Josh Hawley Was An Early No-Fault Divorce Skeptic

Long before red-pilled streamers like Steven Crowder, Tim Pool, and Matt Walsh were agitating for an end to no-fault divorce laws, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) was urging conservatives to “reconsider” the wisdom of legal reforms that made it easier to dissolve a marriage. Just two years after the last state in the country adopted no-fault divorce, Hawley questioned the practice in an op-ed for National Affairs.

“Americans are in a disagreeable mood,” Hawley, then a plucky young lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, wrote in 2012. The problem, he concluded, was the decline of two-parent families, and he had a prescription to fix it. “Conservatives should support tax reforms — like increased child credits and marriage credits — that reward two-parent families … And they should reconsider the wisdom of no-fault divorce.”

Prior to the 1970s, if you wanted to end a marriage in America, you had to prove that your spouse had done you wrong — cheated, abandoned or otherwise treated you cruelly. The tide started to turn in 1969, when California became the first state to legalize “no-fault divorce,” allowing couples to end a marriage contract without assigning blame to one spouse or the other. It took more than 40 years for every state in the country to enact such laws; conservative lawmakers and commentators, like Hawley, began arguing they’d made a mistake.

Six years after his op-ed, Hawley, then a candidate for Senate in Missouri, was asked about no-fault divorce at a campaign event in the town of Arnold. “My family had a very hard divorce,” an attendee of the event told Hawley, who went on to ask whether Hawley believed ending no-fault divorce would “keep more families together.”

“You know, a lot of people have proposed changes to that,” Hawley said, according to a recording of the event shared with Rolling Stone. “My view has always been: It’s a state issue … And states should, you know, do what they want and what they think works best. I think the main thing is it’s got to be something that’s good for women and for families.”

States do regulate divorce (and always have) — regrettably, for some Missourians who disagree with a statute that makes it difficult for women to finalize a divorce while pregnant — so that part of Hawley’s comment is uncontroversial. The implication that ending no-fault divorce might be “good for women and for families” is controversial, however.

If you ask experts, the evidence that no-fault divorce was a positive development for women and their families is overwhelming: A 2006 study by economists at the University of Pennsylvania found an 8 to 16 percent drop in the suicide rate among married women and a 30 percent drop in domestic violence in that states that adopted no-fault divorce. Betsey Stevenson, one of the authors of that study, wrote that the decrease they observed “was not just because abused women (and men) could more easily divorce their abusers, but also because potential abusers knew that they were more likely to be left.” A 2003 Stanford University study similarly found the rate of female suicides fell by between 11 to 19 percent, the rate of husbands convicted of murdering their wives dropped by 10 percent, and domestic violence overall declined by one-third in the first decade after states implemented no-fault divorce.

Hawley’s position on no-fault divorce was one of a series of regressive positions highlighted by a group of Missouri tradeswomen in a June open letter to the senator, written after he expressed support for Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker. In May, Butker told female graduates of Benedictine College they’d had “the most diabolical lies” told to them by people who encouraged them to seek a career rather than prioritize homemaking and motherhood. Butker’s comments incited a predictable backlash, with Hawley — who considers the football player a personal friend — springing to his defense. “I just thought that his calls for folks to stand up and be bold was great.”

Butker, the women wrote, “has a right to say and believe what he wants.” But, Hawley, they argued, “has taken this obsession with controlling how women live to elected office,” noting that the Missouri senator has voted against the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, “attacked no-fault divorce laws … [and] led the charge to take away the freedom to choose how we build our families and what we do with our bodies.”

Hawley’s Senate office and campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Hawley was an early voice calling for a “reconsideration” of no-fault divorce — but 12 years later, the position is going mainstream inside a Republican Party seemingly determined to strip women of the rights and freedom they won over the last century.

In 2022, the Texas GOP added language to its platform calling for an end to the practice: “We urge the Legislature to rescind unilateral no-fault divorce laws, to support covenant marriage, and to pass legislation extending the period of time in which a divorce may occur to six months after the date of filing for divorce.” Louisiana Republicans considered a similar proposal last year. The Nebraska GOP holds the position that no-fault divorce should only be accessible to couples without children. In Oklahoma, state Sen. Dusty Deevers (R) introduced a bill this year that would ban no-fault divorce.

It’s a view that’s increasingly common among some of the party’s highest profile national figures too: House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) declared in a 2016 sermon that the era of legalized abortion and no-fault divorce laws had turned the United States into a “completely amoral society.” (Johnson himself has a covenant marriage, a more onerous legal agreement that can only be broken if one spouse can prove adultery, physical or sexual abuse within the family, abandonment, alcohol or drug addiction, or a felony conviction that results in prison or a death sentence.)

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) — one of the individuals Donald Trump is reportedly considering for his vice president — bemoaned the fact that no-fault divorce made it easier for people to leave “violent” and “unhappy” marriages, suggesting it was wrong-headed to believe that “making it easier for people to shift spouses like they change their underwear, that’s going to make people happier in the long term.” (Hawley has been among the biggest champions of Vance’s political career.)

It’s disappointing to re-read Hawley’s National Affairs op-ed more than a decade later, and recognize that the idea that caught fire among Republicans was the call to reconsider no-fault divorce, rather than one of his other suggestions: increasing child tax credits. Today, a bill that would restore the expanded child tax credit — legislation that was responsible for the single largest drop in child poverty in U.S. history — is languishing in the Senate due to a lack of Republican support. Hawley himself has indicated he would come on-board with the bill — but only if it contained an unrelated earmark, renewing a compensation fund for victims of radiation exposure.

More from Rolling Stone

Best of Rolling Stone