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.

We’ve got honor, we’ve got pride

We are pleased to bring you this post from guest blogger Nan Stoops, our executive director.

Did you happen to read about the high school cheerleader who refused to cheer for the basketball player who had raped her? Hillaire S. was kicked off the cheer squad and, subsequently, sued her high school in an attempt to get reinstated.

She lost. In its ruling, a federal appeals court found that Hillaire’s First Amendment rights had not been violated. Essentially, because she was a cheerleader, the high school owned her voice and her speech was not protected. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review the case.

I could write more than a blog about the irony, agony, and lunacy of this legal justification. But not today. It’s Father’s Day, and I want to offer a big shout out to Hillaire’s dad, who supported his daughter throughout.

After the ruling, Hillaire’s father said: “My daughter has fought through it all.” Was it worth the $45,000 in legal fees? “Yes. If she had not fought, no one would have known what went on.”

To this dad, to my dad, and to dads everywhere who LISTEN to their daughters, BELIEVE us, believe IN us, STAND WITH us, to dads who know that no one owns our voices but us and that their silence does not protect us; to these Dads, I offer a simple and heartfelt thank you.

Happy Father’s Day!

The Revolution Starts at Home

What does it mean for an abuser to be held accountable? What does justice for a survivor look like? And how do we get there?

I’ve been studying domestic violence murders for the past 7 years and have seen time and again how the legal system is profoundly limited in its ability to provide justice, safety, or healing for survivors of abuse. But focusing on the failures of the police and courts can feel hopeless, because it is not clear where else to turn. I envision that our own communities can step up to confront abusers and support survivors. Yet it is hard to imagine communities where sexism, homophobia, isolation, and victim blaming don’t get in the way.

A new book, The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities, is a collection of stories from people who have also wrestled with these questions. The authors are activists working against racism and homophobia. It makes sense that the people trying to figure out how to hold abusers accountable within their own communities are those that have been the least served and most harmed by the criminal response to abuse—LBGTQ folk, people of color, immigrants.

The stories bring to life both the hope and promise of community solutions to domestic and sexual violence, and how painfully difficult this process can look on the ground. In one essay, a grassroots activist group describes how they organized to address abuse by one community member toward another. Their process had all the key ingredients for justice: a focus on the survivor’s safety and healing, treating the abuser with respect while demanding real change, and directly confronting the conditions that allowed the abuse in the first place. And yet, their efforts took years, required massive energy and commitment, and they found it was hard to know whether they were making real change.

Reading this book left me feeling both excited about the creative work being done and overwhelmed with the work left to do. The efforts, aspirations, and even failures in these stories felt like a call to action for all of us working to end domestic violence. As Andrea Smith says in the introduction, “the question is not whether a survivor should call the police, but rather why have we given survivors no other option but to call the police?”

Up to Us

I’m really excited this week because the release of our final Fatality Review Report is getting a lot of attention in the media. But it’s hard to be excited about the report itself. Studying domestic violence homicides has shown that many of the systems we expect will help are not reliable. And honestly, this is not a big surprise to me. Maybe I’m jaded by all the stories I’ve heard from survivors of how the legal system, or the welfare system, or even sometimes the domestic violence shelters, failed them.

But I want to talk about something else. The Fatality Review data also showed that victims turned to family and friends for help long before and far more often than they called police, got a Protection Order, or went to a shelter. And yet, still their lives ended at the hands of their abusers. My hope in this new year is that if you’re the one person that someone turns to for help, you’ll know what to do. Just knowing that anyone can call a domestic violence program and knowing a bit about what might happen when you do goes a long way. Domestic violence can end, but we all must be a part of the solution.