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Penn Press at OAH 2023

Divorce, American Style

Divorce, American Style

Fighting for Women's Economic Citizenship in the Neoliberal Era

by Suzanne Kahn

1 illus.

  • Hardcover
  • 9780812252903
  • Published: May 2021



In the 1970s, the divorce rate in the United States doubled, and longtime homemakers suddenly found themselves at risk of poverty, not only because their husband's job was their sole source of income, but also because their insurance, retirement, and credit worthiness were all tied to their spouse's employment. Divorce, American Style examines how newly divorced women and policymakers responded to the crisis that rising divorce rates created for American society.

Suzanne Kahn shows that, ironically, rising divorce rates led to policies that actually strengthened the social insurance system's use of marriage to determine eligibility for benefits. Large numbers of newly divorced women quickly realized their invisibility within the American welfare state, which did not distribute benefits to most women directly but rather through their husbands. These newly divorced women organized themselves into a political force, and they were remarkably successful in securing legislation designed to address divorced women's needs. But this required significant compromise with policymakers, and these new laws specifically rewarded intact marriages, providing more robust benefits to women in longer marriages. These incentives remain in place today. Indeed, in the thirty years since this legislative compromise, activists' efforts to grapple with the legal system created out of this crisis have affected such high-profile debates as the fight over the Affordable Care Act and the battle for marriage equality.

Divorce, American Style contests the frequent claim that marriage has become a more flexible legal status over time. Enduring ideas about marriage and the family continue to have a powerful effect on the structure of a wide range of social programs in the United States.