On the Front Lines of Divorce Reform: Military Divorce and Homemakers’ Place in the Social Welfare Regime

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 3:30 PM
Columbia Hall 2 (Washington Hilton)
Suzanne M. Kahn, Columbia University
In 1976, Richard McCarty, a U.S. Army colonel, sued his wife of 19 ½ years for a divorce. He sued in California, a community property state, where courts routinely divided military pensions in divorce settlements. Richard appealed that award, and in 1981 the Supreme Court overturned the California ruling, declaring that, absent specific authorization from Congress, military pensions could not be divided in divorces. 

This paper examines ex-military wives’ efforts to establish dependent ex-military spouses’ right to military benefits such as pensions and health care. The McCarty case was a defining moment for these efforts and the activism of divorced women more generally. For more than ten years, as the divorce rate rose rapidly, divorced women had organized to improve their economic security by establishing an earned right to their ex-husbands’ pensions and health insurance. The McCarty case created a rallying point for these women. All divorce could be economically devastating for dependent spouses, but military divorce provided a particularly poignant example of the importance of employment-based benefits and the difficulties homemakers had establishing their own careers. Perhaps as a result, military wives’ activism led to the quick enactment of a law returning military divorce to the pre-McCarty status-quo. That 1983 law did not establish a homemaker’s right to military benefits, military wives’ initial goal, but it was nevertheless an important victory.

The fight over military benefits for ex-wives was a significant chapter in the process of recasting homemakers’ role in the social welfare regime in response to the challenge rising divorce rates posed to the practice of distributing resources through male-breadwinner based families. Examining military wives’ efforts to pass this law provides insight into policymakers’ view of homemakers, the narratives homemakers constructed to make their case, and the ability of the welfare state to adapt to new family structures.

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