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A History of Domestic Violence Law

In today’s society, most people are aware that violence against women is wrong, and a crime punishable under law. But today I challenge women and men of the modern age to imagine a life where domestic violence is not only legal, but encouraged by law and by society. Most women today know the adage, "if a man hurts you, he doesn't love you" – because love shouldn't hurt - and men are often taught at a very young age not to raise a hand to a woman. But what if everything was flipped? What if your mother, your sister, your friend, or even you yourself, could be severely hurt, and there was no one to turn to for help?

Broken Hearts, Battered Women

Broken Hearts, Battered Women

In ages past, if a woman was beaten by her husband, abused by a family member, or mistreated in any way, especially by a male, often she had nowhere to run, no escape, and no promise of safety. If a battered woman ran to the police, they would most likely return her to her husband, in accordance with the laws of the time, and chastise her for her behavior. Women were expected to be obedient and almost mindlessly loyal, first to their families, then to their husbands. Most governments turned a blind eye to the issue, as women were not usually considered to be "people," in that they were usually not allowed to vote, own property, or be entitled to full protection from harm under the law.

The governments that did acknowledge the issue often enforced religious-based policies upon the victims, which encouraged women to obey their fathers, brothers, and husbands entirely and without question. Women were objects, owned and used, and disposed of when they had outlived their usefulness, through divorce, neglect, or even murder. Even in the United States, a country claiming to be founded on principals of freedom and equality, it was legal for a husband to kill his spouse… as long as he could prove he had a “just cause”. What that means is, any man could beat his wife to death, rape her, and abuse her, as long as he could prove that ‘she deserved it.’

How did this happen in history and what steps were taken to ensure modern women the safety and equality of today?

How the Ancients Reacted to Domestic Violence

Domestic violence has been a legal issue since about 700 B.C., starting all the way back in ancient Rome. The Romans enacted laws allowing men to beat their wives and relatives whenever they deemed fit - but with a few restrictions. The government originally brought about these law because women in many ancient societies were legally considered property of the male head of the household; therefore if any crime were committed by the wife, the husband would have to answer for it. In an effort to protect men from the legal and social consequences of their offending wives’ actions, husbands were allowed to control their women using force by beating them with a stick. The only requirement was that the beating stick could be no bigger than the width of the base of a man’s thumb – hence the old expression, the ‘rule of thumb.’

Domestic violence continued throughout ancient times, and was aggravated even further by the progressively growing power of establishment of a growing new superpower in Europe - the Catholic Church in Rome.

The Church authorities often referenced biblical verse and religious doctrine to promulgate a male-dominated society. Their influence affected every aspect of life for those under the control of the church, from the day-to-day operations of the common household to the workings of upper-government, and the appointment of church officials who were, exclusively, male. While women were no longer technically possessions, they were given practically no rights and freedoms. Wives were told by the community and church officials that it was their duty to God to obey their husbands at all times, and to accept the consequences of disobedience. When women went to church leaders for guidance, especially in matters of abuse at home, they were often told to work harder and become more obedient to their husbands to regain their approval.

Women in ancient times were under threat of violence from marauding troops from other lands, as well as from those within their own home.

Women in ancient times were under threat of violence from marauding troops from other lands, as well as from those within their own home.

Disturbing DV Facts Today

  • Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults. (Strauss, Gelles, and Smith, “Physical Violence in American Families: Risk Factors and Adaptations to Violence” in 8,145 Families. Transaction Publishers 1990.
  • Based on reports from 10 countries, between 55 percent and 95 percent of women who had been physically abused by their partners had never contacted non-governmental organizations, shelters, or the police for help. (
  • Percentage reduction in reports of violence after men and women in South Africa went through an educational training program on health, domestic violence and gender norms: 55
  • Number of members of Congress who have gone through an educational training program on health, economics, violence, and gender norms: 0

Additional Sources:

During the early stages of the United States, laws regarding violence in a domestic setting were put on the proverbial backburner while the government and territories developed and expanded. The few laws that were in place were simply copied from the existing laws in England at the time. It was not until the mid-19th century that domestic violence was even brought to the attention of lawmakers.

In mid-1800’s America, the middle class was rising to power, and Americans were able to enjoy leisure activity, entertainment, and further their education. More and more women became involved in social issues, and for the first time in Western history, violence against women was brought to the forefront of political and social discussion.

Women often had very few sources to turn to when their husbands or fathers turned violent and abusive.

Women often had very few sources to turn to when their husbands or fathers turned violent and abusive.

England Makes Progress; America Stands Still

In 1829,an act was passed in England which abolished a man’s right to have absolute power over his wife and children. While beating or harming one’s wife was not technically illegal, many regulations were set in place, forbidding men to harm their wives to the point of permanent damage or death – which was a giant leap for women’s rights at the time. Authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stewart Mill wrote in depth about the horrors of violence against women and the lack of legislation which would protect them.

However, it was not until almost 50 years later in 1882 that the United States developed any real legislation was passed to protect women. Maryland was the first state to make ‘wife-beating’ a crime, punishable by a 1-year prison sentence (or 40 lashes – after all, it was 1882). Four years later, a North Carolina court took this progress many steps back, when they ruled that a man cannot be criminally charged on a domestic violence complaint unless there is permanent damage or the instance was ‘malicious beyond all reasonable bounds.’ So if a husband was simply beating his wife daily, as long as her life and limb wasn’t at stake, she had nowhere to turn for help.

Towards the middle of the 19th century in England, Queen Victoria came into power, and the Brits began enacting many laws protecting women, even allowing them to file for divorce on the grounds of abuse, for perhaps the first time in western history. While Europe was moving forward, however, America was still stuck in the Stone Age. In 1911, a NY court ruled that domestic violence issues were best left to psychiatrists and mediators, who would use only discussion to ‘solve’ the issues at home. Sometimes only one spouse had to be present. This set domestic violence legislation back for many years to come. In fact, the Association for the Protection of Animal Welfare AND the Association for the Protection of Children were both established decades before most domestic violence and spousal rape laws were even regarded as legal issues.

The Laws Begin to Change

The Laws Begin to Change

Anti-Violence Policy Comes to Life in the 20th Century (Finally...)

The 1994 Violence Against Women Act was one of the first federal actions which outlined programs to prevent and address violence against women. The Act even established a domestic violence hotline for women and family members to call to report abuse, seek help, and gain advice on what to do in a number of difficult situations. Despite the many advancements made in to increase women's position in society, such as obtaining the right to vote, receiving equal pay at work, and having a voice in politics, which were nation-wide, domestic violence laws were enacted and followed differently from state-to-state. The V.A.W. Act, however, not only established federal funding for domestic violence outreach programs, but also extended protection to women who were not permanent legal citizens of the US. V.A.W. Act was considered the most comprehensive legislation for victims of domestic violence in US history at the time, and has since been expanded and edited many times, in 1996 and 2002.

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A landmark case about this topic occurred as recently as 1996, when California native Maria Marcias was killed by her estranged husband. She had obtained a restraining order, but the police had failed on no less than 22 times to enforce the order. When the case went to trial, the police were held liable for their negligence.

Women have a voice in earlly America

Women have a voice in earlly America

For perhaps the first time in U.S. history, the lower courts ruled that the police have an obligation to follow through on domestic violence calls and to enforce protective orders. The court ruled the police, by not treating her claims as a serious matter, had indeed failed in their duty to protect a Maria against the threat of domestic violence, and the results of this apathy were fatal.

The ruling stated that women have a constitutional right to safety and equal protection by law, and when the police failed to protect her because she was a woman and a domestic violence victim, they failed to do their job. Thanks to the brave women and families of victims, much legislation has been passed in accordance with this ruling.

Males Can Be Victims, Too

Statistically today as well as throughout history, woman do make up the majority of victims of domestic violence. That does not mean, however, that men cannot be victims as well. According to recent studies, a surprising number of men have reported domestic abuse as well.

In the past, there was certainly a stigma regarding men who felt they were abused by their partners, as society dictates that a male is supposed to be strong, and dominant. Although men are not necessarily the 'head of the household' figures as much today as they have been in the past, there is still a perception that men should have a sense of 'control' over their women, at least enough to protect themselves. Today. a man who is physically or emotionally abused by a woman is often treated with ridicule instead of sympathy and compassion, just as much in modern times as in societies past.

For an interesting perspective on modern society's view of a male abused by a female partner, take a look at this article and video from just this year:

This Is What Happens When The Public Sees A Woman Abusing A Man

Only you can break the cycle of violence

Only you can break the cycle of violence

Are You One Out of Four?

Violence has been present in societies since recorded time began, but one type of violence in particular has left a permanent scar on our history, a scar that is still in the process of healing: domestic violence affects approximately 1 out of every 4 families in the US alone. Most people reading this article most likely already know someone affected by domestic violence. Domestic violence is still the number one cause of injury to women – more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. If you know someone affected in anyway by domestic violence, contact your local hotline, or the national hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE, with any questions or concerns you may have.


Kay Plumeau (author) from New Jersey, USA on September 09, 2015:

SYTL, I'm so sorry to hear that, what a terrible thing to happen to someone. Thank you for sharing that story. I hope we can all work to make the world a place where people can be free from the burden of being forced into destructive relationships because of law, society or culture. Thank you so much again for commenting, your input is always insightful and appreciated!

Yoleen Lucas from Big Island of Hawaii on September 04, 2015:

My maternal grandparents are from Haiti, which has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world. Her parents warned her not to marry him, but she was determined, so they let her. He was HORRIBLY abusive. She wanted to get a divorce, but that option wasn't available in that place and time. So they raised 6 dysfunctional kids. She was finally delivered when he was killed by a drunk driver while on his way to see his mistress. She died 23 years later after suffering from Alzheimers for a decade. Their kids who hadn't disappeared buried her and moved on.

What an awful price to pay for making a poor choice!

Carrie Peterson from Colorado Springs, CO on May 21, 2015:

I recently learned my great-grandmother, who went by "Panda," and who was beloved by everyone, was forced to leave an abusive and alcoholic husband way back in the 1930s. His behavior was terrible, but he still had the right to call all his friends as witnesses against her for basic housekeeping and wife skills.

Kay Plumeau (author) from New Jersey, USA on May 18, 2015:

Thank you so much, I'm glad you enjoyed the article and I always appreciate your feedback.

Lee Cloak on May 18, 2015:

Very well done, a super important topic, a must read for everybody, voted up, Lee

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on May 18, 2015:

Thank you for this hub, it is needed for all to read. There should be no violence by either man or woman. I hope many people read this hub. Stella Voted up and sharing

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