- Domestic Violence, Past and Present
Before the 1970s, judges and police officers still saw wife beating as a trivial offense—policemen would tell husbands to calm down and wives to stop annoying them, and cases rarely came to court. Popular culture depicted wife beating as a joke, and psychiatrists saw it as a pathology of the underclass or of individual women. In general, the problem was denied or explained away.
In the 1970s, feminists documented the widespread incidence of wife beating and asserted that it was not just working-class husbands who assaulted their wives, but all classes of men. They defined wife beating as one extreme in a spectrum of male efforts to dominate women, and argued that rape was a crime of violence, not sex. Feminists founded shelters where women could take refuge, demanded that the police do more to protect women, and advocated for battered women in the courts.
The related analyses of male domination and female victimization have become more complex. Feminists started calling battered women "survivors" to emphasize that they were not just passive victims. However, social scientists also started to study domestic violence, and some researchers came up with the idea that women committed domestic assaults in the same numbers as men (although the severity of the assaults was not measured). Psychologists argued that battered women needed therapeutic treatment. At the same time, the diagnosis of "battered woman syndrome" could also [End Page 193] be used to defend women who had killed violent husbands. Today, wife beating is once again seen as a pathology or a tragedy. The feminist critique has been taken up by mainstream culture but also muted.
In the past, domestic violence was often seen as a way husbands could legitimately 'correct' their wives. At the same time, male violence posed problems for patriarchy, which I define as the power of husbands and fathers over wives and children (a specific form of male domination). Excessive force threatened the integrity of the family if the husband killed or seriously injured the wife. Wives' kin also had an interest in protecting them from injury. Furthermore, violence threatened the notion that marriage was based on love or at least partnership and companionship. The ideal patriarch was able to control his wife without losing his temper. Within the household, wives could be both subordinate to their husbands and dominant over servants and children. In some cultures and eras, they had power and property in their own right. Women's ability to get help for wife beating therefore varied by rank, class, and region. At the same time, the books under review make it clear that when historians asses women's status and power in different areas and eras, we must take into account their vulnerability to violent husbands as well as their control over property.
Wife beating was apparently quite common in the ancient world, as Sarah Pomeroy recounts. Saint Augustine remembered that wives often bore the marks of blows, and his mother, Monica, patiently tolerated her husband's violence. But it is very difficult to go beyond these anecdotal sources because wife beating was not subject to legal jurisdiction and, in any case, very few court records survive. Pomeroy is only able to address the issue because a case of wife murder survives, which involves two prominent families. The wife, Regilla, was from a very elite Roman family while her husband, Herodes, was Greek, wealthy, and well-connected. Roman women were usually married off by their fathers or brothers; in this case, Regilla's family thought that...