Courting American Families: The Enforcement of Marital Financial Duties and the Creation of Courts of Domestic Relations, 1880-1930
Katz, Elizabeth D.
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CitationKatz, Elizabeth D. 2019. Courting American Families: The Enforcement of Marital Financial Duties and the Creation of Courts of Domestic Relations, 1880-1930. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation examines how judges, legislators, charity reformers, probation officers, litigants, journalists, and other stakeholders shaped laws and institutions governing the enforcement of family support obligations from the 1880s through the 1930s. In contrast to scholars’ frequent contention that courts were unwilling to intervene in ongoing or “intact” marriages in this period, this manuscript argues that judges and legislators routinely regulated spousal finances and implemented myriad reforms in furtherance of this effort. Faced with major economic and social transformations, including industrialization and the movement for women’s rights, lawmakers sought to calibrate the interests of wives, husbands, creditors, and taxpayers to facilitate economic exchange and reinforce marriage as a gendered system of dependency.
Over the course of this half century, courts and legislatures introduced or modernized common law, equity, civil statutes, quasi-criminal poor laws, and criminal statutes in an effort to weave a net through which no male breadwinner could slip. Husbands and fathers attempted to avoid enforcement through legal and extralegal strategies, most of which lawmakers were competent to address. The major weakness that undermined support laws by the late nineteenth century was men’s ability to flee across state lines, beyond the effective reach of civil or quasi-criminal laws. In order to extradite these men, legislatures enacted criminal nonsupport statutes. After criminalization, courts tasked newly minted probation officers with investigating and supervising offenders. The nascent probation profession became deeply invested in handling nonsupport, and probation officers were among the most vocal proponents of specialized “courts of domestic relations” that cities first opened to handle these matters in the 1910s. Probation advocates later pressed for the expansion of these tribunals’ jurisdiction, creating “family courts.” Probation-backed family courts profoundly enhanced the state’s ability to police family-related conduct but also came with procedural and other drawbacks. From the 1930s through 1950s, legislatures strategically relabeled family courts and support laws as “civil,” yet retained coercive powers developed in the criminal context. While states had long attempted to use law to coerce gendered family support obligations, it was criminalization that introduced much of the machinery that undergirds family court operation today.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:42013110
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