Domestic violence is neither a new nor a localized problem. The myriad forms of domestic violence can be found all over the world, and evidence of its occurrence can be found as far back as written history goes. Through the various historical periods and different societies the world over, there have been many sociolegal precedents that either blatantly supported domestic violence or failed to condemn it. This long history of apathy toward the subject has created a huge mass of social, legal, cultural, and traditional beliefs and attitudes that contemporary societies have yet to overcome despite their best efforts. This research paper will explore these beliefs and attitudes to demonstrate how their influence far outweighs current attempts to create attitudes and beliefs against domestic violence in any form. By knowing what must be overcome, societies may be more successful in their efforts against domestic violence.
One of the issues encountered in viewing domestic violence from different times is that throughout history many of the behaviors now thought of as domestic violence have been both legal and socially acceptable. This demonstrates an evolving standard of what is acceptable behavior in personal relationships.
An underlying theme in each society which allowed for domestic violence against women and children is patriarchy. When men are the ultimate authority and women and children are considered property, the difference in human rights is staggering. Historically, the only human rights women were granted related to their value as a man’s property. Children had no rights at all.
This legal subjugation is often combined with social acceptance and even pressure to conform. The historical criminal justice practice of returning women and children to their male guardians’ homes for punishment rather than subjecting them to formal processing reinforces this idea. Cultural practices of punishing men for the crimes of their women also reinforced women’s legal subjugation. Legal codes from various societies, particularly those of the distant past, also indicated social support of and pressure toward committing domestic violence by specifying that a man had the right to punish and even execute his wife without official intervention. This implies that the man had no other alternative for resolving his domestic issues.
The level of violence overall in a particular society or time period also plays a role in influencing the acceptance of domestic violence. The more violent society is, as fostered by warfare, violent entertainment, crime, and even punishment of criminals, the more violence is accepted in the home. When the societal violence level is combined with patriarchy, women are easily seen as targets for domestic violence.
Domestic Violence in Ancient Civilizations
Ancient civilizations are often hailed as belonging to a golden age of humankind where art and culture were highly developed. The basic foundations of more modern societies can be traced back to ancient times, where the beginnings of math, science, religion, and law emerged. For all their positive achievements, ancient civilizations are also where the legal and social traditions of permitting domestic violence toward women and children began.
The Code of Hammurabi is the oldest written legal code known to exist. In it are provisions for disciplining a wife and children by the husband/ father. These provisions are state-sanctioned rights to privately discipline without intervention by legal authorities. They included the right of the male head of household to execute his wife and her lover if she was caught cheating. She could also be drowned in the river for spending too much money and gadding about. The husband had the ability to sell her and her children into slavery or bind them into slavery for three years in order to pay his debts. The husband was also able to terminate the marriage as he chose, but the wife was required to prove her innocence and his cruelty in order to terminate the marriage.
Children were even less protected. Not only could they be sold or bound out, but they could be executed for disobedience. A son who struck his father was to have his hands cut off. An unmarried virgin daughter who was raped by a man who was not already married was forced to marry her rapist. The rapist’s only penalty was to marry the girl and pay her father a fine.
These legal provisions compare favorably with Hebrew laws (Mosaic Codes). If anything, the Hebrew laws were even stricter. The death penalty was available for more crimes. Sons could be executed for striking their fathers, cursing, general disobedience, and rebellion. Women and children who were bound out for labor to pay the man’s debts could be held for up to six years.
In Greece, the original laws regulating families did not include penalties, but left it to the male head of household to enforce the laws as he saw best. This left the range of punishments wide open. The woman had no recourse, as she was under male guardianship for her entire life.
During the Roman empire, beatings, divorce, and murder were private rights of the male head of household. Women were allowed to divorce their husbands only in cases of excessive violence. This right was also limited to those in the upper classes. Women in the lower classes could not divorce their abusive husbands no matter how excessive the abuse might be.
The Christian emperor Constantine the Great was the first emperor to execute his wife. In 289 C.E. she was boiled alive for being suspected of adultery— not for actually being caught in adulterous behavior. Constantine was later canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church.
The level of violence available for a man to keep order in his home in these ancient societies was certainly greater than that now afforded, but it was based in part on the level of violence available in the general societies of the times. The death penalty was the prescribed punishment for many crimes, even minor ones such as pickpocketing. Wars were fought man-to-man with swords, clubs, and whatever other weapons could be found. The level of personal contact in these wars was immense. The Roman Empire also made sport of violence through its gladiators. Armed personal combat to the death with other men or with wild animals was considered entertainment, not violence or cruelty. By comparison, domestic violence was not only acceptable, but a normal form of familial interaction. It was not considered violence at all.
Domestic Violence in Europe
European societies of the Middle Ages also demonstrated a level of social and legal acceptance of domestic violence that is now intolerable. Women were denied education and the ability to participate in political affairs. Marriages were often arranged between fathers and future husbands without concern for the wishes of the daughters. Women of all ages were no more than chattel to men to do with as they wished. Their prime value was as housekeepers and breeders.
During the Middle Ages various communities in Europe would burn women alive for their transgressions. Offenses included threatening their husbands, committing adultery, scolding, nagging, and having miscarriages. The cause of a miscarriage did not matter, even if it resulted from abuse by the husband.
Children were treated even more harshly than women. In many societies children were bonded out for labor, sold into slavery, and even abandoned to the elements. Abandonment of unwanted infants was particularly popular as a remedy for having a child of the wrong sex. This, of course, meant female.
Religion also contributed to this viewpoint. The Rules of Marriage, written in the late 1400s by Friar Cherubino, set out the guidelines by which a man might use violence to keep his wife in line. Scolding, bullying, and terrifying were the first steps. If that failed, then beating with a stick was in order. This would save the poor woman’s soul from her evil ways rather than provide revenge for the man.
Perhaps the most famous domestic violence rule, the ‘‘rule of thumb,’’ emerged in connection with English common law. This rule indicates that a man may beat his wife with a stick, but only if the stick is smaller in circumference than his thumb. This placed a limit on the violence in the family where no limits had previously existed. The rule was thus seen as improving the treatment of women. Although the rule was popular in England and America, it was never officially codified into law. It remained a court-based interpretation of existing laws.
English common law also contained other provisions for the master of the house to use physical discipline against his wife and children. The laws did place some limits on this power; however, these limits were largely illusory, as very few men were punished for their violations. As Sir William Blackstone explained, the power to use physical discipline was necessary as long as the law would hold men responsible for the crimes of their women.
French laws limited violence by a husband to blows of any kind so long as they landed on the back and left no permanent marks. The social pressure to follow the laws, not just by adhering to the limits but by actually using violence, can be seen in the warning that accompanied these rules; men were not really men if they were not masters of their wives.
Napoleon Bonaparte was responsible for solidifying the legal codes of France and exporting many of these legal principles to other countries, including Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. Women were defined as legal minors no matter their age. Permanent disfigurement was permitted for minor offenses such as scolding. The Code of Chivalry went so far as to call for breaking the woman’s nose so she would be permanently marked and embarrassed. The woman could achieve divorce only if it could be shown that the man was attempting to murder her through his violence.
Societies during these times were also very violent. Warfare continued to be a face-to-face encounter; this included the Crusades and many other violent campaigns, such as those wrought by Napoleon himself. Infant mortality reached epic proportions, and several plagues raced through Europe, decimating the population. Life was by no means certain and thus was held at a lower value than today’s societies hold.
Crime was at high rates, and punishments were public. The death penalty was again the preferred punishment for everything from petty theft to murder. The methods of extracting a confession and executing persons were refined to a particularly gruesome level during this time. Drawing and quartering, burning alive, and use of the rack and other instruments of torture showed a barbarism of spirit. Even worse, these punishments were held in public venues where massive crowds would come and cheer on the violence. Domestic violence obviously paled in comparison.
Domestic Violence in the United States
When the English established viable colonies in America, many persons from all over Europe immigrated in order to make a better life for themselves. Many fled religious oppression, poverty, lack of opportunity, and other social ills found in their home countries. In the colonial era, America derived its laws and social order from England. After independence, the new country, while forming its new political structure of democracy, continued to use many of the legal traditions of England.
White landowning males were given all the power, and women were not so much as mentioned in the new system. Nowhere in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights are women discussed. Women were not allowed to own property, enter into contracts, or even vote.
Social control in the colonies and the early states was a mixture of legal and religious forces revolving around local statutes and the Puritan faith. The Puritan faith was very strict and required absolute obedience. Puritans believed that if they did not punish those who committed transgressions, God would forsake them. This led to harsh punishments, social approval of the male head of household using some physical violence in his home, and public punishments where more private means were unsuccessful.
The need to punish sinners made physical punishment of wives and children acceptable, though excessive violence in the home was also a sin. If the level of violence exceeded that which the neighbors were comfortable ignoring, the local minister or other respectable gentlemen of the community would meet with the offending man and counsel him about improving his behavior. This avoided criminal charges and kept the family together. It did not, however, eliminate future violence. The man simply took greater pains to avoid attracting the attention of his neighbors.
Divorce and out-of-home placement of children were rare in Puritan life. The sanctity of the family was of utmost importance. Marriage was a covenant between man, woman, God, community, and church. Breaking this covenant was not undertaken lightly, particularly by the woman, whose position was most subordinate.
As members of the subordinate class, women were expected to take seriously the biblical commands to obey and submit to men. This contributed to the perpetuation of domestic violence by demanding that a good Puritan woman blame herself and seek to adjust her behavior rather than seek to escape.
Legal approval of domestic violence toward wives was also demonstrated through early court cases such as Bradley vs. State (1824). Here the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed a husband’s right to use physical force against his wife in ‘‘cases of emergency’’ so long as he did not cause permanent injury. What exactly constituted a case of emergency was not defined. In State vs. Oliver (1874), the North Carolina Supreme Court also permitted violence by a husband so long as it was not from malice or cruelty. The court felt that it would be better for the husband and wife to work it out privately.
In more modern times, politicians at all points of the political spectrum make family values a part of their platform. Family values include strong marriages, marriage before sex, counseling and other social services to hold the family together, and media images of families sitting down to dinner together.
In fact, Child Protective Services and other social services agencies are often so exclusively focused on keeping the family together that any alternative which includes removal from the family or household is ignored. Family-first advocates argue against shelters for battered women, as they promote the breakup of the American family. This ‘‘keep the family together at all costs’’ strategy stands in direct contrast to the efforts of women’s advocates who fight to get women out of violent relationships.
Counseling and other services are the preferred options for dealing with family problems, but they would seem to depend on the openness of the family. If family members do not share their problems, how can they receive the help and support they need? Standing in the way of this ideal is the high value that contemporary American society places on individual and family privacy. Many believe that, as the saying goes, what goes on behind closed doors should stay there.
Throughout history, the privacy of the home was based on several ideas. The first was a separation of men’s and women’s roles into public and private spheres. Then personal and familial worship and prayer guided in the home by the male head of household set the home apart from the public on religious grounds. The idea of the home as a sanctuary where men could retire after a day in the rigors of the working world also separated the privacy of the home from the public sphere.
The history of civilization indicates that changes in patriarchy and societal levels of violence have been important indicators of social and legal approval of domestic violence against women and children. In ancient times, society was filled with brutal violence in wars, sports, and criminal punishments. Patriarchy was at an all-time high, and the power of life and death was literally in the hands of the master of the house. Modern times have seen sports and criminal punishments become less gory, while warfare has moved away from man-to-man confrontations. Patriarchy has lost much of its former status. Women are reaching for equality and achieving some level of success. Domestic violence is now illegal and socially unacceptable in most societies. Why then does the problem still exist?
Patriarchy still exists, even in its weakened form. There is still debate over the proper role for women in society. Pregnancy-related issues are but one of the snags. The call for a return of traditional family values is also problematic. Family time, dinners, church attendance, etc., are difficult to argue against. These ideals leave people feeling nostalgic for the seemingly better times of the past. What is forgotten about these better times is that these family ideals were achieved by fathers who worked and mothers who stayed home. They were achieved in a time when inequality between males and females was high.
For many modern families, a single income is not enough. Both parents have to work outside the home. Now one asks questions about the effect of the woman making more money or having a better job. One asks about the effect of day care and latchkey children. How do these realities fit within the ideals of traditional family values?
What about contemporary forms of entertainment? Video games, popular movies, and even some forms of music have become more and more violent. Nudity, foul language, and a level of blood and gore that is unprecedented have taken over from the days of public executions and gladiatorial fights in the coliseum. One has only to look at music videos and horror movies to see that society has not progressed so far; only the nature of entertainment has changed. Where does this leave the contemporary world? The remnants of several thousand years of patriarchy are still being challenged by women who struggle to work, raise families, and be equal to their male counterparts. The level of violence in entertainment as well as in reality is also being challenged. Rating systems on movies, television programs, and music and protests against the continued use of the death penalty and other forms of state-sanctioned violence attempt to limit exposure to the brutal side of life. History is a difficult thing to overcome. Until equality is achieved and humankind evolves past the need for violence, the struggle will continue.
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