A doormat wife gets her life together only to find her middle-age husband is having an affair with her therapist.
A helpmate wife and mother scrapes by while her husband leads a lavish lifestyle with a young chippy.
An aging movie actress starts drinking after her husband goes for a teenager--and her assets.
It's not revenge, the three heroines of "The First Wives Club" sweetly insist after they pay back these midlife galoots by blackmailing them into financing a women's crisis center. It's justice.
Actually, for many middle-age divorced women, it's "wish fulfillment," according to Olivia Goldsmith, author of the book that inspired the current hit movie. While the stories were inspired by people she knew, she said, "Women don't really have most of those options."
Despite its glitz and humorous veneer, the comedy has struck an exposed nerve among women older than 50--who if they haven't been abandoned already are fearful they will be. While the divorce rate has dipped recently to about 40%, according to the U.S. Census, still more than 60% of the 10.1 million divorced women in the U.S. are older than 40.
Our era's infatuation with divorce and social acceptance of wife shucking is to blame, Goldsmith suggested.
"In the old days, men might have played around and had mistresses on the side. They didn't abandon their wives and children. They weren't allowed to. Society would not have accepted it," she explained. Lately, she noted, high profile examples are easily found in men like Donald Trump, who announced his engagement while still married to the mother of his children. Even public proponents of family values, such as Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, left their first wives after long marriages.
Sociologists have long documented the emotional and financial free fall of many women and their children after divorce. Some believe it has worsened due to a backlash against feminism, rising support for fathers' rights, judicial and governmental ineptitude, or because women themselves continue to strive for society's impossibly mixed imperatives ("Be independent, nurturing and have thin thighs").
Even in the '90s, many women still regard divorce as failure and can't bear the possibility of further humiliation and defeat. In the movie, the three college chums unite for action after a fourth friend, whose tycoon husband has left her for a younger woman, leaps to her death from her penthouse.
"We've seen several suicides," said Monica Getz, founder of the Coalition for Family Justice, a national support and advocacy group based in Irvington-on-the-Hudson in New York. The major problem, she said, is that when women fight for their legal rights or for custody, they typically face a formidable "combination of an aggressive, powerful spouse, hiring an aggressive, powerful attorney, and the court system being power-friendly rather than family-friendly."
"Women, unfortunately, go into this like lambs to the slaughter. We have this visual image of Bambi in open season," she said.
"Family law is disgusting," agreed Lomita attorney Pat Barry, who gave up taking cases of embattled divorcees who could not afford to litigate in courts, where gender bias is pervasive. "If I fight back, it escalates the fees. You try to talk sense [to the other side]. They just laugh. They know the judge will always side with the rich man."
This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case of a woman who lost all her parental rights because she didn't have $2,000 to appeal a custody decision.
Some women are driven to action by their quest for justice--or revenge. One 50-year-old California woman, who lost her home and children after her doctor husband left her for a succession of younger women, has been waging a custody and support battle for eight years. " 'Justice' would be having him penniless," she said. "I would like him to be financially unable to support himself. I'd like him to be maimed and to have no penis."
Success stories, however, are rare enough that real-life heroines like Marilyn Kane are elevated to the cover of People magazine and booked for speaking engagements. A New York real estate agent, Kane once faced eviction while her ex-husband, who owed $580,000 in child support, went to Hawaii with his new wife and sent her a postcard: "Having a ball. Glad you're not here." Last year, a judge sent him to jail until he could come up with at least $68,000 of what he owed.
(Unlike many others, she said she enjoyed emotional and financial support from her second husband to carry on the fight.)
"If justice is getting even, then yes, I got even," Kane said.
Kane said she never felt malice toward her ex-husband, Jeffrey Nichols. What made her pursue litigation relentlessly, she said, was her belief in "justice and democracy." Said Kane: "I knew the laws were in place. I would not allow those to be set aside and ignored."