Violence against women

The Year of the Women January 1920/2020

by Diane Bairstow

Every month we are following the ratification of the 19th Amendment and considering women’s issues then and now. In 1920 Kentucky, Rhode Island, Oregon, Indiana, and Wyoming ratified the 19th Amendment; with 27 states signed-on, the suffragettes had 9 left to go.

In 1641, the  Body of Liberties of the Massachusetts Bay colonists declared that a married woman should be “free from bodilie correction or stripes by her husband.” 1984, President Bill Clinton signed the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) designed to support and protect victims of domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault.

Unfortunately, the 1641 law didn’t segue into the states’ constitutions or laws, and the 1984 VAWA expired last December. Although it was passed by the House, it has languished in the Senate for the past year.

In the early days of our country, it was considered the right of a husband to reprimand his wife and violently express his dominance over her. However, as the early feminists began to make their voices heard, sentiment began to change.  Tennessee was the first state to outlaw wife beating in 1850, and other states soon followed suit. By the end of the 1870s most courts in the United States upheld the right of women to be free from domestic violence, and by the 1920s politicians declared an end to domestic abuse.

Advances in women’s rights, and the passage of the 19th Amendment, spurred a conservative backlash. “The Unexpurgated Case against Women’s Suffrage” written in 1913 by the British scientist Sir Almoth Wright was widely distributed in the States and covered by the media. Wright justified violence if a wife “became violent, unrefined, ungrateful, or ‘when she places a quite extravagantly high estimate upon her intellectual powers.’” A contemporary American scientist, Dr. William T. Sedgwick stated that men possessed “brutal appetites,” which naturally would lead them to violence (justifiably) if a woman persisted in public and political life.

In the 1920s and 30s, with the increasing popularity of psychotherapy, family courts routinely relegated domestic abuse cases to the jurisdiction of psychiatrist and psychologist. Social workers urged women to be submissive, dress attractively, keep a clean house and please their husbands. The creation of family therapy starting in 1909 in Chicago deemphasized the violence, and encouraged the victim to consider her behavior and see how she could change to create a more “functioning,” “healthy” relationship.

A century later, this attitude still prevails in our society. In 2012 Rep. Donale Pridemore (R Wisconsin), the chairman of Wisconsin’s Children and Families Committee, sponsored a child abuse bill that claims a child living with a single mother could be considered to be in an abusive relationship. Pridemore’s stance was that a woman should not seek divorce, but with her abusive husband should first try to “re-find those reasons and get back to why they got married in the first place.”

Since 1984 reauthorization of VAWA is largely non-controversial. However, this last year the Democrats offered substantive changes to the law and as a result, it became a victim of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the partisan political infighting.

The change causing the biggest stumbling block is the “boyfriend loophole.” The current law restricts spouses convicted of stalking or abusing from obtaining firearms. The proposed changes expand this to non-spouse and other intimate partners, important because half the female homicide victims are killed by their current or former male partners, and women are 5 times more likely to be murdered if the man can purchase a firearm.

In December 2019 Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo took Republican lawmakers to task when a 32-year-old officer was killed answering a domestic violence call between a boyfriend and a girlfriend.  “I don’t want to hear about how much they support law enforcement,” he said. “We all know in law enforcement that one of the biggest reasons that the Senate … [is not] getting the Violence Against Women Act [passed] is because the NRA doesn’t like the fact that we want to take firearms out of the hands of boyfriends that abuse their girlfriends . . . You’re either here for women and children and our daughters and our sisters and our aunts, or you’re here for the NRA,” he continued. “Make up your minds: Whose side are you on?”