Domestic violence has been with us since the beginning of human history. The term, however, is much newer. For most of history, domestic violence and spousal rape were part of everyday life.
It was legal for a husband and father to beat his wife and children, or for him to force himself on his wife, because it was the natural order of things, a man displaying his authority over his family.
Things, however, slowly began to change during the mid-Victorian era, although domestic violence today continues to be legal in some parts of the world.
Violence in the Home
In England and the U.S., domestic violence was tolerated by law so long as the victim’s wounds could not be seen by the public. Women could leave an abusive partner, but abuse was not legal grounds for divorce.
In the U.S., the first state to pass laws criminalizing domestic abuse was Maryland in 1882. The offender could be sentenced to time in prison or to be whipped with 40 lashes.
Reforms in Britain also began around the same time that included, among other things, the right to divorce after a life-threatening beating.
It’s not until the 1970s and beyond that men faced with harsh penalties for abuse, that women could divorce because of abuse and abuse could be taken into account in custody battles.
Violence in the home is what led many women to join the Temperance Movement and campaign for Prohibition. Alcoholism was the root cause of much of the abuse, and they felt if drinking was eliminated, their homes would become more peaceful.
Violence Against Children
From antiquity, using violence as a means of correction was an accepted child-rearing technique. Many believed these beatings taught discipline and saved the soul from the Devil.
The saying, “Wait until your father gets home” must have been terrifying for some children.
Children, especially boys, also experienced violence at school. Corporal punishment included paddling, caning, whipping, having knuckles hit with a ruler and spankings.
Some corporal punishments resulted in death. The most famous case is that of the Eastbourne Manslaughter in 1860. Fifteen-year-old Reginald Cancellor, who suffered according to contemporary accounts from water on the brain and was unable to learn, was beaten so severely by his teacher Thomas Hopley that he died. Hopley tried to cover up the crime, but it was later discovered during an autopsy.
Hopley was convicted of manslaughter. Because he was an educator and thus served an authoritative role similar to a parent, he could not legally be charged with murder.
Spousal rape originated with the notion that husbands could have sex with their wives whenever they chose. It plays off the notion that a wife is a husband’s property, and this idea was strengthen by Bible passages.
Rape outside of marriage was a violation of a father or husband’s property, not a violation of a woman’s legal rights.
It’s not a far stretch of the imagination to realize we all have victims of spousal rape in our family trees. After all, until recent centuries many marriages were arranged and, as late as our grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ lifetimes, women often married men they had no attraction to, for financial reasons. These women sacrificed their happiness and bodies to marry to secure their families’ fortunes, to get out of poverty, or because they were widowed and had no source of income.
Spousal rape was not a crime anywhere in the world prior to the 1970s.
In the U.S., maritial rape became illegal in all states in 1981. It wasn’t until 1993 that the UN declared spousal rape a violation of human rights.
How can we, as a society, stop domestic violence? Leave a comment below.
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