Who's Come a Long Way?

ROAMING THE REAL WORLD:

JOHN FEDDERS keeps reminding you just how much the country cares about the rights of women. Fedders, the former enforcement director of the Securities and Exchange Commission, resigned two years ago after his divorce blew into a public furor when he confessed to beating his wife repeatedly during their 18-year marriage. But before the "mainstream" could dismiss John Fedders as an aberration, the Maryland Courts stepped in. Late last month, the state rewarded him for his actions--and dampened whatever satisfaction Americans take as members of a society that has progressed in the area of equal rights.

Two years after the highly publicized divorce, the court ruled in favor of John Fedders's argument that his ex-wife, Charlotte, must share some of the blame for the beatings she suffered. She, the court decided, denied him emotional support during his times of depression. In a Kafkaesque fashion, the official went on to award John Fedders 25 percent of the proceeds from Charlotte's new book. The book, Shattered Dreams, deals mostly with physical and emotional abuse she and her children suffered during her marriage.

Make no mistake: the decision holds that the six-ft., 10-in. John Fedders was justified in inflicting injuries including a broken ear drum, a wrenched back and neck, cuts, bruises, and black eyes because Charlotte Fedders did not comfort him when he was depressed.

That John Fedders should be paid for beating his wife is not just painfully ironic. Maryland's court system has lent support to the revolting notion that women bear responsibility for violence done to them.

"This sends a terrible message out into the community," said Ann Pauley, a spokeswoman for the Women's Legal Defense Fund. "It says to men that there are some circumstances in which you are justified in physically abusing your wife or girlfriend." The National Coalition against Domestic Violence and NOW are among the groups supporting Chalotte Fedders and helping to finance her appeal.

AFTER being struck by her husband, the Godfather's daughter Sandra appeals to Don Corleone's justice, saying "You never beat your wife." The Godfather answers: "She never gave me reason to beat her." The court's ruling, as certainly as the exchange in the movie, makes clear that a good wife fulfills her husband's needs and stays in line. Only bad wives get beaten.

Inevitably, that message reaches the ears of women as well as men, inverting the victim and the criminal in domestic violence. Says Charlotte Fedders: "There are women who are taught that marriage is forever, who feel guilty when they are beated and think it's their fault because this doesn't happen to good people or rich people or successful people." Battered wives with low self-esteem who are given the impression that they bear some responsibility for their own beatings are not likely to file charges or leave their husbands. And then wife-beating will remain one of the most common unreported crimes.

CHARLOTTE FEDDERS'S experience attests to the perpetuation of antiquated sex roles. John Fedders was entitled to no more support from his wife than she was from him. If Fedders attacked Fedders with a weapon (he's big, remember) for not comforting her, would a judge have ruled that he was at fault and then grant her a share of the profits from his book?

The implication is that it's the wife's job to serve her husband--have his pot roast ready, bring him his newspaper and his slippers, ask him how the day went, and all before putting Wally and the Beaver to bed before 10 p.m.

The court's decision appears all the more ridiculous when one considers just what it sought to determine. Namely, if Charlotte Fedders provided enough emotional support. But how much is enough? And, more to the point, how is emotional support measured--in hugs and kisses provided? You, the court effectively told Charlotte Fedders, provided only 7.5 units of sustenance, whereas your husband required 10.7 units.

The idea that a person is responsible for another's depression is a little odd, anyway. Life has its problems, and everyone has to deal with them. Like the man said, "We're all alone out there, and tomorrow we're going out there again."

In the end about the only thing worthwhile about the Maryland court's ruling is that it provides an indication of just how interested this society is in safeguarding the rights of all its members.