By Cathy Young

On the heels of First Wives Club comes a more serious but equally tendentious treatment of the women-as-divorce-victims theme: journalist Karen Winner's Divorced from Justice: The Abuse of Women and Children by Divorce Lawyers and Judges. With rhetoric out of a Gothic novel, Winner paints a grim picture in which divorcing women enter a world of "shadows and terror." Trapped in a male-dominated system, they face economic ruin and the loss of their children. Winner credits Lenore Weitzman's 1985 The Divorce Revolution as a trailblazer in documenting the abuse of women in divorce courts. Alas, she cannot use the factoid that made Weitzman one of America's most quoted: that women's income post-divorce drops 73 percent while men's goes up 42 percent.

A fellow sociologist who recently reanalyzed Weitzman's 1977 data found that the actual drop for women was 27 percent, the rise for men 10 percent; Weitzman has acknowledged her error. (There is evidence that, since non-custodial parents cannot deduct child support payments, while custodial parents don't have to report them as taxable income, women come out ahead when taxes are factored in.)

An error of this size might be thought to cast doubt on the book's value, but it doesn't give Winner pause. Yet many of Weitzman's other claims -- picked up by Winner -- are at odds with virtually all other research. She is the only scholar to find fathers' non-payment of child support is not related to their financial hardships and that most of these men do not want more contact with their children.

Winner also says fathers who seek custody mostly do so as a ploy, to blackmail mothers into accepting less property and child support. Predictably, she concludes that gender-neutral custody laws hurt women and urges a return to explicit maternal preference.

This is a familiar argument. But those few researchers -- such as Eleanor Maccoby and Robert Mnookin of Stanford -- who have bothered to investigate rather than decry "custody blackmail" have found that it may occur but is far from common, both because few men stoop to such tactics and because an insincere custody bid may not work as a credible threat.

Winner contends, too, that under a veneer of neutrality the courts actually discriminate against mothers, giving custody to men in the majority of litigated cases. This pseudo-factoid deserves a separate analysis. For now, let's just say it's a whopper.

Undoubtedly, as Winner argues, far too many lawyers mistreat clients. But her contention that women are more vulnerable to such abuse is not backed by any research, only by more rhetoric that insultingly portrays women as guileless naifs. You'd never know that more husbands than wives in divorces have no legal representation.

Many studies show divorced men often feel helpless and abused by lawyers and the courts; Sanford Braver of Arizona State University has found they are more likely to feel this way than women, who are more satisfied by the legal process. In his study, 75 percent of the men and 35 percent of the women believed the system in divorce cases was slanted toward mothers; fewer than 10 percent of the women and no men said it was slanted toward fathers.

After years of deadbeat-dad-bashing, many scholars of both sexes now argue that many divorced dads vanish because they are disenfranchised, and that the way to help them be good fathers is to make sure they have a say in their children's lives. Winner's book is a throwback to a women good/men bad mind-set.

Sadly, it comes with a foreword from famed prosecutor Christopher Darden and blurbs from U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler -- and conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher, undeterred by the quotations from radical feminists that pepper Divorced from Justice. Apparently, the idea of men as beasts and women as damsels in distress still has broad appeal.

Cathy Young is vice-president of the Women's Freedom Network.