The Abuse of Women—A Worldwide Issue - American Traditions
wife court husband violence
Early Laws Allow "Chastisement"
In colonial America, English common law allowed physical "chastisement," as long as the husband did not inflict permanent damage on his wife. The early Puritans, however, forbade wife beating. According to a Massachusetts Bay Colony edict, "No man shall strike his wife nor any woman her husband on penalty of such fine not exceeding ten pounds for one offense, or such corporal punishment as the County shall determine."
Calvin Bradley v. The State (of Mississippi) resulted in the first American legal ruling on the subject of "reasonable chastisement." In that 1824 case, the court found that Bradley, convicted by a lower court of assault and battery against his wife, had gone too far in chastising his wife. "If the defendant now before us could shew from the record, in this case he confined himself within reasonable bounds, when he thought proper to chastise his wife, we would deliberate long before an affirmance of the judgment," the court noted. While criticizing Bradley for bringing shame to his family, the court ruled:
Family broils and dissensions cannot be investigated before the tribunals of the country, without casting a shade over the character of those who are unfortunately engaged in the controversy. To screen from public reproach those who may be thus unhappily situated, let the husband be permitted to exercise the right of moderate chastisement in cases of great emergency and use salutary restrains in every case of misbehavior, without being subjected to vexatious prosecutions, resulting in mutual discredit and shame of all parties concerned.
Early Feminists Fail to Improve Wives' Legal Status
The first women's rights movement, inaugurated in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention, was the first movement to analyze the husband's right to chastise his wife as a symbol of the political system of male dominance over females. In the Declaration of Sentiments (1848), the women objected to the status of married women: "In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master —the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement."
A North Carolina High Court's ruling in State v. Jesse Black in 1864 illustrated the assertion of the Seneca Falls women, that upon marriage, husbands became the rulers of their wives. The case involved a man who abused his wife after she called him names. In its ruling the court said:
A husband is responsible for the acts of his wife and he is required to govern his household, and for that purpose the law permits him to use towards his wife such a degree of force as is necessary to control an unruly temper and make her behave herself; and unless some permanent injury be inflicted, or there be an excess of violence, or such a degree of cruelty as shows that it is inflicted to gratify his own bad passions, the law will not invade the domestic forum, or go behind the curtain.
In 1874, just ten years later, the North Carolina court again expressed concern about excessive abuse but advised against public scrutiny of, or interference in, domestic and marital relationships. In State v. Richard Oliver, the court found:
From motives of public policy and in order to preserve the sanctity of the domestic circle, the Courts will not listen to trivial complaints…. If no permanent injury has been inflicted, nor malice, cruelty, nor dangerous violence shown by the husband, it is better to draw the curtain, shut out the public gaze, and leave the parties to forget and forgive.
A Change in Direction
In a landmark Alabama case in 1871, a court found that a husband did not have the right to physically abuse his wife, even "moderately" or with "restraint." In Fulgham v. State, the court ruled that a married woman deserved protection under the law. The ruling stated:
A rod which may be drawn through the wedding ring is not now deemed necessary to teach the wife her duty and subjection to the husband. The husband is therefore not justified or allowed by law to use such a weapon, or any other, for her moderate correction. The wife is not to be considered as the husband's slave. And the privilege, ancient though it be, to beat her with a stick, to pull her hair, choke her, spit in her face or kick her about the floor, or to inflict upon her like indignities, is not now acknowledged by our law.
In the same year (1871), the Massachusetts Supreme Court rejected a husband's manslaughter defense that he had a right to chastise his wife for drunkenness. He had hit his inebriated wife several times on the cheek and temple; she had fallen as a result, hit her head, and died. In Commonwealth v. McAfee, the Massachusetts Supreme Court announced that "beating or striking a wife violently with the open hand is not one of the rights conferred on a husband by the marriage, even if the wife be drunk or insolent."
Although the Alabama and Massachusetts cases declared husbands did not have the right to physically chastise their wives, no criminal penalties were yet attached to physical abuse. In fact, in a case three years earlier, State v. Rhodes, the North Carolina Supreme Court declared that although a husband's whipping of his wife "would without question have constituted a battery if the subject of it had not been the defendant's wife," they refused to convict him of assault and battery, ruling that if domestic assaults were prosecuted, "the evil of publicity would be greater than the evil involved in the trifles complained of."
Although Maryland enacted a law in 1882 that punished wife beaters with forty lashes with a whip or a year in jail, even in the early twentieth century courts still refused to convict wife batterers. In 1910 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Thompson v. Thompson that a wife had no cause for action on an assault and battery charge against her husband because it "would open the doors of the courts to accusations of all sorts of one spouse against the other and bring into public notice complaints for assaults, slander and libel."
Despite Laws, Little Recourse for Battered Wives
Thus, although court decisions affirmed that a husband could no longer legally beat his wife, in almost all cases a battered wife in the early twentieth century still had no legal recourse against her husband. Any criminal proceedings against a wife batterer had to be initiated by the state; women could not sue their husbands. Instead, the criminal justice system set up a separate court system—the family court—to deal with domestic complaints. According to author Reva B. Siegel, this act decriminalized physical abuse of women ("'The Rule of Love': Wife Beating as Prerogative and Privacy," Yale Law Journal, vol. 106, June 1996). Rather than punishing wife beaters, judges and social workers urged couples to reconcile, providing counseling designed to prevent divorce. Assault in this context was viewed as an inappropriate expression of emotions; wives and husbands needed to learn how to rechannel those emotions.
The ruling of a 1962 landmark case changed the legal consequences of physical abuse of a spouse. In Self v. Self, the Supreme Court of California agreed with earlier rulings, stating that a spouse's right to sue would "destroy the peace and harmony of the house." Despite that finding, the court observed that this outdated assumption was based "on the bald theory that after a husband has beaten his wife there is a state of peace and harmony left to be disturbed." Therefore, "one spouse may maintain an action against the other" for physical abuse.
Despite the ruling enabling victims to seek legal recourse, by 1965 there had been little change. Jurisdictions throughout the United States ignored the complaints of battered women. For example, in Washington, D.C., 7,400 women filed official complaints and just two hundred arrest warrants were issued.
Social and Legal Recognition of Domestic Violence
In 1973 the first battered women's shelter in the United States opened in St. Paul, Minnesota. By 1976 there were four hundred programs for battered women operating in the United States. EMERGE, the first treatment program for male offenders, opened in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1977, and the following year many states enacted laws to protect victims of domestic violence. A decade later, in 1988, the U.S. surgeon general declared domestic abuse the leading health hazard to women in the United States. By the 1990s, there were well over a thousand battered women's programs in the United States.
In 1994 the Violence against Women Act granted female victims of violence, including battered women, federal civil rights protection. The civil rights section of the Violence against Women Act was tested in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999, when Christy Brzonkala filed a civil suit after being raped by two football players from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. In a five-to-four decision in U.S. v. Morrison, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could not enact a federal civil remedy "for victims of gender-motivated violence." Individuals who committed crimes motivated by a gender bias, the Court ruled, could not be held accountable at the federal level.
The U.S. Congress passed a revised act in October 2000, Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, which included sections on Strengthening Law Enforcement to Reduce Violence against Women, Strengthening Services to Victims of Violence, Limiting the Effects of Violence on Children, Strengthening Education and Training to Combat Violence against Women. The new legislation made no mention of women's civil rights. And although spouse abuse is illegal in the United States and women may now sue their abusers for damages at the state level, battering continues. Many women still feel helpless and trapped in abusive relationships, unable to tell others about their problems and unsure of where to seek and obtain help.