Some advocates worry that the movie, or at least the promotional clips on TV, continue to promote stereotypes of ex-wives as jealous, vindictive or greedy. In a cameo at the end, blond and bejeweled Ivana Trump brightly advises the heroines: "Don't get mad. Get everything!"
Geraldine Jensen, founder of the Assn. for Children for Enforcement of Support, said the average mother seeking child support is not married to a mogul or tycoon. "She is more like me. He worked at a factory. I worked as a nurse's aide. I got the house and the house payment. He got the good car, I got the old car. He paid $250 for six months and then stopped."
When she couldn't meet the house payment, she and her children became homeless. "Every time I went to the government, they had another reason why they couldn't help me. I wore myself out and I got sick." Finally, in 1984, she organized ACES. "The phone has not stopped ringing," she said.
"The same government agency that didn't help me is the same one that helps only 20% [of parents with support orders] today. It's sad," she said, "but it's an improvement."
One of the movie's truths, she said, is that the only way women will survive the current callous climate is to band together. "Alone, we're not making it," Jensen said.
Charlotte Coats, 48, a Tustin attorney who handles divorce and custody cases, lived through her own such battles 15 years ago.
She and her first husband divorced when she was 33. But the movie brought back memories of her clients, and of her parents: They split a few months after their 25th wedding anniversary after her father's "midlife crisis," Coats said.
"I did see the movie," she said of "The First Wives Club." "I thought it was just absolutely a really good movie. . . . It's certainly in a lot of instances not necessarily what real life is about it.
"And my primary reason for going," she admitted with a laugh, "was I thought I might get some good ideas to pass along laughs to the moms I represent! I think we all kind of fantasize we could do that stuff. . . . I think for somebody . . . like us to go see it, it is really good because they did what we didn't have the opportunity to do."
Members of a real first wives club in Los Angeles said their group has helped them let go and move on.
Rather than revenge, the goal of LADIES (Life After Divorce Is Eventually Sane), formed 14 years ago by ex-wives of Hollywood celebrities, was healing and mutual support.
"In the end, living well is the best revenge," said Sandi Nimoy, 64, who was divorced eight years ago from "Star Trek" star Leonard Nimoy. She said she suffered a breakdown after the public breakup of her 33-year marriage and had to learn who she was besides somebody's wife.
"Now I'm not somebody's wife. I have built my own image," she said. "I say to people, if I can make it, anybody can make it."
The other women not only provided social support, she said, but they also exchanged valuable information about which lawyers to trust and accompanied one another to court.
Now, the former celebrity wives are helping other women become emotionally and financially independent, speaking at community colleges and volunteering at organizations such as Women Helping Women Services in Los Angeles and Women Work! in Washington, D.C.
The hardest women to reach, Nimoy said, are wives like she was--those who "don't want to give up the fantasy that it's never going to happen to them. . . . We have to look at it a little more pragmatically."
Whatever strategies women use after a marital breakup can't compare to prevention, said Judith Lichtman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Women's Legal Defense Fund, a national advocacy organization.
Given the current situation of unequal economic power between men and women, she said, "The extent to which we have jobs and economic security that's not dependent on a man's income is directly related to the extent to which you have a better bargaining position."
What's more, she said, "We do need to look at ways of encouraging people that making a decision to marry ought to be serious and introspective and thoughtful.
"What does it mean to be married the rest of my life, in sickness and in health? Do I mean it? What does it mean to parent kids? Who's going to pay for sustenance and support?
"And am I prepared to make those commitments?"
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Orange County Resources
Support groups and resources are available throughout the county for divorcing women. Many city governments, hospitals, churches, colleges and women's organizations offer hotlines and help. Meetings may require prior registration. A small sampling:
Orange County Bar Assn.: (714) 440-6700. Has several information hotlines but suggests the following agencies depending on need:
* Legal Action Workshop, (714) 633-2840, a privately owned firm offering cost-effective help for people, especially in divorce and domestic violence cases, who represent themselves but receive advice from lawyers.