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.

Trayvon Martin + Marissa Alexander =?

What do Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander have in common? The Stand Your Ground law, a Florida prosecutor named Angela Corey and, heartbreakingly, no justice. Trying to figure out the legal technicalities and how they broken-gavelcollided with race and gender in Florida sends me spinning.

Growing up in southern Virginia I have felt the sting of anti-Semitism from middle-school classmates who called me “Jesus-killer” to adults who felt uncomfortable working with Jews. As a white, Jewish woman I was taught skepticism and understanding of how rules and laws don’t play out the same way for everyone. I observed people in power bend rules and laws to their liking. Whether it was school policy that wouldn’t let me make up a test if I was absent for a Jewish holiday or bank lending practices that prohibited my family and my African-American friends from buying homes in certain neighborhoods.

In neither the Zimmerman or Alexander case was their history of domestic violence taken into account. For Zimmerman, this meant that his documented history of abuse was not admissible in court. Even worse, the legal system didn’t consider if his past abusive behavior was an indicator of possible future violence and take steps to address that, such as taking his guns away.

For Marissa Alexander the past history of abuse from her husband also didn’t count in court, but the outcome was very different. She was denied the use of the Stand Your Ground law in her defense, and was sentenced to 20 years. And she’s not alone. We know that it’s way harder to get justice if you’re a black woman dealing with domestic violence. I asked one of my daughters what she thought of Marissa Alexander and her prison sentence. She said “She didn’t hurt anyone—no one got hurt. She was trying to defend herself. I don’t understand it.”

In my job, I work every day to help create a better world for my children, and yours. I am inspired by Move to End Violence’s call to “create a world that is safe, loving and respectful of everyone’s inherent human dignity.” I can’t give up even when I see how broken our system is. Really, what else am I living for?