Thursday, January 1, 2009

Custody Cases in Women's History

A woman's ability to produce a new human directly from her body is an extraordinary power. Until recently in human history, a man had no way to prove any child was actually his.

Men asserted their power through laws that made women and children their property, giving men rights of ownership over all human production. As in many other cultures, Old English Common Law crafted marriage from the same fabric as slavery. Custom required a woman to take her husband's name at marriage: she had become his property.

Struggles over custody are nothing new. In her book Revolutionary Heart, (, Diane Eickhoff presents Clarina Nichols' account of her 1860 arrest and trial with other citizens intent on rescuing children from their violent father:

Clarina Nichols' writing and speaking helped spread awareness of custody as a women's issue. The power of abusive men to seize custody of their children would expand as they paid psychologists to allege that mothers were mentally ill or had "alienated," "brainwashed," or "coached" children against their fathers. Soon custody courts produced a river of revenue for lawyers and clinicians until children reached emancipation at age 18. These cases multiplied throughout the next century. The first Battered Mothers Custody Conference met at Siena College in Albany, New York, in 2004.

Nichols still inspires us as we write about children held hostage by 21st Century custody courts and the lawyers and clinicians who have built and exploited this market.