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The attack on no-fault divorce


Divorce has historically had a very problematic status in the Anglo-American legal world. In England for example, there was no legal divorce for nearly 200 years, from the Glorious Revolution until the Reform Act of 1852 (the only way to dissolve a marriage was via a private bill through Parliament).

In the US, legal divorces were very difficult to obtain in most states through much of the 19th and early 20th century, which led to certain states becoming havens for so-called “migratory divorce,” where couples would travel to obtain one. Indiana was noted for this in the 19th century, while Nevada became the top destination in the early to mid 20th century.

It comes as something of a shock to realize that the very first state to initiate no-fault divorce was California in 1969, via a bill signed by Ronald Reagan. Today, pushing back on no-fault divorce is a big item in the radical reactionary agenda:

Women of the 21st century are currently living through direct, concerted attacks to their rights including reproductive choice. This renewed assault on divorce shows how quickly purported concerns about marriage can become a proxy for a conservative agenda that wants to reinforce women’s subordination to men.

This panic is certainly misplaced if not outright malicious, and it’s worth understanding its parallels with the past. Throughout history, the way people talk about divorce reveals a great deal about the values of the groups who oppose it.

The key stat here is that divorce is initiated by the woman around 70% of the time in opposite gender marriages, even though in the long run divorce tends to leave women worse off economically relative to their former spouses. What that tells us, of course, is that marriage can often be sufficiently terrible for women in particular, to the point where accepting massive declines in income and wealth are worth it to the women in such situations.

This is exactly what the radical reactionaries hate: that women should have the freedom to choose to leave men who are awful enough to them to make the cost of divorce to these women reasonable. This is of course a broad generalization, and there are plenty of marriages where the man is the one who chooses to end it. But note that men are much more likely to benefit economically from divorce in the long run than women, which makes it all the more striking that divorces are initiated by women more than two thirds of the time.

When radical reactionaries call for a return to traditional values in family life, they mean returning to a cultural and legal situation where women didn’t have the freedom to leave bad marriages, the freedom to choose to have few or no children, the freedom to obtain professional employment etc. etc.

The backlash to no-fault divorce is a key piece of that agenda.

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