Opinion: What’s really behind the push to end no-fault divorce | CNN (2024)

Opinion: What’s really behind the push to end no-fault divorce | CNN (1)

No-fault divorce has been very good for women, and for men, too — except for those who want to keep women under their thumbs, writes Jill Filipovic.

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her onTwitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Viewmore opinionon CNN.


Should married couples be forced by law to stay together even if one of them wants to leave? That’s the position of a number of conservative activists, Republican commentators and even elected politicians who, in the wake of abortion rights being stripped from American women, now want to strip divorce rights, too.

Opinion: What’s really behind the push to end no-fault divorce | CNN (2)

Jill Filipovic.

They’re taking aim at no-fault divorce, the umbrella term for laws eventually passed in all 50 states that allow married couples to legally split without proving that one party did wrong, such as committing adultery or being abusive.

These laws, which began being implemented in the late 1960s, were huge feminist success stories. Before they existed,many women struggledto leave abusive or controlling relationships. In order to be granted a divorce and receive their fair share of the marital assets (and have theright to remarry), they had to either convince their abuser to agree to divorce them, or prove abuse in court — a humiliating and difficult process, with proof requirements that many abused women simply could not meet. Strict divorce laws kept women trapped, especially given that men have historically made more or all of the money in heterosexual marriages (the only kind allowed in the pre-no-fault-divorce era).

It’s no surprise that the advent of no-fault divorce brought with it steep declines in domestic abuse, with ratesfallingbetween a quarter and a half, depending on the state. The number of womenmurderedby their partners dropped 10%. Fewer women ended their lives by suicide.

And, yes, divorce rates also went up. It turns out that a lot of Americans were in unhappy, controlling, abusive or simply ill-suited marriages and no longer wanted to be. Conservatives argue that marriage is alifelong commitmentand agood unto itself. But Americans have voted with their feet. And after an initial spike,divorce rateshave actually beentrending down.

It’s also strange to make the case that it’s somehow pro-family to force someone to remain married to another unless the government deems that an acceptable level of wrongdoing has occurred. It’s worth asking what kind of person would want to legally compel a spouse to stay with them. Of course, most marriages have their ups and downs. But if one partner desperately wants to dissolve the union, it seems like a big red flag — a sign of control issues — if the other partner wants to legally compel them to stay.

Steven Crowder speaks during his protest against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the Michigan State capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. Crowder focused on Whitmer's decisions regarding seniors with COVID-19. (Nicole Hester/Ann Arbor News via AP) Nicole Hester/Ann Arbor News/AP Related article The right’s move against no-fault divorce is an attack on women

And yet that is what too many conservatives seem to want, sometimes even in cases where marriages may be violent. On the campaign trail, J.D. Vance, now the Republican senator from Ohio,saidthat “One of the great tricks that I think the sexual revolution pulled on the American populace … is the idea that, like, ‘Well, okay, these marriages were fundamentally, you know, they were maybe even violent, but certainly they were unhappy. And so getting rid of them and making it easier for people to shift spouses like they change their underwear, that’s going to make people happier in the long term.’”

Another conservative commentator and no-fault divorce opponent, Steven Crowder,complainsthat his wife divorced him — but he has beencaught on video saying she needed “discipline and respect,” suggesting she wasn’t a “worthy” wife and beratingher. (Crowder asserted that the video was “misleadingly edited.”)

One of the preeminent proponents for ending no-fault divorce in America is Beverly Willett, a conservative lawyer who largelyblames womenfor high divorce rates — although of course not for her own.She wanted to stay married; her husband didn’t. And because she was not able to use the full force of the law to compel her husband to remain married to her, she wants to take no-fault divorce off the table for everyone.

She’s not the only conservative who places the divorce blame more on women than men, and sees the end of no-fault divorce as one way for men to regain some of the power they lost in the wake of the second-wave feminist movement. Conservative commentator Matt Walsh, for example,tweeted: “I’m a huge advocate for marriage but I agree with the men who say that the system has been rigged against them, which understandably makes them nervous about marriage. Easiest way to fix this is to get rid of no-fault divorce completely and alimony in most cases.” Popular YouTuber Tim Poolechoedthat message in a segment titled “No-Fault Divorce Has DESTROYED Men’s Confidence In Marriage, Men Don’t Want To Get Married Anymore.” Conservative talking head Crowder also argued that “Oh, it’s no-fault divorce, which, by the way, means that in many of these states if a woman cheats on you, she leaves, she takes half.”

Of course, no-fault divorce also means that if amancheats on you,hetakes half. And if the female half of a heterosexual marriage is a higher earner, she may owe alimony to her ex-husband, even if he initiates the split. It also means that if a wife treats her husband the wayCrowder apparentlytreated his wife, the husband can leave. No-fault divorce didn’t hand women the unilateral power to end their marriages and grab half of their husbands’ assets; it essentially turned divorce gender-neutral, and allowed adults to exit marriages they no longer wanted to be in.

Saju Mathew as a college student in the mid 1990's. Courtesy Saju Mathew Related article Opinion: Why I had to break up my arranged marriage to a perfect mate

The push to end no-fault divorce is still fairly nascent. But the anti-feminist right — conservatives who are overtly hostile to many of the feminist gains of the last century — has scored several major victories, and seems to be expanding its agenda. The most notorious was the overturning of Roe v. Wade two years ago, which pitched American women back in time 50 years, to an era in which the right to abortion depends on where you live. Doctors now face serious criminal penalties including prison time in many conservative states if they provide even health-saving abortions. And the anti-abortion movement, including some conservativepoliticians, have set their sights on contraception and fertility treatments. These innovations are broadly popular, and yet Republicans in Congress have eithervoted againstprotecting nationwide access to them orblocked a votefrom happening.

It’s worth noting that contraception, abortion, fertility treatments and no-fault divorce are all tools that women have used to gain far greater power, economic stability and personal freedom. Being able to put off childbearing until one is ready and being able to end an unwanted or mistimed pregnancy have helped women and girls the world over to live healthier, wealthier lives. Abortion and contraception access have allowed more women and girls togo to school, toworkfor pay, to significantly increase theirearnings, toescapeabusive relationships and totake better careof their existing children. Fertility treatments are, of course, utilized by people of all ages, butwomenwho are later into their reproductive years are more likely to use them, which makes sense given that fertility declines with age.

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The knowledge that these treatments are available and increasingly effective may give women more confidence in the choice to delay childbearing until they feel ready, until they’ve met the right partner or until they decide to go at it alone. And no-fault divorce has been part of a broader social shift to seeing marriage as a union of two people who are lovers, economic partners, best friends andequals —a shift away from the view that marriage involves two individuals with two distinct roles (and the male partner holding nearly all of the economic, social and political power).

This has all been very good for women, and for men, too — except for those who want to keep women under their thumbs, or who want to turn the clock back to a time when women had far fewer rights and freedoms.

And that, unfortunately, describes too many people in today’s Republican Party — including those who want to force womenandmen to stay marriedwhether they like it or not.

Opinion: What’s really behind the push to end no-fault divorce | CNN (2024)


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