Culture Magazine

The Evil Stepmother Versus the Bereft Wife

By Sedulia @Sedulia


To each country its unique injustices... I know an American woman from a wealthy family whose father dumped her mother and married his secretary, leaving his children nothing when he died. In her memoir Title Deeds, British aristocrat Liza Campbell writes how her father, once one of the richest men in England, left all his money and Cawdor castle, which had been in the family for hundreds of years, to her stepmother, who finally gave her... one of his pens. 

Many people don't realize that the current longevity of women compared to men is largely due to the fact that women no longer suffer uncontrolled, dangerous childbirth their whole fertile lives. In places where this is still true, like Afghanistan, women still die earlier than men. In the past, before modern medicine improved the outlook for childbirth, and without contraception, men outlived women and often found themselves widowers with small children. Naturally, they married again, and just as naturally, the stepmothers tended to prefer their own children; although there are many loving stepmothers, the stereotype exists for a reason.

In French law, the Napoleonic Code provides that no parent can disinherit a child. Children must be treated equally (recently, children born of extramarital relationships were added, so that they are now treated equally as heirs with the children of the marriage) and the wife definitely comes last... this seems to imply that the Code expected the wife not to be the children's mother, doesn't it? 

This prevents the kind of cruelty experienced by my acquaintance and by Liza Campbell, but it creates a different injustice. In France, a widow can be left almost penniless because most of the money goes automatically to the children, even her own children. Only careful estate planning can avoid this!

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