Women as Property

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POLITICS SEPTEMBER 19, 1970

Women as Property

A porno movie house on 8th Avenue had a film on its bill recently called simply. Divorcee. That one word was supposed to call up enough libidinous fantasies to induce customers to pay the $5 entrance fee. Yet, the real obscenity in a divorced woman's life a brutal and dehumanizing experience is her encounter with the judicial system, which is stacked in custom and practice against her, and her degrading visits to the house of horrors on East 22nd Street, known as Family Court.

Sitting in the parallel pews of the large antechamber and waiting for your name to be called is the closest experience to Limbo that anyone can imagine. Although all litigants are ordered to appear at 9:30 A.M., those without attorneys must wait until those with attorneys get through, the theory being, one supposes, that the time of a professional is worth something, but the time of a poor person, or a stranded mother, is worth nothing at all.

The worst part of the waiting, though, is the knowing that the outcome of your hearing depends on pure luck and that in all likelihood you will very soon be back here again. Since there are between 30 and 35 cases on each judge's calendar per day, that leaves about 10 minutes per case. Ten minutes allotted to each tale of heartbreak, ten minutes to decide the standard of living of a family, or determine who should have custody of a child.

You learn, after your first few visits here, that the patience of the average Family Court judge is extremely thin. He usually asks about four or five questions, which he prefers answered in monosyllables. All other information must be tersely and unemotionally presented, or the judge will become annoyed and do something spiteful. If the matter appears at all complex, your case will be postponed, and the whole grueling procedure will begin again.

A "good" lawyer is not as much help as one might think. First of all, they are almost impossible to get. The lack of any state of federal standards covering questions of alimony and child support makes the courtroom procedure a matter of guesswork resting on the whims of the judge. For this reason and because of the depressing atmosphere of this court and also because there is very little to be gained in fees from this kind of work-most attorneys are reluctant to take such cases, and women face the ordeal alone.

Even if you do manage to enlist the services of an attorney, he can often do you more harm than good. Too often he is untrained in this particular branch of the law, embarrassed at having to take sides in an acrimonious interpersonal dispute, and unprepared for patterns which present themselves. Most ex-husbands, for example, attempt to mask their actual income and engage in wild accusations as a technique of obfuscation, so skillful detective work is involved. And, in all too many cases, lawyers will sell themselves to the highest bidder and go into collusion with the husband's attorney. Note the pronoun "he" in relation to antecedent "lawyer." There are still too few women lawyers devoted to working for women's rights, and those few are swamped with history-making constitutional decisions and unable to handle individual cases. The Women's Center, which serves as a clearing house for services for women, reports floods of frantic phone calls from women desperate for legal help, and some who just want a "sister" to go down to the court with them to offer emotional support.

One woman I spoke to had been in and out of Family Court eight times. She had had eight different judges. Each judge spent most of the time trying to determine what the judge before had decided. This is not unusual. The latest Senate Judiciary Subcommittee report on the Family Court mentioned that "some 30 appearances have been required by one petitioner without achieving finality." Unfortunately, the probation officer, who is the only person having direct contact with all aspects of a case from the beginning (he or she interviews all parties to a dispute at intake, and in about half the cases, actually settles cases before they come to court), never personally appears in court, so that pertinent facts about a family situation often never find their way to the judge at all.

The infamous Fulmanero case brought to national attention the bureaucracy and insensitivity of one province of the Family Court: child abuse and custody. But the areas of child support and alimony remain hidden because most of the women involved are afraid of endangering what little income they do receive, and risking starvation for themselves and children. So the myth of the "gay divorcee," who supposedly was married for less than a year, did not work and now lives a life of an extravagant, overdressed spendthrift and promiscuous pleasure-seeker at her ex-husband's expense, remains unchallenged.

Here are some of the actual cases now pending at Family Court. The women have asked that their real names not be used, for fear of prejudicing their cases. "Barbara" has been fighting for nine years for support for her handicapped daughter. Her husband makes $55,000 a year in his own business. He refuses to pay for special care for the handicapped child. The court has thus far upheld him.

"Linda" is the wife of a "successful" physician who kept a succession of mistresses. When she asked for a separation, he threw her and their five-year-old child out of the house, and cleared the apartment of all the belongings, including hers. When she went to see him, he sprayed mace in her face. She requested a protection bond from Family Court. In court, he accused her of being a whore, and of having sexual relations with a 14-year-old friend of her son. Despite her excellent character witnesses and glowing reports from her children's schools, the judge ruled "provocation proved."

"Lucille's" former husband has thrown his two children on the ground and stepped on them. When the son cried out, he called him a homosexual. The judge ruled that unless the father molested the children sexually, visiting rights could not be denied.

"Death levels all ranks," said an English poet. So does divorce. "Virginia," a black welfare mother whose husband had skipped off to another state and whose children were confiscated and put into a "shelter," is not much worse off than the suburban woman, "Mary," who was left with a $100,000 house but no income to maintain it. All bills and taxes had to be paid; the lawn had not been mowed in a year. She was also unable to keep up payments for the children's private schools. The court has on record doctors' statements showing that she was hemorrhaging under the severe emotional strain of being stranded in an isolated community without a car and trying to maintain herself and two children at their previous level for two years without funds.

How have these and other atrocities been allowed to take place? Through some very basic flaws in the organization, structure and functioning of this most peculiar court.

The New York State Family Court was set up in 1962, a carryover from Children's Court and the old Domestic Relations Court. It has jurisdiction over neglect, support, paternity, juvenile delinquency, per-, sons in need of supervision, and family offenses. Questions of divorce, annulment and separations are handled in Supreme Court; custody is not a concern of the court if it primarily arises in connection with matrimonial action; adoptions are still handled in Surrogate's Court; and juvenile offenders over 16 are tried in Criminal Court. So there's the first problem right there. A multiplicity of agencies (with separate monetary allocations) to deal with similar and overlapping areas.

Then the Family Court was established, it was stated by the legislature: "It [the Family Court] must deal with sensitive and difficult areas of life about which reasonable men and women differ. Hence it is necessarily an experimental court . . . and looks to improvements based' on experience and observation." Every year, in its annual reports to the legislature, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee has been reiterating the sorry tidings that the experiment is a failure. The 1968 subcommittee report, for instance, reveals that during the three judicial years 1963-1966, the backlog of undisposed cases at the end of these years increased from over 30,000 to 45,000 (about 70 percent), and this despite the steady increase in the number of judges and court personnel.

That report lists three principal areas responsible for the court's ineffectiveness: a) lack of facilities for placement; b) lack of qualified auxiliary personnel and c) lack of coordination between those implementing services that are available and the judiciary.

"Qualitative probation and allied services," says the report, "are a key to a successful Family Court. Unfortunately, neither probation nor other auxiliary services are capable of meeting the needs of the court or the community." The most recent Senate Judiciary Subcommittee report (March 3,1970) states: "It is our conclusion that there exists a remoteness and a lack of rapport relative to the day-to-day functioning of the Family Court and the responsible members of the Administrative Board of the Judicial Conference, and of the Appellate Divisions." The new report continues, "This unique situation of a court being assigned to deal with criminal offenses with no penal authority and being dependent upon the cooperation and assistance of other municipal agencies and private social organizations, so often understaffed and ill-equipped to meet even the minimum needs and demands of this court, contributes heavily to its inability to become the social forum it was designed to be."

The main reason for the poor quality of the probationary and other counseling services is insufficient budgetary appropriations. Mrs. Elizabeth Schack at the Community Service Society (one of the private social organizations which attempt to work in conjunction with the Family Court) says that one of the biggest frustrations in trying to implement Family Court decisions is the constant turnover in court personnel, a direct result of low salary levels. Secretaries at Family Court make $5200 a year, and after training, usually leave for some other place. Probation Officers make $9700 per annum, and there is almost no opportunity for upward promotion. Many reforms have been suggested for the reorganization of the Family Court. Last year, the Liberal Party recommended the unification of the Claims, Surrogates and Family Court with the Supreme Court, and the League of Women Voters of New York State came out with a pamphlet decrying what they called "fragmented justice." They urged that there be "one court to handle all matters affecting children and families. . . . It is more economical to centralize all supporting services in one place; more effective to have one court deal with interrelated family problems; more equitable to follow uniform practices" in the state.

But more restructuring would not go far enough. That is because the courts are committed to uphold the present marriage and divorce laws, which are based on the antiquated assumption that woman in marriage is the property of the man. The wife, for example, is still required to perform all domestic services, and she must have sexual relations with her husband on demand (legalized rape?) unless she is physically ill.

Family Court also perpetuates the oppressive alimony system. Usually thought of as a boon to women and a hardship on men, the concept of alimony is an insult to women. It does not represent payment for household labor done. It represents a concession to the fact that men and women do not have equal opportunities for employment and job training. It is also supposed to make up for the fact that the state does not provide adequate day care facilities sp that the divorced woman can go back to work. Alimony says, "here, you poor, helpless, unqualified and useless person, take this." The women has to pay taxes on alimony; the ex-husband takes it as a deduction.

Digging one level deeper, the legislation on these matters will probably not be changed unless the societal values and attitudes underlying the laws are changed. Despite the much advertised sexual revolution, a double standard still prevails in the courts. The main manifestation of the double standard is that man's work is respected, and woman's is not. In a case in Nassau County Family Court, the court psychiatrist had judged the husband "emotionally immature and emotionally disturbed," yet when the husband announced he was a physician and listed some of his property holdings, the judge became reverent.

A double standard of morality also prevails in that during the two-year separation period preceding a N.Y. State divorce, if a wife has sex relations once with a man other than her husband, she can be declared an unfit mother and her children taken from her. The only way a father can be declared unfit is if it can be proved he has sexually molested the children. Beatings, drunkenness, drug addiction, adultery are not enough grounds. Also operative against women at court is an assumption that women should be quiet, passive, pleasant and "warm." If in response to a baldfaced lie or false accusation she cries out or raises her voice, she is usually called a "hysterical woman" or other adjectives such as "vindictive" or "overemotional" and silenced by the judge.

The only area where a double standard is not evident at court, is the one area where it should be that of employment. Many women are told by the court, "If you need more money, go get a better job," without any recognition of the fact that childrearing and housekeeping are fulltime occupations in themselves, and furthermore, that the economy does not welcome women in high-paying levels of employment. They forget, too, that over 60 percent of married women 3ge 35-64 do not work outside of the home and are in need of education and job training.

Several women's rights groups are turning their attention to the revision of marriage and divorce laws and the restructuring of the courts. The program of the National Organization of Women (NOW) for last year included some of the following recommendations:

— that a pamphlet setting forth general personal and property rights of each partner in marriage under N.Y. State law be distributed to applicants for marriage licenses, and that the applicants be given a test (the way drivers are) before receiving a license.

— that facilities for the rehabilitation and training of the divorced woman be established, and a guidance counselor be assigned to the court handing down the decree, for the benefit of those who do not have jobs or appropriate ones.

— that the spouse, if financially able, should assume financial responsibility for education of the divorced woman. A special program for divorced persons could be established at state colleges.

— that Social Security benefits be extended to the divorced women, and that the housewife be insured as an individual, not as her husband's dependent. (Housewife is the only occupation where the social security benefits go to the next occupant of the job rather than being credited to the employee.)

Another group, the League for Women's Rights, is a newly formed band of "victims" Who have been subjected to harassing court experiences, and women civil rights lawyers who have committed themselves to supporting the aims and activities of the group, which are: to inform all women of the double standard inherent in the law and promulgated by the courts; to substitute for the word "alimony" a realistic concept of "accrued income" to be based on the recognition of wifehood and motherhood as recompensible employment; to put divorce on an equal footing with the dissolution of a business partnership. Elements to be considered would be the number of years of marriage; whether the woman brought in income or property; number of children involved; was household help provided if the woman was sick or disabled; was there compensation for any physical damage resulting from childbearing or childrearing (workman's compensation); social security, medical insurance and life insurance coverage; provision for job training for the dependent spouse at the dissolution of marriage; finally, to prepare the way for federal standardization of marriage and divorce procedures backed by the constitutional guarantee of equal rights for all.

The answer, these groups agree, is not to appoint a few more women judges to the bench. Society has got to stop seeing women as carefree, one-dimensional sex-objects, and then becoming hostile when they exhibit problems and needs. The Family Court must stop sweeping women and children under the rug.

This article originally ran in the September 19, 1970 issue of the magazine.

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