This may come as no surprise, but gender plays a significant role in heterosexual marriages. How the gender is socialized throughout their lives for the husband and wife affects both what the household economy is like at home as well as how each person engages in the economy outside the home.
Recently, the wages for housework campaign brought into a more mainstream discussion how we can begin to think about the value that women produce in households and how we can think about monetizing this value. Women are more likely to spend more hours doing housework and this affects both their ability and desire to engage in market work, and this in turn affects their economic power within the couple when they have access to fewer independent financial resources. If a couple decides that the woman should be the primary caretaker for any children, then the woman’s capacity to engage in market work is limited.
And in the marriage, the power position granted to the higher earner can shape any major spending decisions and often other relationship decisions too. Because the higher earner has less to lose from the dissolution of a marriage, the lower earner has less bargaining power and a much higher threat point for divorce – i.e. they will put up with a lot more crap before walking away.
But what about after a marriage ends? How should a woman who has devoted effort and shaped her life plans around a husband get compensated when that marriage falls apart? How should we value the effort that women put into marriages after thousands of years of socialization to devote themselves to family when it affects their outside economic capacity? Since wives’ economic status and career is often shaped by their relationship with their husbands (and while the other way around is also true, I’d argue the effect is stronger for women), what liability do men have to compensate women for the work women do in maintaining a relationship once its over? (For example, in academic couples, women are significantly more likely to follow their husband’s professorship and settle for a lower position themselves. This can set them off the tenure track for many years, affecting their entire career trajectory.)
In this way, alimony (or maintenance or spousal supporting, depending what stay law calls it) can be thought of as wages for marriage. It is something earned and deserved, not just something a resentful ex goes after to punish the person they were married to. It is what a wife is owed for the effort and work of marriage. This work didn’t pay off in the form of a lasting and fulfilling partnership, so we’re forced to consider what dollar value this has in divorce proceedings.
The concept of alimony goes back to ancient times. It is based an idea that a husband has a duty to support his wife, even beyond their marriage. Its original conception is dated and based on wives as property, but there is some insight into what monetary compensation is owed after the dissolution of a marriage partnership, just like one business partnership might owe the other something if the business falls apart and one person has access to great financial resources from that business.
If a woman is really supportive of a man’s career, both in doing the laundry and listening to how stressful his day is at the end of every day, then part of his success can be owed to her. She has done the emotional work of supporting her husband, and he gained surplus value from it. She is owed something for this and it has a real monetary value. To think so doesn’t cheapen the work of being in a loving marriage.
Nowadays alimony laws appear to be more-or-less gender neutral. A higher-earning wife can be required to pay alimony to a lower-earning husband. But the fact of the matter is a wife is more likely to earn less than her husband just because of the gender wage gap (remember: 77 cents to the dollar), and also women are also socialized to be more amenable to shaping their life plans, including their careers, around their husbands, in ways that often economically disadvantage them, like the example of academic couples above.
So the legal system can fill the role of ensuring that women are compensated for the ways in which their marriage has shaped their lives that end up being disadvantageous once that marriage no longer exists. While alimony is not typically thought of as wages for marriage, it does at least ensure a base level of compensation for the likelihood that a woman suffers a much greater risk at the end of a marriage.
The legal system could still go further to more fully acknowledge the role of gender in shaping partnerships and independent lives within marriages so that women are more justly compensated in the dissolution of a marriage. Feminist political philosopher Susan Moller Okin reminds us in Justice, Gender, and the Family that gender-structured marriages make women uniquely vulnerable. In this, a feminist legal system should go beyond maintaining a standard of living in divorce to compensating wives for the full scope of the gender inequitable effects of a society structured by heterosexual and patriarchal marriage and divorce.
So while alimony or support laws could go much further to address the structural imbalances of gender in marriage, perhaps rethinking of them as similar to “wages for housework,” where they are wages for the emotional and life-structuring work that so many women take on more than their fair share of in a marriage, can start to take away some of the stigma. There is a cliché of the bitchy ex-wife who is going after a man for all he is worth. The man complaining about how high his alimony payments are and how much it affects his standard of living. Well these men, like so many in a patriarchal society, need to check their privilege in their personal relationship and in societal structures.
A woman gives so much of what she is worth, emotionally and in ways that affect the viability of her financial independence, to a man in a heterosexual marriage. This is a small amount of what she worth. The trope of the bitchy ex-wife getting him for all he’s worth needs to be reconsidered. She is actually going after what she’s worth.