THE ALABAMA ALIMONY LAW held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on Monday was a classic example of sex discrimination. It said that only women could be awarded alimony in divorce cases. A destitute man, being shunted aside by a wealthy wife, was out of luck. A destitute woman, on the other hand, could be awarded whatever financial support she needed.
The reasoning that produced this kind of legislation may have contained some logic a century ago. In those days, married women had no rights to speak of, not even the right to control their own property. But that reasoning is so absurd today that the best defense made for this law before the Supreme Court was that it compensated women for past acts of discrimination against them. The Supreme Court's majority was right in brushing aside that argument and ruling that alimony laws must not be limited to one sex. The financial support that needy divorcees should have can be provided just as easily under laws that authorize alimony to any needy spouse as it was under laws that excluded male beneficiaries.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this decision was the reaction of some opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment. Phyllis Schlafly said, "It's bad for women.... It's the beginning of the end of all alimony." She is partly right; the decision could be bad for rich women who have been supporting indigent husbands. But she is mostly wrong. The decision has nothing to do with the continuing existence of alimony laws. In more than three-fourths of the states, those laws are already applicable to both sexes, and any state that wanted to abolish alimony was free to do so before this decision. Criticisms of this kind seem based on the belief that legislatures will refuse to act rationally unless they are allowed to discriminate on the basis of sex. No evidence supports that thesis, and it seems likely that the 12 states affected by the decision will soon amend their laws to bring them into conformity with the laws existing in the 38 other states.