America's Long, Slow About-Face on Domestic Violence

America's Long, Slow About-Face on Domestic Violence

By Carl M. Cannon - July 23, 2014

Thirty-five years ago, U.S. Surgeon General Julius B. Richmond, embracing an expansive definition of public health, issued an annual report on everything from improving childhood nutrition to the specter of domestic violence.

“We are killing ourselves by our own careless habits,” Richmond’s boss, Joseph A. Califano, wrote in the introduction, in which he called for “a second health revolution.”

In that ambitious 1979 document, “Healthy People: The Surgeon General’s Report on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention,” Americans were urged to fasten their seat belts, drive more slowly, and lower their intake of fat, salt, and sugar. We were also told to wear motorcycle helmets, drink less, exercise more—and quit smoking altogether.

One of Califano’s bad “habits”— violence inside the home—wasn’t a victimless crime, however. Dr. Richmond certainly understood this. Most murders and assaults, he noted in a subsequent interview, occur “among friends and family,” often at home. But breaking that cycle would take a lot more than a government document.

Domestic violence, as it happens, was not a new concern. Long before the United States was founded, the Puritans became the first Western society to expressly outlaw wife beating. “Every married woman,” stated the Massachusetts Body of Laws and Liberties in 1641, “shall be free from bodily correction or stripes [lashings] by her husband unless it be upon his own defense upon her assault.”

Three decades later—and still a century before the Declaration of Independence—the pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation went even further. A husband who beat his wife could be prosecuted and subjected to a fine—or even a public whipping, they decreed.

So recognition that household violence, usually perpetrated by husbands, is a societal problem is not a recent realization. But not all colonies and states followed suit. In fact, most didn’t for a long time. A mid-19th-century divorce case that went to North Carolina’s state supreme court illustrated the nature of the problem. The case, Joyner v. Joyner, is notorious in feminist legal circles, and for good reason. Mrs. Joyner sued for divorce, and alimony, on the grounds that her second husband (she had been widowed) was coarse and brutish.

She testified that she found herself married to someone who “inflicted the most severe corporal punishment,” once with a horse whip and the other time with a switch, leaving visible bruises. In addition, he berated her with “abusive and insulting language,” the evidence showed, and accused her of taking property from their home to her daughter by her previous husband—a child he refused to let live with her. He also rousted her from the marital bed after she had retired and refused to let her sleep in it, and forbade her to sit for meals with his family. Eventually she sought refuge with friends and family, taking her 4-week-old baby with her.

Given that set of facts, the trial judge awarded her a divorce and alimony. This verdict was reversed on appeal by the state Supreme Court.

“The wife must be subject to the husband,” Chief Justice Richmond M. Pearson wrote. Citing a Biblical instruction from the Book of Genesis about a woman’s duty (“Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”), the judge added: “It follows that the law gives the husband power to use such a degree of force as is necessary to make the wife behave herself and know her place.”

By the end of the 19th century, a consensus had emerged in state capitals everywhere that a woman’s place was not in the hospital emergency room—or the morgue—but confronting domestic violence proved to be a challenge that was often beyond the reach of the authorities. This was a crime often hidden from cops and judges, even from other family members. Many victims were ashamed of their plight, as their perpetrators often convinced them that they had it coming. Other spouses were simply afraid of telling because they were threatened with greater violence if they did so.

In the late 20th century, an awakening of sorts occurred, fueled by the women’s movement, more enlightened approaches to criminal justice, and a deeper understanding of the psychological dynamics of abuse. These realizations were too often punctuated by horror stories of women murdered in the wake of lax law enforcement or toothless restraining orders. Yet progress came, slowly but inexorably, and for those who followed the issue, each decade is remembered for familiar mileposts:

--In 1964, Haven House, the first modern battered women’s shelter, opens its doors in Pasadena, Calif. Within 15 years, 250 such shelters will exist in the U.S.

--In 1971, the Bay Area Women Against Rape, also formed in California, starts the nation’s first rape crisis center.

--In 1976, a statewide coalition to combat domestic violence is formed in Pennsylvania. That same year, Oregon’s legislature enacts a state law mandating the arrest of suspected batterers—even if the spouse doesn’t want to press charges.

--In 1984, Ronald Reagan signs legislation funneling money to states that provide a variety of services attending to the emotional healing and economic recovery of crime victims, including rape or domestic violence victims.

--Ten years later, Sen. Joe Biden co-sponsors the Violence Against Women Act, which lengthens the prison terms of rapists convicted in federal court, sets up the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and provides federal funding that has been used to train some 500,000 law enforcement officers in sexual and domestic violence. This legislation is folded into an omnibus crime bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton on Sept. 13, 1994.

-- On Oct. 2, 1995, Clinton hosts domestic violence survivors in the East Room while declaring October “Domestic Violence Awareness Month.” “One of the reasons people should be focused on this election is because we need a government that is responsive to the needs of the people,” the first lady says. “Domestic violence was never taken seriously before.”

An overstatement, perhaps, but it’s fair to say it had not been taken “as seriously” before. Yet, the history of this issue shows there is always more to do. Eight years after the National Domestic Violence Hotline was founded, it received its 1 millionth call, which President George W. Bush pointed out while continuing the Clinton’s October tradition of inviting victims and advocates to the White House. 

“A home, a family should be a place of support, should be a peaceful place -- not a place of cruelty and brutality,” Bush said in 2003. “Domestic violence betrays the most basic duties of life, it violates the law, it’s wrong, it is a crime that must be confronted by individuals, by communities and by government.”

The Justice Department, Bush added, had increased domestic violence-related prosecutions by 35 percent in 2002. And the president requested another $100 million in federal money to fight the problem, including $20 million for community-based “family justice centers” where victims can find the services they need in one location.

These efforts have only grown under the Obama administration, and by almost any measure spouses and children caught in abusive situations occupy a different world than the one described—and proscribed—by North Carolina’s high court a century and a half ago.

The newest front in this battle, interestingly, was foreshadowed by that Joyner v. Joyner case. That decision was appalling and perhaps even stupidly reasoned, but Chief Justice Pearson managed to identify an underlying problem for women: their lack of financial independence, or legal standing. The doctrine of coverture, by which a wife’s legal rights and obligations were subsumed by her husband’s, was at the root of the problem.

“Why is it that by the principles of the common law, if a wife slanders or assaults and beats a neighbor the husband is made to pay for it?” the judge asked in his 1862 opinion. “Why is it that the wife cannot make a will disposing of her land? It is for the reason that the law gives this power to the husband over the person of the wife, and has adopted proper safeguards to prevent an abuse of it.”

That “reason” of course, was sexism, and coverture was enforced not only by statute but by brute force. Today, coverture laws are long gone. But economic pressures on women remain. At a 2010 White House event, President Obama hosted survivors of domestic violence, including a woman named Lori Stone, whose attempts to escape a violent husband were complicated by financial burdens he’d also imposed on the family.

“Lori’s experience serves as an example,” the president said. “Lori had not only suffered abuse at the hands of her husband physically, he also destroyed their credit. And she had to spend her limited savings on legal representation to keep custody of her children.”

To address such cases, the administration has launched a series of initiatives ranging from pilot projects providing free legal services to abuse victims, new Department of Housing and Urban development guidelines ensuring that women don’t lose their housing because of crimes committed against them, and a whole effort the White House calls “financial literacy”—so that victims aren’t forced by economic pressure to stay in abusive relationships.

TOMORROW:  Caitlin Huey-Burns reports on the findings of a Rutgers University study into the impact financial tools can have on women trying to escape domestic violence. Also tomorrow, RCP will host a forum on the study, along with best practices and gaps in current policies, at the Columbus Club in Washington, D.C. The free event takes place at 8 a.m. and will feature Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland. To sign up, go toFresh Start: The Road to Financial Empowerment.


Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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