Domestic Violence Once Was Legal

A man spanks a boy with paddle

Domestic Violence Once Was Legal

Victorian political cartoon about domestic violence
“Shut up! What I do with my money is no business of yours.”

Domestic violence has been with us since the beginning of human history. The term, however, is a 20th century invention. For most of history, domestic violence and spousal rape were part of everyday life.

Why was this violence accepted?  Because it was the natural order of things. A man was supposed to display his authority over his family.  Therefore, it was legal for a husband to force himself on his wife and to beat his wife and children.

Things, however, slowly began to change during the mid-Victorian era.

Violence in the Home

A Temperance Movement poster
“Shall the mothers and children be sacrificed for the financial greed of the liquor traffic?”

In England and the United States, domestic violence was tolerated by law so long as the victim’s wounds could not be seen in public. Women could leave an abusive partner, but abuse was not legal grounds for divorce.

In 1882, Maryland became the first state to pass laws criminalizing domestic abuse. An offender could be sentenced to time in prison or to being whipped with 40 lashes.

Reforms in Britain began around the same time and included, among other things, the right to divorce after a life-threatening beating.

Violence in the home caused many women to join the Temperance Movement and campaign for Prohibition. Alcoholism was the root cause of much of the abuse, and they felt that if drinking was eliminated, homes would become more peaceful.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that men faced harsher penalties for abuse, women could divorce because of abuse, and abuse could be considered in custody battles.

Violence Against Children

A man spanks a boy with paddle
A man spanks a boy with paddle

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 many children.

Children, especially boys, also experienced violence at school. Corporal punishment included paddling, caning, whipping, hitting knuckles with a ruler and spankings.

Some corporal punishment resulted in death.

The most famous case is the Eastbourne Manslaughter case of 1860. Fifteen-year-old Reginald Cancellor, who suffered from water on the brain and was unable to learn, according to contemporary accounts, was beaten so severely by his teacher Thomas Hopley that he died. Hopley tried to cover up the crime, but evidence was discovered during an autopsy.

Hopley was convicted of manslaughter. He could not legally be charged with murder because he was an educator and thus served an authoritative role similar to a parent.

Spousal Rape

A Victorian sketching showing domestic violence in the home
A Victorian sketching showing domestic violence in the home

Spousal rape originated with the belief that husbands could have sex with their wives whenever they wanted. It played off the notion that a wife is a husband’s property, and this was strengthen by Biblical passages.

Rape outside of marriage was a violation of a father or husband’s property, not a violation of a woman’s legal rights.

Spousal rape remained legal worldwide until the 1970s.  Marital rape became illegal in all the U.S. states in 1981. It wasn’t until 1993 that United Nations declared spousal rape a violation of human rights.

It’s not a far stretch of the imagination to realize we all have victims of spousal rape in our family trees. As late as our grandmothers and great-grandmothers’ lifetimes, women married men they were not attracted to and did not love. These women sacrificed their happiness and their bodies to marry to maintain family fortunes, escape poverty, secure family alliances or because they were widowed and had no income source.


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Updated:  19 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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