Violence Against Wives
Violence Against Wives
R. Emerson Dobash; Russell Dobash
The Free Press
Date of Publication:
I picked this book up as it is related to a project I’m working on having to do with families and religion. Spousal abuse isn’t normally my area of expertise. Also, I have to admit to having skimmed some of the contents, but I think I got the primary points of the book.
The authors start the book out describing a group of women in England who finally get together in the 1970s at a community center and begin discussing a variety of issues facing women. It’s only after the community center opens that some of the women begin discussing the abuse they suffer from their husbands. These discussions eventually open the shutters, exposing a pervasive problem to a world that has basically been oblivious to it for millenia: lots of husbands beat their wives.
The authors then describe the history of husbands beating wives, “history is littered with references to, and formulas for, beating, clubbing, and kicking them into submission. Women’s place in history often has been at the receiving end of a blow” (p. 31). This abuse took place basically as far back as written history goes, and probably much further. The authors highlight two particular periods: Ancient Rome, which is often thought of as progressive, and Christianity in the Middle Ages (post the fall of Rome).
In Rome, “It was the legal right of a husband to require that his wife obey him. She was his property and subject to whatever form of control was necessary for achieving obedience and what was deemed by himself and by the law to be appropriate behavior” (p. 36). Particularly grievous offenses of wives against husbands included: adultery, drinking of wine or drunkenness, “counterfeiting the household keys, making poison, abortion, attending public games without the husband’s permission, and appearing unveiled in the streets” (p. 36). “A husband was allowed to leave his wife if she committed any of these offenses, but, until later reforms, she was prohibited from leaving him even if he engaged in the same behavior. For him, such behavior was not defined as an offense, and he was therefore not liable for punishment” (p. 37).
Christianity during the Middle Ages co-opted the ” retrogressive principles of patriarchy” (p. 40) from the Romans, not their later progressive ideas. What’s more, Christianity provided an ideological and moral support for patriarchy (p. 44). Granted, the state later codified this relationship into law and arranged the legal system so as to make it difficult if not impossible for women to change it. But Christianity justified that system. At the end of the Middle Ages, as changes and reforms spread around the Western World (we’re ignoring the rest of the world, as is so common among Westerners), one thing that did not change in a progressive fashion was the spousal relationship, “The authority of the male head of each conjugal unit was increased while wives became more dependent and subject to control and chastisement and lost many of the means that traditionally had afforded them some opportunity, albeit very limited, to resist or struggle against subordination. As the French historian Petiot put it: “Starting in the fourteenth century, we see a slow and steady deterioration of the wife’s position in the household. She loses the right to take the place of the husband in his absence or insanity… Finally, in the sixteenth century, the married woman is placed under a disability so that any acts she performs without the authority of her husband or the law are null and void. This development strengthens the power of the husband, who is finally established as a sort of domestic monarch”" (p. 48).
This disenfranchisement of women was legally codified in the U.S., “In 1824 wife beating was made legal in Mississippi. Court cases in several other states reaffirmed the traditional right of a man to beat his wife and did so in language identical to that of the English common law” (p. 4). “[The] subordination of women was explicitly established in the institutional practices of both the church and the state and supported by some of the most prominent political, legal, religious, philosophical, and literary figures in Western society, for instance, Rousseau, Hegel, Kant, Fichte, Blackstone, Saint Augustine, John Knox, Calvin, and Martin Luther. In one way or another, they each advocated a patriarchal relationship between men and women and especially between husbands and wives. They believed that men had the right to dominate and control women and that women were by their nature subservient to men. This relationship was deemed natural, sacred, and unproblematic and such beliefs resulted in long periods of disregard or denial of the husband’s abuses of his economic, political, and physical power” (pp. 6-7).
What, exactly, was the relationship between husbands and wives? “The relationship between husbands and wives was once almost identical to that between parents and children. The husband’s use of physical force against his wife was similarly an expression of the unequal status, authority, and power of marital partners and was widely accepted as appropriate to the husband’s superior position. The husband was legally vested with responsibility for the control and management of his wife’s behavior because she was generally acknowledged to be naturally less capable and responsible than her spouse” (pp. 10-11).
It wasn’t until after the Civil War in America that wife beating was made illegal. It took until 1894 for Mississippi to change the earlier law (p. 63). But the change in legality didn’t change the practice. That remained fairly common through the 1970s, and probably remains disturbingly common still today. There’s also a great deal of irony (and not in a humorous sense), that the most pervasive brutalization of women takes place in what is deemed the most “sacred institution”: the family. “It is within marriage that a woman is most likely to be slapped and shoved about, severely assaulted, killed, or raped” (p. 75).
After giving the above history of the treatment of women, the authors turn to their findings. They interviewed over 100 hundred women who had been physically abused by their husbands. They also draw on the data of other researchers. They discuss abuse from its initiation, when a husband first hits his wife, and follow it through to when it ends, either with the wife leaving or one of the two dying.
Most of the women in the study did not marry men who were already physically abusing them: 77% experienced the first violence after marriage. But for most of these women, it was soon after marriage: 84% were attacked within the first three years. Why do men do this? Those men who do beat their wives tend to think of their wives as property, “One woman we interviewed told us that she was first beaten on her honeymoon and when she cried and protested, her husband replied, “I married you so I own you.”… The husband’s sense of ownership and control is immediate. It comes with the marriage contract, and all the social meanings and obligations associated with the words “love, honor, and obey”" (p. 94). The first time a husband hits his wife changes their relationship, “The first episode clearly illustrates a growing sense of possessiveness, domination, and “rightful” control and these are the factors that lead to the continuation of the violence” (p. 96). Initially women think the violence will stop, especially if the violence is associated with what are believed to be solvable problems (p.124). Men, initially, are also remorseful (p. 124). But the alleged problems are usually not solvable and are just excuses for the violence, not the actual causes. Over time, the man, “becomes less concerned, less remorseful, and less willing to change while the woman’s affection for him and estimation of her own worth begin to deteriorate. As the physical abuse becomes more frequent and severe it eventually dominates the relationship” (p. 124).
Women in abusive relationships seldom respond with violence. The physical strength of their spouses makes such attempts futile, as fighting back generally only increases the rage of their husbands (p. 108). Despite their lack of a violent response, wives do make it clear to their husbands that the violence is not okay and they are not happy with it (p. 120). Women in abusive relationships experience violence regularly, “A majority of the women experienced at least two attacks a week. Twenty-five percent said that the violence usually lasted from 45 minutes to over 5 hours; the other 75% reported that the physical attack lasted 30 minutes or less… Any particular physical attack might last only a few minutes or several hours, as one woman indicated” (p. 120). The authors estimate only 2% of the attacks are reported to the police (pp. 1654-165), though wives do mention the abuse more commonly to friends, relatives, and other individuals.
Also, only about 3% of the beatings the women received were reported to doctors (p. 180). In the authors’ research, 20% of women never made a single visit for any of the injuries they received. Some of the beatings result in broken bones and severe lacerations, but women are reluctant to go to the doctor, “When visits to the doctor were made usually they were made against the husband’s explicit prohibition or were allowed by him only after the woman had given assurances that the source of the injury would not be revealed to any medical staff. This meant that the time spent in the doctor’s office or the emergency room often was very tense and that the woman sometimes had to lie about the cause of her injuries in order to protect herself from further attack” (p. 181). Doctors also rarely inquired about abuse (in the 1970s at least, not sure about today), which meant the women had to bring it up. And even when they did, doctors usually would simply say “leave him” and not do anything else.
Part of the reason doctors probably said so little was because so few men are prosecuted for beating their wives, “In 1966 over seventy-five hundred women appeared at the district attorney’s office in Washington D.C. seeking to file complaints against their husbands. Only 200, that is, 2.7%, succeeded” (p. 219). I’m not sure what the numbers are today, but I’m guessing they are still pretty low.
Once the attacks become repetitive, wives often cease to struggle, “They cease to argue and to defend themselves from even the most blatantly false accusations or unjust treatments in the hope that they will avoid an escalation of violence. Either they turn inward and attempt to build a protective shell around their emotions that will allow them to cope with the continuing violence or they consider that their only escape is suicide or murder” (p. 141)
It is at this point that the authors address the age old question of why women in such relationships don’t leave, “Since a married woman’s social and individual worth rests largely upon her ability to be a good wife and mother and since being a good wife includes, among other things, providing proper services for her husband… then her sense of self-worth depends in large part on how the recipients of her services, that is, her husband and children, evaluate her performance. When a man beats his wife… he is making an explicit and powerful statement about his belief in her inability to be a good wife and to provide what he believes to be proper services. When he then blames her for the beating, this becomes an even more powerful statement of her worthlessness. When statements of blame are repeated often enough, the woman, who initially felt that she was unjustly treated, begins to have doubts” (p. 125). Thus, women in such relationships are controlled by several factors: First, they have accepted the ideology that says women should be defined by how good of a wife they are, which sets them up for failure. Second, their husband, regardless of the wives’ behavior, indicates they are not good wives through the abuse. And third, this abuse leads the wives to believe they have failed to live up to the ideology that set them up for failure in the first place.
The authors also note that many women do leave, but, they, “do so with varying intentions about the permanency of that act. Certainly, a few women never leave the house even for several hours, but most women have at some time left, sometimes with every intention of returning and sometimes intending to make a permanent break” (p. 144). Of the women interviewed by the authors, 88% left at some point, but most returned home within a week (p. 144). The reasons women don’t leave vary, but usually include, “a devastatingly low self-concept, isolation, and fear of living independently,” as well as concern for the children and feeling “trapped” because of a lack of education or occupational prospects (p. 146). There are certain factors that increase the odds of leaving, including particularly severe or frequent attacks (p. 146).
Not all women leave. Some die from the violence. Some commit suicide. Others kill their husbands. And yet others live with the abuse until their husband dies or they die. Unfortunately, there is no way to really know just how many women are living with this kind of abuse.
This is a carefully researched, well-written book. The only problem: it’s dated. The authors have another book out updating this research, which I’m hoping to peruse in the next few days. I’m sure much has changed. That said, the historical treatment of violence against women in this book is really informative. The book also offers an interesting snapshot of violence against wives in the 1970s. Because the book is dated, I’m not going to recommend it. I’ll see what I think of their newer book.
I’ll end this review with the authors’ concluding thought, “The struggle against wife beating must be oriented both to the immediate needs of women now suffering from violence and to more fundamental changes in the position of women. We now stand at a point where we may either work toward removing the very roots of wife beating by eliminating patriarchal domination or we may work only toward limited reforms which, while providing vital assistance to women currently being beaten, will do little about the problem itself. We must take up the challenge and address the issue in its fullest form, otherwise we will commit the errors of the past. The problem lies in the domination of women. The answer lies in the struggle against it” (pp. 242-243).