped outside her office, closed her eyes and pitched a rock, she’d have hit a divorced man who’s lost custody of his kids and is toiling to keep up with his support obligations.  But she found no men to ask about their experiences of divorce. So why is divorce particularly onerous to a woman?  It’s not except in James’s imagination. Indeed, even when the article does venture a nod to actual data, there’s no effort made to compare men and women.  What ever slings and arrows women suffer, we read about them in detail.  Men?  Not a word about them. But James does construct a small island of data in the middle of her sea of personal hardship stories.  She tells us that half of all marriages end in divorce and that divorce can be hard on women’s health, etc. And that’s where James gets as close as she ever does to actually making the claim that divorce is harder on women than on men.

One report in Marie Claire magazine said a woman’s quality of life drops 45% after divorce.

Except, if you go to the Marie Claire article, there’s no report there at all.  It’s a very short piece that, like the ABC piece simply makes the assertion with no evidence to back it up. Still, a little online research unearths a book by Judith Worell entitled “Encyclopedia of Women and Gender,” in which the figure 45% actually appears in connection with mother’s loss of income post divorce.  Here’s what she says:

Whereas custodial fathers suffer on average a 10% decline in income following divorce, custodial mothers experience about a 25 to 45% loss of annual family income.

So right away, we notice that both the Marie Claire piece and the ABC one misstate the figures.  The correct figure for mother’s loss of income is not 45% but 25 – 45%. And unlike ABC and Marie Claire, Worell explains the differences in male and female income loss post divorce.  She cites a Michigan study that shows that, on average, women who don’t remarry earn on average 91% of their pre-divorce income one year later and 94% five years later.  That’s compared with 113% one year after divorce for men.  Women who did remarry had 125% of their predivorce resources compared with 130% for remarried men. And Worell, again unlike ABC or Marie Claire, explains why men do better than women financially – they worked and earned more during marriage and therefore aren’t playing catch-up after divorce.  That is, the partner who depends more on the other spouse doesn’t do as well when the second’s income is no longer available. In short, Worell suggests the same argument this blog has made many times and many feminists like former NOW president Karen DeCrow have made as well; women will be more self-reliant when they turn over more of the childcare to the fathers of their children.  That will free them to accumulate the work experience Worell identifies as her first factor explaining why women do less well financially post divorce than do men. As is so often the case with articles like James’s, what they don’t say is often as bad as what they do say.  The prime example in the ABC article is James’s complete failure to answer or even acknowledge the existence of the question “if divorce is so bad for women, why do they file 70% of all divorce cases?” The reason for the omission is plain – facts contradict her narrative of female victimization.  To include the 70% figure would risk readers’ questioning that narrative, so she leaves it out. And of course she leaves out the answer which, according to researchers Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen, is that women file for most divorces because they know they’ll get the kids.  As Brinig said at the time their study of over 40,000 divorce cases in four states came out, the fact that women knew they wouldn’t lose their children by divorce “absolutely swamps all other variables.” James is at pains to avoid mention of that.  Indeed, she goes so far as to suggest otherwise when she writes,

Before custody arrangements are in place, women can resent their spouses for leaving them with all the child care responsibilities.

It’s hard to pretend that men are “leaving [women] with all the child care responsibilities” when in fact that’s precisely the reason that women divorce men.  The simple fact is that overwhelmingly, it’s women who are leaving men and we know why. No doubt about it, divorce can be hard on people.  Women suffer; men suffer.  And they suffer in the same ways – loss of self-worth, loss of their sense of he future, depression, loss of mutual friends, loss of income, the list goes on and on.  In the not very common cases in which fathers get primary custody, mothers suffer the loss of their children just as so many fathers do. All of that is true, but none of it excuses the arrant sexism or the misleading and inaccurate figures of ABC’s article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *