“Every three minutes a woman is raped! Every fifteen seconds a woman is battered! Every six hours a woman is battered to death!” (Mckenzie, Cover) Research indicates that half the women in this country will experience some sort of violence, from a husband or boyfriend, in one form or another and more than one-third are battered repeatedly every year. (Wilson, pg. 8) Domestic violence is often dismissed as a problem that affects only a small group of women, however, as the facts show, the problem is not rare.
The term “wife abuse” has many definitions: One of these is the use or threat of physical violence against a partner in a primary relationship. Physical violence is defined as an act that has the potential for physical injury to occur. According to this definition the abused person does not have to be married to the abuser to qualify as an abused victim.
In most states, if a woman does not want to press charges against her husband/boyfriend, the case is dropped. Often a woman will not press charges because she is scared of further abuse and/or economic deprivation for her and her children. (Felder, Victor, pg.20) Wife abuse is not a “private matter”. Its presence undermines society. Furthermore in cases where children are witnessing the abuse, the effects on the children is horrible. Studies show that children who witness wife-abuse are at greater risk for being abused or becoming abusers themselves. “Violence begets Violence” (Straus, Gelles, Steinmetz, pg.97-101) The Attorney General should prosecute wife-abuse cases with or without the consent of the victim.
Throughout history men have been held responsible for their women and children. With that responsibility, men were given power; That is, men historically have had the power to use force to control the behavior of their dependents and were expected to use so-called reasonable force in the exercise of their responsibilities. At times reasonable force included death, and has typically included beatings, and deprivation of food and other resources. (Straus, Gelles, Steinmetz, pg. 9-11) Wife abuse to an extent was the right of a husband. (Okun, pg.2)
The laws of chastisement date back to 753 B.C.. This law, also referred to as the “switch-thumb law”, allowed husbands to beat their wives with a rod or stick as long as its circumference was no larger that a man’s thumb. The rational for this law was that a wife was a man’s possession, (like a cow), and he was responsible for her behavior. Therefore, he had the right to punish and discipline her. (Okun, pg. 2)
When you see your wife commit an offense…Scold her sharply, bully and terrify her. And if this still does not work…..take up a stick and beat her soundly, for it is better to punish the body and correct the soul. (Okun, pg.3)
This privilege of “correcting” one’s spouse was given only to men. (Okun, pg.3)
The right of a man to kill his wife existed until the 1600’s in Russia and even until the 1900’s in some localities. In England, husbands escaped punishment for murdering their wives until the 1800’s. Wives had no right to refuse to have sex with their husbands. In fact there was no such concept as “marital rape” until the 1970’s. (Okun, pg.3-5)
In the 1880’s, England enacted several laws in order to protect women. One law established life-threatening beatings as a ground for divorce. Another law prohibited men from keeping their wives under lock and key. Yet another law deemed it illegal for a man to sell his wife into prostitution. (Okun, pg.5)
The Constitution of the United States did not address issues regarding spouse relations, except for the fourth amendment which secures the privacy of the home. Thus, it was left up to state legislature to determine what was legal or illegal in regard to wife abuse. In 1864, North Carolina overturned the “finger-switch rule”. However, the court cautioned that a “man’s home is his castle” and that it was best to “draw the curtain’s” so that the spouses could “forget and forgive”. In 1871, Alabama and Massachusetts enacted a similar policy. In 1883, Maryland was the first state to outlaw wife beating. By 1910, 35 of 46 states granted divorce on the grounds of physical cruelty and many states made wife beating prosecutable as an illegal assault. However, police and courts often overlooked wife-abuse as the custom of chastisement still prevailed. (Okun, pg.5-6)
From the 1920’s until the 1970’s the plight of abused wives was rarely heard. However, it was rediscovered because of three factors. (1) Kempe and Helfer (1963) published a paper on battered child syndrome. This awakened public awareness regarding family violence. (2) The nation became more aware of violence due to the civil strife of the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s and also due to the Vietnam War. (3) The emergence of the feminist movement made the public more aware of the injustices women faced both at home and in the work place. (Okun, pg.7)
The first shelter in the U.S.A. for battered women was opened in 1974. Currently there are over 600 shelters for battered women throughout the United States. Studies have been made regarding social policy in order to help and protect abused women. However, the problem is not yet resolved. (Okun, pg.7)
There is social stigma in regard to being an abused wife. One of the reasons for this is the many myths that exist in regard to wife abuse. These include: (1) Violence is a private affair. Unfortunately many people, including the police officers, believe this myth and hesitate to intervene. (2) Women provoke, want and/or enjoy the abuse they get. Most women try to please their abusive partner in hopes of preventing the abuse. In reality the abuser is the only one responsible for his behavior because he chooses to beat his wife regardless of her behavior. (3) A separation is made between ”worthy” and “unworthy” victims. “Worthy” victims are those who leave their husbands and prosecutor them. The “unworthy” victims are the women who stay married to their husbands or refuse to prosecute them. People who believe this myth fail to realize that abuse often escalates when women attempt to leave or prosecute, and that women are scared to leave due to the fact that they have no means of supporting themselves and their children. (Wilson, pg.13-17)
You might expect that if a woman had been beaten, she would not hesitate to seek help from law enforcement or a social service agency. However there are several reasons why wife abuse often remains a hidden crime. To begin with, for many women the pain and inner shame prevent them from revealing their beatings. She unrealistically hopes that her abuser will change and become the charmingly affectionate and caring person he was when they were dating. Many women are raised with the value system that they can change a wife-beater, and internalize the belief that their marriage is “for better or for worse”. When a man hits a woman for the first couple of times, he may apologize continuously, shower her with gifts, and promise not to do it again. The woman, in her desire to hold on to the relationship, will believe him because she wants it to be true. (Berger, pg.46-47) In many homes it is considered “normal” to have some level of violence between husband and wife. This is most likely to be the case when one or both partners have been exposed to violence as a child. A woman who saw her own mother being beaten may grow up believing that all men batter their wives. If she sees her abuse as “just the way things are,” it probably won’t occur to her that she can take steps to end the violence. (Okun, pg.166) Sociologists Murray Straus, Richard Gelles, and Suzanne Steinmetz, found in a 1980 survey, that one in four wives and one in three husbands thought that hitting ones spouse was a necessary and normal part of being married. (Straus, Gelles, Steinmetz, pg.47) Fortunately, spouse abuse is no longer considered acceptable behavior. Yet some men continue to abuse their wives out of fear of sharing empowerment with them. (McKenzie, pg.80)
A woman may also be unwilling to report the abuse because she fears reprisal by her husband. It is not unusual for a man to beat his wife even more severely if she calls the police or tells someone else about the abuse. Furthermore, police intervention rarely provides a woman any real, immediate protection. Therefore many women come to the conclusion that calling the police is ineffective and that it will only increase the chance of getting an even worse beating. (Straus, Gelles, pg.24-25)
If and when a woman decides to press charges against her husband for abuse she is faced with new problems. Police often fail to respond to domestic violence adequately. They often do not file reports and rarely make arrests regarding wife abuse. Throughout the country, police often decide to take the man for a “walk around the block” to “cool off”. When police fail to arrest abusers they reinforce the idea in the abusers mind that he can get away with beating his wife, and may lead to an even worse form of physical violence that may result in death for the victim. (Hong, pg.85-86) The few times that arrests were made, charges were often dropped, or judges gave extremely light sentences. (Berger, pg.49)
Another factor in under-reporting is that the majority of battered women blame themselves for the violence and thus feel too guilty, ashamed, and embarrassed to tell anyone about the problem. Rather than face the anticipated disapproval and disgrace, they remain silent, hoping to avoid further battering by trying harder to please their husbands. (Wilson, pg.19-20,23)
Finally many battered women are married to men who hold positions of high standing in the community. Such a woman may not want to press charges against her abuser because she feels that he has the ability to take away her children and her home, and she isn’t willing to take that risk. (Felder, Victor, pg.19-20)
Several problems have been mentioned above regarding the law enforcement policy and the judiciary system. These problems must be reformed. Policemen must receive training regarding intervention methods with domestic abuse cases. They should be encouraged to arrest the abuser and file reports against him. Policemen who fail to do so should be penalized. Furthermore, previous files should be allowed to be presented in court so that the judge can have an accurate picture of the domestic situation. Convicted wife abusers should be sentenced to jail and receive psychological treatment in order to prevent reoccurrence. Finally states should prosecute abusers regardless of the victims request. Other necessary reforms include an equal opportunity economic system, so that the abused women will have the opportunity to get sufficient jobs to support their families. This would give the abused women the realistic option of leaving their husbands. Ultimately, only a society built on mutual respect, opportunity, and equality between the genders will prevent wife abuse.
Felder, R., Victor, B. Getting Away With Murder. New York: Simon
and Schuster Trade Division, 1996
Hong, M., Family Abuse A National Epidemic. Springfield: Enslow
Publishers Inc., 1997
Mckenzie, V.M., Domestic Violence In America. Lawrenceville:
Brunswick Publishing Corp., 1995
Okun, L., Women Abuse: Facts Replacing Myths. New York: Slate
University Press, 1986
Straus, M.A., Gelles, R.J., Steinmetz, S.K., Behind Closed Doors:
Violence in the American Family. New York: Anchor Press, 1980
Straus, M.A., Gelles, R.J., Intimate Violence. New York: Simon and
Schuster Trade Division, 1988
Wilson, K.J., When Violence Begins At Home. Alameda: Hubter
House Inc. Publishers, 1997