When is it ok to beat your wife?

We bring you this post from Karen Rosenberg, a Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence consultant.

Ever wonder how people justified wife beating as an OK thing to do? For Women’s History Month let’s look back on a bit of legal history that provides not one, but two justifications for wife beating.

old-legal-documentIn State v A.B. Rhodes (North Carolina State Supreme Court, 1868), the Court considered a case involving the married couple Elizabeth and A.B. Rhodes. We can assume they were white, though the legal record does not say. A.B. hit Elizabeth and—unusually for the era—assault and battery charges were brought against A.B. The case went to trial. In the words of the jury, “We find that the defendant struck Elizabeth Rhodes, his wife, three licks, with a switch about the size of one of his fingers (but not as large as a man’s thumb), without any provocation except some words uttered by her and not recollected by the witness.”

So the judge found A.B. not guilty. “His Honor was of opinion that the defendant had a right to whip his wife with a switch no larger than his thumb, and…he was not guilty in law.” (And yes, this is why some people avoid the phrase “rule of thumb.”)

In the appeal, the State Supreme Court challenged the lower court’s rationale, stating that it wouldn’t affirm the right to beat a spouse. But it gave another reason to find A.B. not guilty—maintaining the household’s privacy:

For however great are the evils of ill temper, quarrels, and even personal conflict inflicting only temporary pain, they are not comparable with the evils which would result from raising the curtain, and exposing to public curiosity and criticism, the nursery and the bed chamber.”

In other words, sure he hit her, but it would be more damaging to society if the state intruded on family life. This sounds dated and wrong to modern ears. Thank goodness. Or, more accurately, thank the Battered Women’s Movement. Want to learn more? Check out Susan Schechter’s amazing Women and Male Violence or this tribute to her work.