‘Hysterical’ Women Out for Revenge: Family Court’s Misogynistic Tropes Traumatize Women and Children

“The judge had already decided I’m a scorned ex-wife, out to get my ex and alienate my daughter against her father,” said one mother fighting for custody. “It can only be explained by gender bias.”

Michael Douglas and Glenn Close star in the 1987 film, Fatal Attraction. The underlying stereotype of the scorned woman seen in popular media is very much alive in the U.S. family court system.

“You play fair with me, I’ll play fair with you.”

This is what Alex Forrest, famously played by Glenn Close, tells Dan Gallagher in the 1980s thriller Fatal Attraction. But most viewers come to think she’s anything but fair—going off the deep end after Dan has an affair with her but won’t leave his wife. Alex is portrayed as hysterical, unhinged and possibly borderline personality disordered. (You may recall her boiling Dan’s daughter’s bunny in a pot.)

But, while this movie may seem extreme, the underlying stereotype of the scorned woman is very much alive in our family court system every single day. The misogynist trope of the “hysterical woman out for revenge” is used quite effectively by coercive controlling abusers—and, as a result, some women lose custody of their children and are financially ruined.

“It’s insane. I sat there at our last custody hearing realizing the judge had already decided I’m a scorned ex-wife, out to get my ex and alienate my daughter against her father,” said Diana, a doctor whose ex-husband is trying to get full custody of their child. (Her name has been changed in this reporting to protect her identity.) “This happened even though there was so much evidence of his abuse from a counselor, teacher and other factual data. How can you disregard this? It can only be explained by gender bias.”

The misogynist trope of the ‘hysterical woman out for revenge’ is used quite effectively by abusers.

She is far from alone. Attorney Suzanne Zaccour studied this phenomenon because it’s not uncommon, publishing the study “Crazy Women and Hysterical Mothers: The Gendered Use of Mental-Health Labels in Custody Disputes” for the Canada Journal of Family in 2018. Zaccour is the director of legal affairs at the National Association of Women in the Law in Ottawa.

“Judges are suspicious about who is making the domestic abuse allegations. Often the woman might appear ‘crazy’ because she has suffered the impact of trauma and to them that makes her less credible,” Zaccour said. “Then, the father comes in, often charismatic, saying, ‘I’m a reasonable person.’ And when he might say the mother is a good one and she should have visitation, he looks more reasonable.”

Zaccour blames “good old misogyny and the trope of women who want revenge after he cheats on her” portrayed in the media, movies and literature.

“The second thing is it’s more comfortable to accept the explanation that women are crazy, rather than that many men are violent,” she said. “Statistics about fathers being violent against women and children are super high and judges see the most conflictual cases—so an even higher proportion of violence. But it’s difficult for them to believe that all these men are violent. … It simply cannot be true. Judges cling to the idea that domestic abuse is rare and an exception.”

So, to recap: Domestic abuse victims suffer intimate partner trauma to themselves and their children, but when they go to the legal system for help, they are actually punished for being traumatized. This causes a secondary trauma wound called institutional betrayal: when an institution causes harm to the very people who depend on it.

“Institutional betrayal can occur through ignorance, meaning you don’t have to wake up with evil thoughts to cause harm. You can cause harm because you’re ignorant and don’t understand interpersonal violence,” said Dr. Jennifer Freyd, founder and president of the Center for Institutional Courage, who has studied this subject for decades. “Betrayal is really damaging. It adds so much risk to people, causing them to get post-trauma symptoms to their physical health and mental health. It’s toxic.”

This betrayal and trauma can even cause people to attempt suicide, Freyd said. In her last letters to friends, Catherine Kassenoff—a New York mother and attorney who lost custody of her daughters—said the family court system’s betrayal is what drove her to assisted suicide in May 2023. Kassenoff’s attorney admitted the court saw her as “unhinged” for being persistent in pursuit of her girls. 

It’s more comfortable to accept the explanation that women are crazy, rather than that many men are violent.

A groundswell of attention on this issue—and the misused theory of “parental alienation” weaponized by abusers as a defense to gain custody of children—is finally growing. In June, the United Nations Humans Rights Council spoke out against the unfair treatment of domestic abuse victims in family court. It blamed “harmful gender stereotypes and discriminatory gender bias among family law judges” in its request for submissions on this topic.

Sandy Ross, a child safety advocate who is championing the passage of Piqui’s Law in California, said a personal experience in 2005 changed her forever. “Once you see what’s happening in family court … well, it’s challenging to walk away from that,” she said. 

Piqui’s Law: Keeping Children Safe From Family Violence Act passed unanimously in the California Assembly on Sept. 13; it now awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature. The law is named for a 5-year-old boy who was murdered by his father on April 21, 2017, despite his mother’s warnings. It requires judges and court professionals involved in custody and domestic violence to complete crucial training. And it also bans use of reunification camps—controversial therapy programs that claim to “reunite” children with estranged, sometimes abusive, parents.

“I strongly believe the tide is turning,” Ross said. “Finally, we are getting worldwide attention, even from the U.N., and the issue is rising to a level where it cannot be ignored.”

Diana, the doctor fighting for custody of her daughter, hopes this is true—even if it’s too late for her. Her biggest fear is that her daughter has seen that “a man can treat you really badly and you’re supposed to take it” and “if you speak up against a man, you will pay a price.”

Her solution to gender bias in court? It’s simple. “Hold the judges accountable and make it possible for people to sue the judge,” she said. “That’s how doctors stay in place. We know if we do something wrong, there are repercussions. Right now, there are none for judges, and that’s how this misogyny lives on.”

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