The Historical Plight of the Battered Wife
Throughout history society has largely ignored the plight of the battered wife, oftentimes even blaming her for her plight (Martin, 1976). In fact, Martin (1976) points out that many see the battered wife as a conspirator with the “media, police, the social scientists, the social reformers, and the social workers” to keep the issue of domestic violence hidden. In primitive society women held an equal if not higher status than their male counterparts (Martin, 1976). This changed however due largely in part to the switch from polygamous lifestyles to a “pairing” based on monogamy. Interestingly enough, even the speculation behind how and when spousal abuse became the standard has consistently been attributed to women. Martin (1976) reports that women’s desire for protection caused their complete subjugation to men.
Once “pairing marriage” became the norm, men took control of the home and all those within it were seen as his property (Martin, 1976). It was common practice for women to be kidnapped from their family and raped by men in order to claim them as late as the fifteenth century (Martin, 1976). Women were beaten in order for the men to maintain control with their actions sanctioned by society, the church, and sometimes the women themselves. Men worked hard to incorporate their “inhumane attitudes into the dominant culture” to maintain control and prevent themselves from taking responsibility for their actions (Martin, 19676, p.29).
The Medieval times were racked by the continued the belief that women were inferior largely supported by the Judeo Christian doctrine and the church. Women were not only less than, but men were justified in the actions they took to punish them. Things were not improved during the sixteenth century with laws permitting women to be killed by their husbands with zero repercussions. The methods by which they did so are repulsive and include such acts as beating a woman, making her put on alcohol soaked clothing and setting her on fire or burying her up to her head in the ground and leaving her to die (Martin, 1976). Words like “pummel” or “throttle” were utilized to glaze over the real description of what happens, “assault”, “abuse”, and sometimes “murder” of women (Martin, 1976, p.6).
By the 1800’s in America rules began to be placed on just how a wife could be beaten such as “with a switch no bigger than a thumb” or restricting them to not causing any permanent injury (Martin, 1976). While that seems ludicrous that it would be progress, it is far better than burning women alive. However, it was not until 1890 that the Supreme Court of the United States made wife beating illegal under any circumstances. Unfortunately, the creation of laws and the implementation of them were two entirely different stories. It would not be until the late 1970’s, almost a hundred years later that women began to have a voice.
In a 1976 women gathered in Brussels and raised their collective voices to bring awareness to the victimization of women around the world (1976). This voice was not quite loud enough to circumvent the deeply embedded beliefs that women were somehow a separate and less than species. In the late 1970s Walker (1979) presented previous research comparing women who remained in abusive relationships to the learned helplessness displayed by rats in earlier experiments. This is indicative of the mind set at the time as women were not seen as complex beings but rather animal like creatures responding to a stimulus ignoring their “agency, strength, and determination”. Despite this, in was during the 1970’s that the victim rights movement and rape and shelter crisis movements first started making headway (Martin, 1976, p. 17).
While laws were created and women began to have the right to press charges against their spouses, the actual implementation of those laws was so complex that oftentimes they were not enforced after. While society generally understands what assault and battery or rape are crime and that laws exist to prevent them, there is a fundamental break in the understanding that these things are not ok when occurring between two people in marriage or a “loving” relationship (Martin, 1976).
The seventies also brought about much needed research into the nature of abusive relationships such as Walker’s “Cycle of Violence” (Walker, 1979)). Rather than looking at spousal abuse as a deserved response to a woman’s actions, Walker (1979) described a pattern of consistent behavior experienced within abusive relationships including: the tension building phase, the acute battering incident, the honeymoon phase.” This was a vital development as well because it gave an explanation as to why women stayed that was not based on them not having any more sense than a rat.
In 1973 the first victim assistance conference was conducted after which many domestic violence organizations were created (Tobolowsky et al., 2010). This was followed by the 1981 proclamation of the first Crime Victim’s Rights week by Regan and the creation of an investigation group to look into the plight of victims. They found that violence against women is primarily intimate partner violence with over 64% of those being raped, physically assaulted, or stalked being victimized by their significant other (National Institute of Justice, 2000).
While the outcomes were mixed, the 1970’s also brought about a series of civil suits against police departments and cities for a failure to enforce the laws protecting women (Jones, 2000). This lead to an increased awareness on the plight of domestic violence victims which in turn lead to more research. Sherman and Berk (1984) conducted the groundbreaking Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment that looked into the effect arresting those accused of domestic violence on deterring future acts of violence. Not surprisingly they found that when police made an arrest as opposed to separating the couple or offering mediation, offenders were less likely to commit future acts (Sherman and Berk, 1984). Currently there is more of a multidisciplinary approach to handling the issue of interpersonal violence and how it is handled. Many states have created specialized domestic violence courts consisting of state attorneys, civil attorneys from advocacy organizations, as well as community and system advocates.
While progress has continued to be made, the most recent important pieces of legislation was the 1994 Violence Against Women’s Act (Office of Violence Against Women, 2014). This act created the Office of Violence Against Women within the Justice Department and created multiple federal domestic violence offences (OVAW, 2014). Traveling across state lines to commit domestic violence, to stalk someone, or to violate a protective order all became federal crimes (OVAW, 2014). This act was revised and reauthorized multiple times in order to improve prevention efforts, legal assistance programs and housing access as well as to improve protections for those in the LGBTQ+ and immigrant community (National Network to End Domestic Violence, 2016).
Even though Martin’s (1976) book was written in the 1970’s it is vital to today because there continues to exist within our world the common thread that while violent behavior may be illegal, “there are certain circumstances in which it is expected and almost inevitably occurs” (p. 9). The work largely built a foundation on which the issue of domestic violence could be investigated and understood.
It is also a reminder that while we have far to go, we have made progress. At the time Martin’s book was written it was still legal to rape your wife. Marital rape became illegal in all 50 states in 1993, though it should be mentioned that many states still punish rape differently depending on whether or not it occurred within a marital relationship. Gratefully since the publication of Martin’s book women have continued to raise their voices and demand and end to the violence and subjugation they have experienced for centuries.
Jones, A. (2000). Next time, she’ll be dead: Battering and how to stop it. Boston: Beacon Press
National Institute of Justice (2000). Full report of the prevalence, incidence, and consequence of violence against women. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/183781.pdf
Office of Violence Against Women (2014). About the office. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/ovw/about-office
National Network to End Domestic Violence (2016). Violence against women act. Retrieved from http://nnedv.org/policy/issues/vawa.html
Sherman, L.W. and Berk, R.A. (1984). The Minneapolis domestic violence experiment. Police foundation reports. Washington, D.C.: Police Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.policefoundation.org/publication/the-minneapolis-domestic-violence-experiment/
Tobolowsky, P.M. et al. (2010). Crime victim rights and remedies (2nd ed.). North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press.
Walker, L.E. (1979). The battered woman. New York, NY: Harper Perennial