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.