March 8, 2022

History of Women and Divorce in the United States

Michael & Russell, PLLC is honored to be the first and only law firm focused on adoption and collaborative family law in the southeast region of North Carolina. In addition, we’re women owned and managed – one of few law offices in the area to have that distinction.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re taking a look back at the history of divorce and how, over time, it has become more accessible to women. While society has come a long way from 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing all American women the right to vote, in the middle part of the 20th Century, women continued to fight for legal rights. Filing for divorce, without having to claim fault or wrongdoing, was one of those demands.

Introduction of No-Fault Divorce

In 1969, California made a big step toward women’s equality under the leadership of then Governor Ronald Reagan. The state adopted the nation’s very first no-fault divorce law which allowed divorce by mutual consent. Prior to this law in California, and in the other 49 states without this law, couples had to prove spousal wrongdoing in order to file for divorce. This meant that in order to file for divorce or be granted a divorce, a spouse had to prove that the other spouse was at fault for the breakdown of their marriage. When California’s no-fault divorce law was passed, it caused a massive surge in divorce filings as spouses, many of them women, began filing for divorce.  

As you can imagine, the reason for the surge stemmed from many situations. For some spouses, prior to this law, they didn’t have access to reasonable cause for divorce. As a result, many were essentially forced to stay in unhappy marriages. Some studies show that with the introduction of no-fault divorce laws there was a direct correlation with a decrease in domestic violence and suicide in women. According to a working paper written by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), California and other states that passed unilateral, no-fault divorce laws reported:

Researchers for the NBER have gone on to say that unilateral divorce ended up changing the dynamics of a marriage by increasing the bargaining power of the dissatisfied spouse.

Michael & Russell co-owner and attorney Ashley-Nicole Russell is an expert in the history of divorce in the United States and how it has evolved over time. In her book, The Cure for Divorce Culture, she investigates how no-fault laws in the United States contributed to the rise of divorce and the overall divorce litigation system as we know it.

Divorce Revolution in the United States

Once California’s no-fault divorce law went into effect, many other states followed. Within a decade, divorce filings increased exponentially. This time period is often referred to as “the divorce revolution.” The concept of no-fault divorce and the implementation of family court systems soon became options through much of the nation. The timing of this also aligned with the Women’s Liberation Movement. As the trend traveled across the nation, divorce rates spiked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With this increase, came a backlog of cases. The court system was forced to adapt to the growth which contributed to the type of divorce litigation that we know today. It became an expensive and time-consuming process to divorce. It also became adversarial, with cases often riddled with conflict – especially when they involved children, child custody, and child support.

As you can see from the above graph from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Monthly Vital Statistics Report in 1995, the divorce rate is tracked from 1950 to 1990. The 40 years detailed here show us quite a lot about divorce in the United States. The dashed line details the number of children involved in divorces while the solid line details the number of divorces. While the data seems to level off after 1980, there are still more than a million divorces reported each year. Meanwhile, since the 1970s, there have been more than a million children involved in divorce each year. During this timeframe, the majority of divorces in the United States were handled using divorce litigation, known to many as traditional divorce.

Longterm Effects of Divorce Litigation

Litigation in the family court system has caused decades of damage, especially for children of divorce. Fortunately, in 1990, another type of divorce was created by a frustrated family law attorney in Minnesota. Stu Webb founded collaborative law after he experienced his own divorce in a setting that was respectful and based on open and honest communication. (You can read more about the creation of collaborative law in a recent blog we wrote by clicking here.)

In Ashley-Nicole’s book, The Cure for Divorce Culture, she also explains how divorce litigation contributed to increased conflict in the family and custody battles, which led to long-lasting impacts for children of divorce. Through her research, she discovered overwhelming statistics on the legacy of litigated conflict, specifically the impact a parent’s divorce can have on a child. These findings show complications in personal relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, and depression including:

Based on Ashley-Nicole’s research on marriage, divorce, and generations of children of divorce, it is clear that in many ways litigated divorce proceedings create unnecessary conflict.

One could argue that litigation still finds a way to make one spouse at fault for the dissolution of marriage. This mindset brings us right back to the 1960s and the mindset that a divorce needs to be someone else’s fault in order for it to be valid.

Our Commitment to Collaborative Practice

Here at Michael & Russell, we truly believe that divorce doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault. We know through our professional experience that some married couples grow apart, want different things, or become unhappy. And that’s okay.

We also know that divorce doesn’t have to be a destructive, dramatic, or defensive experience. Our knowledgeable legal team is committed to practicing collaborative family law. After collaborative law was founded by Attorney Webb, it made its way to North Carolina in the late 1990s. Then, in 2003, the state legislature passed a bill recognizing collaborative law as an alternative to court divorce and defining the key components of the process. You can read more about this through the North Carolina Collaborative Attorney Network (NC-CAN) website. Considered a type of alternative dispute resolution proceeding, the collaborative law process keeps families out of the courtroom and shields them from the negative impact that litigation can cause. In fact, that’s why our law firm was created. Ashley-Nicole teamed up with experienced collaborative law attorney and board-certified legal specialist in family law Ashley Michael to develop Michael & Russell, PLLC.

As the first collaborative-focused law firm in the area, Ashley-Nicole and Ashley saw a need to bring this type of process option to families in the Wilmington region.

At Michael & Russell, PLLC, you can trust that we are committed to serving you and your family with compassion and empathy. We are able to provide collaborative divorce and family law services to all of southeastern North Carolina. Please reach out to our Wilmington-based legal team at 910-255-5722 to learn more about working with us for your collaborative divorce or family law needs.