Yes, and it was a whole tale of hide the alimony.

A Brief History of Custody Laws

“With mothers and in the house” has been the standard situation for kids since the 1970 Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act.* Attachment theory had risen in popularity in academic circles for a few decades and due to women’s assumed roles, attachment studies looked at mother and child bonding first. When the divorce boom hit and courts suddenly had to negotiate child custody arrangements on a large scale, mother-child bonding was the study data the courts had. (Scroll down in link to “The Ecology of Attachment” for a brief discussion of the lack of studies outside of the mother-child relationship.)

Not only did those available studies and assumptions about maternal care set women as caregivers, but also feminist theory about spousal support made mom-as-primary-caregiver necessary.

If you recall from my previous feminist history explainers, the Second Wave feminists, led by Betty Friedan, worried that ’60s housewives would not be motivated enough to move into higher education and professional life. (They were depressed in suburbia, but not that depressed.) The women leaders worried that women would not act when the opportunity presented, which is why Friedan called the suburban home a “comfortable concentration camp.”

The Second Wavers felt they had to jolt women into action. Denigrating family and housewifery was one of those jolts. Removal of spousal support was another.

If newly liberated women only jettisoned their husbands but continued living on his paycheck, they wouldn’t enter the workforce. So feminists led an effort, a largely successful one, to end spousal support. The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act of 1970 was part of that effort. They also lobbied for state law changes.

As one might imagine, completely eliminating spousal support was a draconian measure for the 40-something woman with children who had not worked in 10–20 years and may not have a bachelor’s degree. Compassionate courts and regretful feminists started disguising spousal support as child support in the 1980’s. Since child support depends greatly on who has physical custody, mothers retaining primary physical custody became essential. And no coincidence, I’m sure, but the 80’s supercharged the doofus dad trope.

By the time the law started making provisions for spousal support in long-term marriages — see the Chicago Tribune, 1986, “Feminists Call for Change In Feminist-Backed Alimony Laws” — assumptions about mothers as primary custodians of children were well set.

Thus, as women sought to break out of domestic roles, family law ensured they would stay in those roles, husband or not, for decades to come. (A couple of years ago, I called the “confidence gap” one of feminism’s self-inflicted wounds. The alimony fiasco is another.)

Teacher of life admin and curator of commentary. Occasional writer.

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