Mothers on Trial
There is a widespread belief that when marriages break up and child custody is in dispute, mothers nearly always win, father's very rarely. And given another popular notion – that of the deeply loving New Father who is willing to take on childrearing and housekeeping responsibilities on his own – this state of affairs has come to be perceived as singularly unfair. Phyllis Chesler's mammoth new work, Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody (McGraw Hill, $19.95), demolishes these claims, demonstrating on the contrary that, when fathers choose to sue for child custody, they very often get it. Due to the epidemic of family abandonment by fathers, judges tend to be impressed by fathers who fight for custody; and the frequent brainwashing of children by fathers is simply considered proof of the father's wish for intimacy with his children.
Chesler is a woman of vision and courage who chooses no small or easy tasks. Her earlier books, such as Women and Madness, have become classics, their arguments part of the public consciousness. No brief review can do justice to the scope or style of her current book, a rich fabric woven of compelling data from her interviews with warring parents, evocations of myth and poetry, and the transcribed voices of mothers on trial. It is enriched with illuminating sections on custody battles throughout the world, noncustodial parents, brainwashing and the even more devastating siege experienced by mothers who are poor, black, lesbian or imprisoned. It also includes intriguing explorations of fetal politics and children's rights.
After chronicling the pre-1900 history of custody battles, Chesler then shows just how little has changed: Mothers can still lose custody of their children for not having paid employment – and for having it; for holding minority religious or political opinions; or for accusing their husbands of child abuse, incest or wife beating, accusations often regarded by judges as signs of the mother's instability. Chesler concludes that women lose custody because they are women, and men win custody because they are men – "not because mothers are 'unfit' or because fathers are truly 'equal' parents…"
In the typical custody trial, Chesler argues, the father's rights to his children are emphasized, while the mother's rights are ignored. On the other hand, the mother's responsibilities are the focus of harsh scrutiny, and maternal imperfection is often confused with maternal unfitness, whereas the father's parenting style is usually ignored. To underscore the injustice of this double standard, Chesler reports that the husbands of the women she interviewed had done few or none of the 25 child-care tasks that all of the mothers had done for their children; most of the husbands won custody. Fathers win, Chesler, simply because they have more money to keep on fighting; because they have greater status and influence in the eyes of male judges, layers and mental-health professionals; and because they often brainwash their children and use physical violence to terrorize their former wives.
Chesler uncovers some shocking parallels between contemporary custody hearings and the witch trials, finding that lawyers, judges and mental health professionals have been shown – sometimes in research by members of their own professions – to seek out evil, "perverse sexuality" and child neglect in mothers, even while turning a blind eye to fathers' alcoholism, violence and sexual aggression against their children.
Who are these mothers who lose and fathers who win? With fathers' interview data generally confirming the mothers' claims, Chesler found that 62 percent of the victorious fathers had physically abused their wives, 57 percent had brainwashed their children against their mothers, 37 percent had kidnapped their children (usually with impunity) and many had financially deprived their children. Chesler here pays tribute to the mothers who, though actually or relatively poor, legally less powerful and overcommitted with mothering duties, nevertheless remain remarkably calm and nonviolent in raising their children: "Custodially embattled mothers did not view themselves as philosophers or heroes. I ultimately did…Under siege, they maintained their pre-existing non-violent bond toward their children."
Chesler finds fathers' motives suspect. Two-thirds of the fathers in her study said they sued for custody for economic reasons – wanting to keep possession of the house, for example, or to avoid supporting both former wife and new wife. Many sued because of their ex-wives' sexual activities following divorce – even in cases in which the men had sexually inactive or impotent while married.
Chesler makes some suggestions about what should be done, but she doesn't claim to have all the answers. She proposes, for example, that "mothers must be guaranteed the means as well as the right to bear and raise a child." And perhaps most important, she calls for a series of "speakouts" so that through hearing the voices of these mothers on trial we can learn to develop fairer solutions. Chesler's book is a powerful beginning to this process, a breathtaking immersion in the issues in all their complexity and poignancy.
This is a bold book, intimate and rich in detail… Chesler is a voice crying out for women. She will never stop
--Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics and Going to Iran
The 2011 Edition of Mothers on Trial
The Battle for Children and Custody
Updated & revised with 7 new chapters, a new introduction, and a new resources section.
The 2009 Edition of
Woman's Inhumanity to Woman
Including a new Introduction by the author.
Note: The content of external articles does not necessarily reflect the views of The Phyllis Chesler Organization.