This chapter presents the intriguing story of the history of alimony, a history inextricably linked with evolving views of the status of women, the meaning of marriage, the right to divorce, and the rationale for alimony. Prior to the English reforms of 1857, a man who married undertook a lifetime obligation to support his wife. Although he could obtain a legal separation, rarely could he obtain an absolute divorce—that is, a full severance of marital ties. Whether or not spouses lived together, the husband's duty of support continued throughout the wife's life. Underpinning the husband's support obligation was an assumption that married women should not and often could not support themselves. However, the appearance of absolute divorce and the supposed end of coverture meant the end of caregivers' lifetime support ticket and also the end of a clear rationale for alimony. But alimony mysteriously endures. A partial explanation may lie in Reva Siegel's observation that the law of coverture continued to influence judicial thinking well into the twentieth century. Courts may have also been inspired by the pragmatic concern that if a dependent wife were cut off from her source of support, she would become a public charge.
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