Of the many ways that our society discriminates against women, one of the least acknowledged is the unspoken stigma of divorce.
Let's be honest about it.Divorced women are often left with the responsibility of the kids and the day-to-day left-over problems of the marriage. Regardless of their training, many are forced to make less than credible livings because of the time lost in trying to raise a family. Then as members of the work force their divorced status often qualifies them to be the object of sexual harassment.
Last week I read two unsettling things about women and divorce. The first was an article in the New York Times about Albanian women, most of whom work while the men talk. Women bend over hoes, shovels, spades and pickaxes, doing the manual labor, while the men drive horse carts or work in the offices of the farm collectives.
In spite of that tradition, the laws promulgated by the Communist government that has ruled this small Balkan country since 1944 give women equal rights and equal pay - at least in theory.
Yet it is virtually impossible for women in this society to live alone. Whenever a marriage breaks up the woman is seen as the guilty party and is shunned by the general public. That factor, plus poverty and lack of housing, tends to keep families together - even if they don't want to be.
Often a divorced woman lives for many years in the same flat with the ex-husband - and even then suffers from the stigma of divorce.
The second thing I read about was much closer to home. It said that a divorced Utah woman must have her ex-husband's permission to use her birth name on her driver's license. When Wendy Jean Jorgensen was divorced, she decided to revert to her birth name - Alldredge. So she took her birth certificate and divorce decree to a driver's license official, who then discovered that the state had an earlier record of her license under her birth name.
Too bad. She couldn't use it.
According to an unwritten policy, she could not reclaim her birth name unless a judge specifically ruled she could - as ridiculous as that sounds. In October 1989, U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene made the unwritten policy a written one, ruling that while a marriage certificate is sufficient documentation that a woman has assumed her husband's name, a divorce decree isn't enough to show she has retaken her birth name.
According to Greene, Jorgensen could either go to court to amend her divorce decree or she could petition the court to change her name. The latter would cost about $300 and even then she could not count on getting her birth name back.
This is just another form of sexual harassment.
Jorgensen appealed Greene's decision, but the federal appellate court in Denver said, "there exists no right to use any name a person desires on a Utah driver's license." Allegedly, a driver's license is a privilege, not a right, and so Utah can do what it wants.
In the 2-1 decision, Justice Monroe McKay, dissented. "I can conceive of no legitimate interest which the state of Utah might have in making it simple for a woman to adopt a husband's name but difficult for her to shed it."
It's gratifying to know that at least one decisionmaker in this case came down on the side of humanity. Jorgensen remains rightfully furious and may take the case further. I hope she does - either back to the 10th Circuit or all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court - not just for herself but for all women.
There is no other way to explain this story without using the term sexual discrimination. Jorgensen's attorney cited a 1988 Vernal case in which a district judge ruled a divorced woman with children may not change her legal name unless she remarries.
It is time to admit that whenever divorce occurs it is because the marriage didn't work. It is impossible to automatically blame either party for the outcome - and that's just as true in Utah as it is in Albania.
Let's remove the divorce stigma from women.