Women as Property
Well into the 19th century, U.S. laws were influenced by the 1768 English “rule of thumb” law, which allowed a husband to beat his wife as long as the stick was no thicker than his thumb. 
Early in America's history, women were viewed as the property of men, much like children or slaves, who could be punished physically for not obeying orders. The Mississippi Supreme Court in 1824 upheld a husband's right to use corporal punishment on his wife, even as women were fighting for equal rights and the right to vote.
Suffrage and temperance movement leaders in the 19th and early 20th centuries saw wife beating as one of society's scourges. The first women's-rights convention was held in Seneca, N.Y., in 1848, and by the 1870s, wife beating was becoming unacceptable, at least legally. In 1871, courts in Alabama and Massachusetts overturned the right of a husband to beat his wife. This change coincided with growing concern over child abuse, which expanded to women's issues.
Maryland became the first state to outlaw wife beating, in 1883, but it took the turbulent 1960s and the women's movement of the 1970s to fundamentally change how Americans viewed domestic violence. 
The race riots, violent protests and assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s prompted creation of the President's Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. The panel's national survey gave researchers invaluable — and troubling — data. For instance, about a quarter of all adult men said they could think of circumstances in which it was acceptable for spouses to hit one another. 
While abhorring violence in the streets, many Americans still viewed domestic violence as a private matter between family members. For example, after a young woman in New York City named Kitty Genovese was stabbed repeatedly in an alley in 1964 — and her neighbors ignored her screams — many concluded that Americans had become inured to violence. But upon closer examination, the witnesses said they didn't get involved because they thought it was a man beating his wife and felt it wasn't their business to get involved. 
Police and judges also were reluctant to intervene in family matters that turned violent. For example, in 1967 the International Association of Police training manual said that “in dealing with family disputes, arrest should be exercised as a last resort.”
The women's-rights movement of the 1970s helped to change such attitudes about handling domestic violence. It led to establishment of telephone hotlines, support groups and shelters for rape victims — all of which helped battered women admit that they were being beaten at home. The first shelter for battered women opened in 1974 in St. Paul, Minn., and the National Organization for Women created a task force to examine wife beating in 1975.
The judicial and law-enforcement communities also began to step in. In 1977 Oregon became the first state to enact a mandatory-arrest law for domestic-violence incidents. The next year Minnesota became the first state to allow domestic-violence arrests without warrants. By 1980, all but six states had domestic-violence laws. And in 1981, Massachusetts and New Jersey supreme courts ruled that a husband could be criminally liable for raping his wife.
In many cases, police departments beefed up their domestic-violence activities in order to protect against lawsuits. In 1984, a jury awarded a $2.3 million judgment against the Torrington, Conn., police department for failing to protect a woman and her son from her husband's repeated violence. Indeed, while the police were at her house, Tracy Thurman's husband stabbed her 13 times and broke her neck, leaving her partially paralyzed.
That same year, Congress passed the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act and the Victims of Crime Act, which, for the first time, provided money for states to set up shelters for battered women and a national, toll-free hotline for victims of domestic violence. The amount of money provided, however, was “but a trickle,” wrote Richard J. Gelles, now dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in the field. 
By 1987, more than half of the nation's major police departments had adopted “pro-arrest” policies requiring officers to make arrests in domestic-violence cases unless they could document a good reason not to.
Two widely reported cases in the 1980s dispelled the notion that domestic violence affected only the poor or uneducated. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan forced the resignation of John Fedders, a top official at the Securities and Exchange Commission, when Fedders' wife cited 18 years of repeated beatings as grounds for divorce.
Two years later, New York City lawyer Joel Steinberg was convicted of beating his 8-year-old adopted daughter Lisa to death. *During the trial it was also disclosed that Steinberg also routinely beat his companion, Hedda Nussbaum, who hadn't tried to stop the child's abuse. Photos of Nussbaum's badly injured face and vacant stare introduced the nation to “battered women's syndrome,” suffered by women living in abusive relationships. Its symptoms include loss of self-esteem, fear, passivity and isolation.
While data suggest that fewer battered women are resorting to violence against their abusers, no one really knows how many women are in prison today for killing or assaulting their abusive partners, says Sue Osthoff, director of the Philadelphia-based National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women. Recent Justice Department data don't track how many violent crimes committed by women involve spouses or intimates, although a 1991 Justice Department survey of 11,800 female prisoners found that nearly 20 percent were incarcerated for a violent offense committed against an intimate.
Only 125 battered women from 23 states have received clemency since 1978, according to the clearinghouse. Osthoff says many governors and pardon boards are leery of giving battered women a break on their sentences because much of the public opposes early releases for anyone convicted of violent crimes, including battered women. In addition, many believe victims could have avoided violence by turning to today's array of domestic-violence programs.
In the early 1990s the medical community got more involved in domestic violence. The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals in 1991 required that all emergency room personnel be trained in identifying battered women. The next year the American Medical Association (AMA) and the U.S. surgeon general encouraged the screening of all women patients for domestic abuse.
Few medical organizations, however, supported requiring health-care workers to report patients who were apparent victims of domestic violence to the police or social services, as they are required to do in cases of suspected child abuse.
“Reporting does not ensure that a victim will have access to necessary resources and safeguards, nor does it guarantee prosecution, punishment or rehabilitation of abusers,” says Peggy Goodman, director of violence-prevention resources at East Carolina University's Brody School of Medicine in Greenville, N.C. “In fact, [reporting] can further escalate an abusive situation and further endanger the life of the patient,” she says. Thus, she says the American College of Emergency Physicians, the AMA and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology all oppose mandatory reporting by health-care workers.
The 1990s also ushered in a series of domestic-violence cases that either involved celebrities or made celebrities out of the parties involved because the trials were televised. In 1992, heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson was convicted of raping an 18-year-old beauty-pageant contestant, drawing national attention to date rape. A year later, the issue of spousal assault got national attention when Bobbitt cut off her husband's penis with a knife.
Then, in 1994, O. J. Simpson was arrested and charged with murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. Simpson had pleaded no contest in 1989 to charges that he beat his wife and was fined $700 and sentenced to two years' probation. Police records also showed that Mrs. Simpson had frequently made emergency calls to police to report that her husband was beating her.
Experts say the Simpson case helped prod Congress to approve the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, which proponents call a turning point in the fight against domestic violence. President Bill Clinton, who as a child had witnessed his own mother being beaten by his stepfather, was a strong supporter of VAWA, which was attached to Clinton's crime bill.
The legislation reworked several areas of federal criminal law. It created penalties for stalking or domestic abuse in which an abuser crossed a state line and then physically harmed the victim in the course of a violent crime. VAWA also set new rules of evidence specifying that a victim's past sexual behavior generally was not admissible in federal civil or criminal cases regarding sexual misconduct. The law also allowed rape victims to demand that their alleged assailants be tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
VAWA encouraged local governments to create “coordinated community responses” bringing together criminal-justice agencies, social-services systems and local shelters and other nonprofits. The strategy is often called the “Duluth model,” after the northern Minnesota city where it was developed over a 15-year period. Researchers say the ideal coordinated community response should also involve health-care providers, child-protection services, local businesses, the media, employers and clergy. Health-care providers, in particular, can be important since doctors, nurses and emergency-room workers may see and treat women who don't or can't seek other kinds of assistance.
States in the 1990s also began experimenting with ways to help victims and alternatives to penalizing perpetrators. New Haven, Conn., for example, launched a pilot program that included weekend jail stays combined with counseling. The approach allowed offenders to keep their jobs while remaining behind bars on weekends, when batterers often drink and become abusive. Illinois and Oregon were among the states that put domestic-violence counselors in welfare offices. Washington became the first state to allow battered women to set up confidential addresses their abusers couldn't locate.
Congress updated VAWA in 2000, adding “dating violence” to the definition of domestic violence and urging grant programs to address it. The revised law also created penalties for anyone traveling across state lines with the intent to kill, injure, harass or intimidate a spouse or intimate partner. The revised law also laid out special rules for battered immigrant spouses and their children, allowing them to remain in the United States. Under the old law, battered immigrant women could be deported if they left their abusers, who usually are their sponsors for residency and citizenship in the United States.
Also in 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated portions of the law permitting victims of rape and domestic violence to sue their attackers in federal court for damages. Ruling in United States v. Morrison, the justices said those provisions were unconstitutional under the Commerce and Equal Protection clauses. Victims could still bring damage suits in state courts. In addition, the court said, such violence does not substantially affect interstate commerce and noted that the Equal Protection clause is directed at government actions, not private. The high court's ruling did not affect any VAWA grant programs. 
Although the VAWA amendments passed in 2000 with nearly unanimous support, the law had its share of critics. Most of the criticism came from those who complained that violence was a problem of both men and women but that VAWA addressed only the needs of female victims.
 Background drawn from Richard J. Gelles and Claire Pedrick Cornell, Intimate Violence in Families (1990) and Harvey Wallace, Family Violence (2002).
 For background see Sarah Glazer, “Violence Against Women,” CQ Researcher, Feb. 26, 1993, pp. 169-192.
 Gelles and Cornell, op. cit., p. 39.
 Thurman v. City of Torrington, 595 F.Supp. 1521 (Conn. 1984).
 Gelles and Cornell, op. cit.
 United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000).
* Charlotte Fedders was granted a divorce in 1985. In 1987 John Fedders sought a financial share of his ex-wife's book about her experiences, Shattered Dreams, which became a made-for-TV movie; a circuit court judge rejected Fedders' claim. He was never criminally prosecuted and still practices law in Washington. Steinberg was convicted of first-degree manslaughter in 1989 and sentenced to up to 25 years in prison; he was released in 2004. Murder charges against Hedda Nussbaum were dropped after prosecutors concluded she had been too severely battered to protect Lisa. She now works at My Sisters' Place, an organization that helps battered women.
Prah, P. M. (2006, January 6). Domestic violence. CQ Researcher, 16, 1-24. Retrieved October 13, 2007, from CQ Researcher Online, http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2006010603.
Document ID: cqresrre2006010603
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2006010603
The CQ Researcher • January 6, 2006 • Volume 16, Number 1
© 2007, CQ Press, a Division of Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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