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.
In 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.
This made me want to learn more. Do these commissions actually do anything? I was fascinated to learn that PCSW members didn’t think it was enough. The government was not enforcing the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s sex non-discrimination laws. And the commission wasn’t going to change that.
To deal with their government’s indifference or hostility, PCSW and others formed the National Organization of Women. NOW, pun intended, activists could openly rally public support for women’s equality and the end of racial discrimination.
This got me thinking about what led me to the violence against women movement? I had no plan of action. No neon sign telling me to volunteer for a battered women’s crisis line. My past feels more like a mosaic—hard to single out one piece without stepping back and seeing the whole pattern.
Part of my mosaic was formed in the 1980’s. I was a bank secretary in Washington DC on K Street; we secretaries were called “K Street cuties.” I was sitting in the lunchroom one day reading Susan Schechter’s book, Women and Male Violence. One of the executives, a woman, came up and lectured, “You know women who are abused ask for it.” I looked at her thinking, I can’t believe she just said that and—not knowing how to respond —I said nothing.
At the same bank, the chief executive used to slide his hand down the backs of secretaries, and pop our bra straps—which again left me speechless. My own silence bothered me, and I began asking myself, “How do I want to spend my work day?” A dramatic shift in my career path soon followed.
Not everyone is going to form the next NOW or become a domestic violence advocate. You don’t have to. You can change the fabric of your community or your own life in small ways. What gives us the little push to move towards something meaningful and take action? Believing you matter may be radical enough.