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The tragic myth of the ‘gold digger’

Any woman who locks herself into the bathroom on her wedding night and refuses to come out until her husband has written her a cheque for half a million dollars is likely to attract the attention of the popular media. Even more so if the year is 1920, and half a million dollars then is worth some six million dollars now.

The woman in question is Peggy Hopkins Joyce, an American actress, artist model and dancer. But Peggy was not just known for her talents in the world of entertainment. She also gained notoriety for marrying wealthy men and subsequently fleecing them in the divorce court. Such was the scandal at the behaviour of Peggy and other women like her that the media portrayed their marriages and divorces as ‘emblematic of societal decay’, with the term ‘gold digger’ being coined to describe them.

The perception of wives as ‘gold diggers’ naturally led to a reaction, with calls for alimony (maintenance) payments to spouses being limited, both in amount and duration. Those calls were answered by judges making smaller and shorter alimony awards.

Brian Donovan, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, has written an article theorising that the reaction to the ‘alimony panic’ caused by these gold-digging women may in fact have had a quite different effect to what it had intended. Instead of discouraging greedy wives it actually led to many wives suffering hardship, as they were not able to get the alimony they deserved. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall, but some details of it have been referred to in a story about the article on the University of Kansas website.

Donovan says that the idea that women were routinely abusing alimony laws was quite false. In fact, at the time alimony was rarely requested, typically only when the woman had a disability, or had children to care for. The alimony panic, he said, “shows the power of stereotypes are compelling. Stories are compelling but as a reflection of reality are distorted or tenuous at best. Stories about divorce and alimony that got picked up in papers involved extreme cases. In this case, these creations largely made by the media were having an influence in the courtroom.” The victims of the panic were women in need, who were put at a disadvantage, and left vulnerable to poverty and deprivation.

It’s a very interesting theory, and one that resonates today, and not just in the field of financial settlements following divorce.

As Donovan pointed out, the term ‘gold digger’ is still very much in use today, and on both sides of the Atlantic. It is quite possible that the American ‘alimony panic’ may well have affected divorce settlements over here, I do not know. Certainly, such a phenomenon could easily happen over here.

In fact, something similar did happen here back in the 1980s when concern over wives being awarded maintenance that amounted to ‘a meal ticket for life’ (another stereotype) led to the government introducing amendments to the existing law on financial settlements on divorce, aimed at encouraging clean breaks.

And the power of stereotypes created by the media (and others) certainly does still affect family justice in other areas. One only has to look at the stereotype of courts biased against fathers to see how, despite the fact that it is completely untrue, that has even led to the government changing the law to introduce a presumption of shared parenting, potentially damaging children by putting the ‘rights’ of parents above the welfare of children.

Returning to the subject of financial awards on divorce, there is still in some quarters a feeling that the courts succumb to inflated claims by greedy wives, making awards that are unfair to husbands. There is little truth in this (wives usually only get what they are entitled to), but it wouldn’t take much for the media to get hold of the idea, and for pressure to be applied for the law to change in favour of husbands, with the inevitable result that wives in need will suffer financial hardship, just as those wives in America did.

There may still be the odd ‘gold digger’ out there, but the vast majority of honest litigants should not pay for their greed.

I am grateful to blog editor Cameron Paterson for bringing my attention to the University of Kansas story, which can be found here.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers and child custody lawyers

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  1. Steve says:

    Do you ever take on board the comments that are made about your posts or is it that you must be right all the time.

    Or is it that you blog to cause offence and get a reaction from people.

    Must be very satisfying

  2. Tom Leustek says:

    It is unfortunatly common in the divorce law debate to read so much hand-waiving rhetoric posing as evidence. It is also unfortunate that governmental bodies pass laws that saddle divorced people with lifetime debt and lifetime dependency, based on no evidence and fail to fund appropriate impartial studies. Imagine if medicine were practised this way, with the physicians hypocratic oath being don’t worry whether you do harm.

  3. Andrew says:

    What does not bear dispute is this: that a joint-lives order leaves two people with no motive to better themselves. Why would either of them take on a better paid but more stressful job? Or work overtime? They would both be inviting an application to vary.

    The norm should be to divide equally what they had when the marriage ended, including pensions but excluding future possible inheritance – not least because if the source of it ends in residential care it will all be gone – and if necessary to protect minor children postponing the division. Maintenance is rarely appropriate and when it is it should be for a short, fixed and unextendable period and at a rate which cannot be varied. If the payer is then able to buy it out at a figure which allows for accelerated receipt – and the elimination of the risk that he will die or lose his job or otherwise simply be unable to pay – he should have the right to do so.

  4. Peter Davies says:

    Oh dear, John is at it again.
    This time John is using using the tired and worn straw man method of fallacious argument in order to mischaracterise something and make it easier to attack. On this occasion he has decided to do it within the context of an entirely unrelated subject and he has chosen to mischaracterise the words used in an Act. In other words ‘…involvement of that parent…’, that can include anything as remote as sending birthday and christmas cards to equally shared parental duties, has been cast as ‘shared parenting’. To suggest any equivalence between the two is grossly inaccurate. Shared parenting was what campaigners aspired to. The carefully chosen wording of the parliamentary draughtsmen was what they actually got.
    To further suggest that the weak and rebuttable instruction that ‘a court…is…to presume, unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of the parent in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare,’ is in any way even remotely ‘potentially damaging children’ is also wildly misleading. The case law shows that the new provision merely codified what had become usual practice in the family courts. It was already a tried and tested premise before the Children and families Act 2014 imported it into the Children Act. Despite the loudly expressed fear mongering of various self-interested groups the fact is that it has made little if any difference to families and children. The paramountcy of the welfare principle and the unequivocal status of the welfare checklist in the Children Act 1989 are now very firmly established in almost three decades of application and practice. In that time the checklist and the welfare principle have both been reaffirmed judicially and academically ad nauseum. Is there any actual evidence that children have been in any way damaged by the application of the ‘presumption’ ?
    Some academic studies, must notably the 2015, How do County Courts Share the Care of Children Between Parents, support John’s point of view but they are open to criticism for small sample sizes, selection bias and the fact that in this desk top study they looked at orders made by the courts. As John will know this is grossly misleading because actual contact compared with ordered contact often bears little relation to each other.
    John has asked for commenters to produce evidence and elevate the level of debate. I’ve invited him to lead by example. The ‘presumption’ has been law for over three years now. If there were any grounds for John’s wild and monotonous assertions then surely we would have seen evidence to support them by now. I repeat my invitation for John to pen a properly evidenced article that supports his ‘worn record’ style of tedious and repetitive incantation.
    P.s Most cases are heard in the lower courts and until such time as these proceedings fall under the umbrella of transparency John’s assertion that allegations of bias are ‘completely untrue’ carries little weight and amounts to no more than hot air.

  5. Dr Grumpy says:

    Gold diggers come in all shapes and sizes! My ex took me for a house I’d sunk every penny into! She did this over 9yrs and with the aid of 3 kids! Once that had happened she snapped the trap shut! I was forced to leave my home not see my kids and watch her come out as a lesbian!
    And yes I still don’t have a pot to p*ss in!

  6. D says:

    The article starts from the point that the rare ‘gold digger’ is indeed rare and outrageous. However it does seem to then imply the idea that one person should be responsible financially for another for the rest of their lives in absence of any other real connection … is neutral, just fine and not something that could be considered unfair. Many things might seem fair, unbiased, neutral if the preconceptions supporting them have never been challenged. Granted, the situation is in conjunction with a society that rigidly sticks to particular family role models.

    Of course the idea that the state should probably taking responsibility for someone who can’t provide for themselves is something the state would never want.

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