by Steve Baron (MA, LMFT)
An excellent review of domestic violence and the law is captured in Domestic Violence –Legal and Social Reality, by D. Kelly Weisberg, a Professor, Hastings College of Law, University of California (Weisberg, 2012). A wonderful timeline of the history of domestic violence over the centuries is captured in the “Herstory of Domestic Violence: A Timeline of the Battered Women’s Movement” (SafeNetwork: California’s Domestic Violence Resource, 1999). The following summary of just some of the key issues and developments over time is drawn primarily from those sources. Domestic violence laws can be traced back to 753 B.C., where, during the reign of Romulus in Rome, wife beating was accepted and condoned under the Laws of Chastisement. The Church in the Middle Ages continued its history of sanctioning the subjection of women: Rules of Marriage “…When you see our wife commit an offense…scold her sharply, bully and terrify her….if this doesn’t work…take up a stick and beat her soundly, for it is better to punish the body and correct the soul than to damage the soul and spare the body.” The stick was limited to the diameter of the man’s thumb, hence “the rule of thumb.”
Early settlers in America in the 1500’s based their laws on old English common-law, which explicitly permitted wife-beating for correctional purposes. During that period in England, Lord Hale, who regularly burned women at the stake as witches, formally condoned marital rape. Women and children were taught that it was their duty to obey the man of the house and violence was encouraged. In the mid- 17th century, the Massachusetts Puritans enacted the first American Laws against wife beating as part of a criminal code that encompassed their religious and humanitarian beliefs about the proper treatment of women and children, but the next major change in United States legal policy did not occur until the 19th century. Until then, Anglo-American common law structured marriage to give a husband superiority over his wife in most aspects of the relationship including that a husband could command his wife’s obedience and subject her to corporal punishment or “chastisement” if she defied his authority.
The first organized protest against wife beating came from the pre CivilWar temperance movement where advocates drew attention to the violence that drunken husbands often inflicted on their families. In 1848 a women’s rights movement that grew out of temperance and abolitionist protests held its first convention in Seneca Falls, NY, and formulated the Declaration of Sentiments: “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.” (Stanton, 2015) Thereafter follows a litany of abuses and various human rights violations. But the battle had only begun.
In 1871, Alabama became the first state to rescind the legal right of men to beat their wives. Massachusetts also declared wife beating illegal. In 1874, the Supreme Court of North Carolina ruled that “the husband has no right to chastise his wife under any circumstances.” Moving forward, in 1882 Maryland was the first state to pass a law that made wife-beating a crime, punishable by 40 lashes or a year in jail.
Gradually divorce became the accepted remedy for abused wives. To demonstrate she was entitled to a divorce, a battered wife typically had to prove that her husband acted with “extreme” and “repeated” cruelty, against which husbands could defend themselves by alleging that wives had misbehaved and “provoked” the violence, or that she delayed petitioning for divorce and so “condoned” the violence.
In the early 20th century, the first adult psychiatric clinic was directly linked to a Chicago court, and with it came the beginning of official diversion and exclusion of violence against wives from the criminal justice system. The belief at that time was domestic violence should be treated as a family problem. So, those who assaulted strangers could be held criminally accountable, but the same behavior directed towards a wife was allowed to escape any criminal consequences
In 1945, a California statute declared that “Any husband who willfully inflicts upon his wife corporal injury resulting in a traumatic condition, and any person who willfully inflicts upon any child any cruel and inhumane corporal punishment or injury resulting in a traumatic condition is guilty of a felony….”
The 1950’s and early 60’s civil rights, anti-war, and black liberation movements deeply affected the development of feminism and women’s struggle for equality. During that period, in a coalition with Al-anon programs, Rainbow Retreat in Phoenix and Haven House in Pasadena began treating battered women married to alcoholic men. In 1967, Maine opened one of the first Battered Women shelters in the U.S. In 1969, California adopted no-fault divorce which made it easier for women to get out of abusive marriages.
The criminal justice system during the 1960’s conceived of crisis intervention as a humane program to aid police, the courts and victims. Police were trained to mediate and refer families to social and psychiatric services rather than arrest. Family courts and social work approaches reduced criminal assaults to problems of individual & social pathology. It didn’t work. Police often got called back, time and again, to the same home with the same issue. To this day police are concerned when responding to domestic disturbance calls, and rightly so. 116 law enforcement officers were killed while responding to domestic disturbance calls from 1996 to 2010 (Cassandra Kercher, 2013). It continues to be a regular occurrence across the country.
The feminist movement continued to press for action to address violence against women. The Domestic Violence Act, which passed in 1976, allowed for limited temporary restraining orders. The first White House meeting including testimony of battered women occurred in 1977. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights sponsored a Consultation on Battered Women in 1978. “Battered spouse” and “battered woman” were new categories added to the International Classification of Diseases, and the Senate passed Domestic Violence Act of 1978. That same year Lenore Walker authored The Battered Woman. By 1981 there were 500 battered women’s shelters in the U.S.
In 1980, the The Domestic Abuse Intervention Project was established in Duluth, Minnesota by the late sociologist Ellen Pence and other activists in the battered women’s movement in response to an incident of partner homicide. The Duluth Model advocated for strategic principles of interagency intervention (coordinated community intervention and response), and accountability (for perpetrators, law enforcement, the courts, community agencies and providers). The model aimed to place the burden for responding to DV on the community rather than the victim. The Power and Control Wheel, the theoretical framework of the batterers’ treatment program, was derived from interviews with over 200 battered women at Duluth’s battered women’s shelters in 1984. They challenged the conventional wisdom that battering is cyclical and limited to physical abuse, believing instead that abuse was a constant pattern of the abuse of power in various domains of their intimate relationships that ultimately undermined the partner’s ability to act autonomously. The wheel set forth the feminist philosophy premised on the belief that DV is typically a male-specific form of the abuse of power and control analogous to other forms of domination (e.g., racism), and that men battered women as a means of ensuring female subordination. The Duluth model emphasized the need for victim SAFETY and victim advocacy at all stages of intervention.
Throughout the 1980’s, laws and law enforcement protocols in most areas of the country began to evolve in the direction of enhancing training and a more appropriate response to domestic violence though enforcement. The response, however, was very uneven and victims often were not protected. By the late 80’s, there were about 1200 battered women’s shelters in the country.
The United Nations, in 1993, recognized DV as an international human rights issue and issued a Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Congress, in 1994, passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), as part of the federal Crime Victims Act. VAWA has been regularly renewed since that time and continues to fund services for victims of rape and DV, allows women to seek civil rights remedies for gender-related crimes, and provides training to increase police and court officials’ sensitivity.
Since that time laws and justice system protocols have continued to evolve in an attempt to better address the issue of domestic violence and victim safety, including laws giving the issue of domestic violence increased weight in determining “best interest” in child custody and visitation cases. Most recently the concept of “Coercive Control” as the driving component in domestic violence has received increasing attention as described in the section below – “Domestic Violence 101.”
Baker, C. N. (2020, November 11). A New Frontier in Domestic Violence Prevention: Coercive Control Bans. Ms. Magazine.
Carlson, B. (2000). Children exposed to intimate partner vciolence: Research findings and implications for intervention. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 1(4), 321-342.
Cassandra Kercher, D. I. (2013). Homicides of law enforcement officers responding to domestic disturbance calls. Injury Prevention Oct; 19(5), 331-5.
Dong, M. A. (2004). The interrelatedness of multiple forms of childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Child Abuse and Neglect, 28,, 771-784. (n.d.).
National Domestic Violence Hotline.
SafeNetwork: California’s Domestic Violence Resource. (1999). Herstory of Domestic Violence: A timeline of the battered Women’s movement. Calif. Dept. Health Svcs, and Intervace Children’s Family Services.
Smith, S. Z. (2018). The National Intimate partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2015 Data Brrief – Updated Release. Atlanta, Georga: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Stanton, E. C. (2015). A Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. American Roots.
Stark, E. (2009). Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life . Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
Vincent J. Felitte, R. F. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults – The Adverse Child Chiild Ex[periences (ACE) . American Journal of Prevention lMedicine, 14(4) .
Weisberg, D. K. (2012). Domestic Violence: legal and Social Reality, Second Edition. New York: Aspen Publishers.