Bel Mooney: You say victim. I say racketeer

The 'bridal doll' is more than a harmless vestige of patriarchy
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Let us start at the beginning with Eve, who says: "I'm divorcing you, Adam; and I want the Garden of Eden." Good, eh? The website, Cartoon Stock, has a section called "Divorce Settlements", which had me chuckling as much as when passing a bridal shop window of white puffballs. A lawyer tells his client: "Your ex-wife also mentions a gold filling." A snail asks the friend who looks vulnerable without a shell: "So how did the divorce go?''

I bet your sides are aching. You guessed, all these cartoonists are men, and all their gags turn on the idea of woman as rapacious drone: the pitiless parasite feeding off the husband-as-victim whose very manhood is sliced by her greed.

In the week when the golfer Colin Montgomerie agreed to one of the biggest divorce settlements seen in Britain, the Law Lords were urged to clarify divorce deals which seem arbitrary at best, capricious at worst. Two cases focused the nation's attention yet again on that risk-laden enterprise which is marriage, or at least, on its ending. Was Melissa Miller entitled to a whopping £5m after just two and a half years of marriage, when she had no children and every likelihood of returning to her previous high-earning career? Does mother-of-three Julia McFarlane deserve to receive £250,000 a year maintenance for life, on the grounds that she couldn't possibly pick up her career as a solicitor again, having willingly given it up ("her career break", said his lawyer) to care for the children. Well, yes, you ponder, of course she deserves maintenance, but that much? How many of us would consider the £180,000 decreed by the High Court insufficient? As headlines talked of "meal tickets" and the Law Lords argued over what constitutes a fair financial settlement, Eimear Montgomerie popped champagne with friends to celebrate popping even more into her handbag than Gill Faldo's £7m. Now that's what I call a birdie.

The lawyers at least live happily ever after, but to the thousands of women who struggle to extract any support at all from their absent husbands - juggling a meagre budget and trying to get the Child Support Agency to act, while the kids demand new jeans, tracksuits, and funds for school trips - such high-profile cases must seem as removed from real life as Harrods Food Hall is from Lidl. But then, through centuries of slow reform, the dramas of divorce were always played out on a plush aristocratic or middle-class stage while the poor looked on. And it was the influential opinion of liberal intellectuals such as John Stuart Mill and William Gladstone (supported by activist, middle-class women) advocating sexual equality before the law that finally did much to end women's powerlessness within the marriage bond. What happens at the top filters down - always.

It was interesting to hear two highly intelligent women writers discussing these divorce cases on Radio 4's Today programme on Thursday. Independent on Sunday columnist Joan Smith took the line that such settlements appear punitive, placing the blame for the break-up firmly on the man, and establishing wives in the role of perpetual victims who need support. Cristina Odone, on the other hand, crisply described marriage as a "joint enterprise" or "business deal" from which the women would want to be "bought out" in the event of a breakdown because they "owned a stake in" their husbands' career - all very reductionist, surely, for a former editor of the Catholic Herald. But she also pointed out the danger that although the principle of the "no-fault divorce" had to be upheld, an unfortunate outcome could well be "commitment phobia" - already the bane of the single woman's life - with men walking away from the idea of marriage altogether.

The idea of woman as victim underpinned centuries of reform, only very recently seguing into termagant territory. In his classic 1990 work Road to Divorce: England 1530-1987, Lawrence Stone points out that for Victorian legislators "the dangerous sex was not the female but the male". The 1853 report of the Royal Commission on Divorce argued that the law had to be designed "chiefly to protect children from the inconstancy of parents, and next to guard women from the inconstancy of husbands."

After the Second World War, as divorce figures rose, an ex-wife faced a miserable future: she couldn't sign a lease for a flat, raise finance, or buy anything on hire purchase. In 1963 Leo Abse, MP, failed to introduce seven years' separation with no fault as grounds, and in the same year Edith Summerskill, MP, explained the thinking behind her Married Women's Savings Bill: "The fact is the wife is not entitled to any share of the home or the family income. She has no savings because the law does not entitle her to save in her own name... Can a woman love a mean man who gives her an unfair share of his wage?" Not then, and not now.

The rejection of both ideas - woman as victim and as profiteer - is part of the feminist canon. Mrs Miller's high-rolling needs, which exactly matched those of her husband for a trophy hostess until he met a better one, are prefigured in a passage in Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. Looking back to the 17th century, she comments: "The characteristics of middle-class marriage are already present: the wife is chief consumer and showcase for her husband's wealth; idle, unproductive, narcissistic and conniving." Nowadays, some of Greer's ground-breaking book reads like a subtle attack on women rather than a diatribe against men. She goes on: "The true pattern is ... set in that it is the bride who initiates and controls all this spectacular consumption [the wedding]." It is harsh, yet there is truth in it. Naturally Greer called for absolute independence and self-reliance, commenting, "The bitter animosity and obscenity of divorce is unknown where individuals have not become Siamese twins." Like many feminist prophets, she did not address herself to serious issues of childcare which inevitably - and properly - involve curtailment of freedom, but for both parents.

One of the reasons I personally dislike the traditional big white wedding - the bride's special day - is because it serves both to express and reinforce the symbolic dependency of women. The vision of the prettily dressed bridal doll led down the aisle to be given away is more than a harmless vestige of patriarchal society; it sets up a tension between equality and dependency, which will not go away. Traditionally, daddy pays for the bash and hubby pays for the honeymoon; no wonder the habit of accepting the gifts sets in early. There can be no doubt that some women make the big mistake of seeing marriage as the end of achievement - in which case "to take him for all he's got" will be the only way of expressing disappointment and grief once the puffball is eaten by moths.

Of course, the only sensible course to steer is a pragmatic one - acknowledging that adults will behave badly towards each other, and that sometimes vengeance will drive the party who is wronged to extremes, aided by the law. That children should be supported is not the question here; the issue raised by the Miller and McFarlane cases is the extent to which a wife should expect to be kept "in the style to which she is accustomed", when more than three generations of struggle and reform must surely have called into question that word "kept". Natural justice protests, not on grounds of the man's ability to pay, but because it is demeaning for a woman to be so disabled by her own assumptions of need. Justice also compels the comment that a rich woman does not want to be taken to the cleaners by the penniless husband either.

Publicised wrangles over assets and maintenance set a tone which is likely to engender even more cynicism about love and marriage, especially in the young. The more matrimony is seen as a high-risk enterprise, the more people may decide to give it a miss. As someone who still firmly believes in commitment and in the nuclear family as an ideal, and who believes women should have the right to choose to stay at home and raise their children, I would see that trend as deeply worrying. In addition, all these public displays of rancour are renewed bouts in the sex war which diminish the idea of men and women as equals, comrades, lovers and friends, embarking on a shared life "of solace and peace", as the poet John Milton, the first great advocate of divorce, expressed the hope that we all cherish.