What Does Proper Christian Womanhood Have to do with the Ray Rice Story?

In 1882, the state of Maryland adopted an “Act to inflict Corporal Punishment upon Persons found guilty of Wife-Beating,” allowing any man who “brutally assault[ed] or beat his wife” to receive up to forty lashes, a year in prison, or both. Mr. Keilholtz, of the Maryland House of Delegates, introduced the legislation after observing several instances of victims defending their abusers. Explaining the exigence for this Act, Keilholtz said he hoped to “thrash the barbarians” who would dare to “strike a woman.”

The story of this “thrash the barbarians” bill is recounted in the first chapter of Leslie J. Harris’ State of the Marital Union: Rhetoric, Identity, and Nineteenth Century Marriage Controversies, a book I happen to be reading this week even as another Maryland man, now-former Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice, stands condemned for assaulting his wife, who at the time was his fiancée. Having viewed the disturbing clip of the assault, or heard from those who have, much of the public would now happily see Rice thrashed.

Today, we can point to anything from the Catholic Church’s continued refusal to ordain women, to one of the nation’s most popular pastors calling us a “pussified nation.”

Reading Harris, though, I find myself a little hesitant to pile on. To be clear, this isn’t because I think the attack was in any way excusable, or because I’m persuaded that Rice is an otherwise stellar human being, but rather that, reading Harris, the Rice case is one instance of a pervasive historical reality. To get exceptionally angry at the TMZ tape, or at Rice, is in some ways to pretend that this act of violence was somehow unique; a rare violation of a national consensus on male behavior. But in a nation where one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime, where one in five has been raped, it seems just a little too convenient to isolate one man as a national disgrace.

The problem of domestic violence is many-faceted, of course, but perhaps the largest face reflects a patriarchal culture with a decidedly religious heritage. Harris observes that, historically, the judgement of domestic violence has often been determined by the character of the victim.

If the family functions as a mini-state, bringing order to the nation-state, and if the husband/father serves as the divinely appointed executive of that mini-state, then the press, the judiciary, and the public-at-large have generally deferred to the man on matters within his jurisdiction. Our laws, often murky on this subject, have allowed men a certain discretionary leeway within which to correct and discipline their families. Harris writes:

The legal rhetoric of divorce and criminal trials [in the nineteenth century] suggests that the degree of permissible violence was often dependent on the character of the participants in the marriage, and judges frequently read women’s characters through the lens of proper womanhood, demanding that women behave in ways deemed good and pure.

By conceding the importance of “correction” within the pseudo-public space of the home, judges commonly allowed some measure of violence as a means to keep women on the narrow path of good Christian wifeliness. In one 1855 Alabama decision, a judge explained his deference to an abusive husband this way:

Between persons of education, refinement, and delicacy, the slightest blow in anger might be cruelty; while between persons of a different character and walk in life, blows might occasionally pass without marring to any great extent their conjugal relations, or materially interfering with their happiness.

There may, as we have intimated, be cases where the offer to personal violence to a female might properly be regarded as an act of barbarous and unmanly cruelty; but we must discriminate—we must not be so unjust as to put all of the sex on the same level; and if a woman chooses to unsex herself, and forget that she is female, she should not complain if others do not always remember it.

In other words, if a woman ever ventures beyond the realm of proper wifely submission, she may deserve the consequences.

Now, the script could be flipped, and sometimes was. In the event that the father/husband was deemed to be excessively violent, he might be dismissed and punished as a barbarian. Such cases were usually made when the brutish husband was cast opposite a pure, chaste, and proper Christian wife. But in either case, Harris notes, the law was invoked to monitor and enforce gender roles. The application of punishment—or its refusal—hinged on factors well removed from violence qua violence. It’s a mentality that surfaces frequently today, when the victim of an assault is scrutinized for things like dress and behavior, often referred to as “slut-shaming.”

In its nineteenth century iteration, the defense of gender roles lent itself to abuse—even by its own normally abusive standard. Since a man was deemed to be in charge of his home, and since his wife was regarded as within his domain, the suspicion of infidelity could provide legal cover for violence leading all the way up to murder—whether of his wife or a third party.

In an 1870 case, a man named Daniel McFarland was acquitted of murdering a man with whom his by-then-ex-wife was believed to be having an affair. Operating on a logic of “honorable manhood,” the court excused McFarland’s act as an instance of “emotional insanity” tied to the violation of his home (even though a period of years had elapsed between revelation and act, and despite the fact that McFarland had shot and wounded his victim once before).

Since the insanity plea was dependent upon a man’s honor and commitment to his home, a dark irony emerged with each favorable ruling. “Murder of a wife was justified only if a husband truly loved his wife,” Harris writes. “In a case with a good and loving husband, the act of wife murder was simply represented as an outgrowth of honorable masculinity.”

Which brings us back to Maryland, 1882. Harris cites the corporal punishment law as exception rather than rule. The prospect of a man being whipped for his abusive behavior was extremely rare in both law and practice, so it should not be assumed that Ray Rice is getting off easier now than he would have then. In fact, the general hesitancy to punish domestic abusers remains strikingly stable over time, with one important caveat: race. Harris notes that black men were whipped far more often than white men—a reality with historical resonance of its own—yet those whippings received much greater attention from the press.

Frank Pyers, the first white man to be sentenced to a public flogging for domestic abuse, received a detailed write-up in the Baltimore Sun, and described the ordeal in racialized terms. “That was a d— hard punishment for a white man.” John Boots, the second white man sentenced, got his whipping in 1896, a full fourteen years after the law went on the books, though the state was forced to act only because his wife “came running into town, the blood flowing from the wounds in her face.” Boots would likely have avoided any punishment at all, Harris notes, except that his wife had “fled to town, making the violence public and punishment necessary.” By forcing her community to witness the violence against her, Mary Boots had leaked the security tape, so to speak.

Throughout American history, public indignation over domestic violence has often been reserved for those cases where the violence goes public, even as the dominant social structures facilitate violence in private. Historically, those structures have drawn heavily upon religious justifications, developing a theory of “family values” that often fails in practice.

Today, we can point to anything from the Catholic Church’s continued refusal to ordain women, to one of the nation’s most popular pastors calling us a “pussified nation,” to fierce national debates over abortion and birth control whose implicit terms are the assertion of control over women’s bodies. Though our jurisprudence is today unlikely to cite men’s divine responsibility as head of the household, much of our political-religious discourse continues to take gender “complementarity” for granted.

This is not to suggest, of course, that all traditional thinking about marriage and gender leads to domestic abuse, just that it creates the conditions that make it more likely. And perhaps more importantly, it ought to remind us that some of our most vicious social problems arise from within our most important social institutions, at times seeking validation in our most intimate beliefs. Though this observation cannot, on its own, account for all domestic violence, it can help explain its persistence, and perhaps even provide new strategies for change.



  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    This case also shows American society is evolving in a new direction. The difference here is now the NFL is at fault. We are beginning a new phase where all important institutions and corporations need to police their associates on off hours. They will need to set up a governing body to establish laws of morality. Then they need a criminal investigation unit to find those who might have violated these laws in their private hours. The companies will need a criminal justice system like professional judges and juries that can put accused associates on trial because we as a nation don’t want to assume everyone accused is guilty. Those who have been found guilty will have to face a punishment of banishment, or for lesser crimes perhaps a timed version of banishment. We can’t have all our institutions giving out jail time, and there will have to be a lot of systems of moral laws and criminal justice because there are a lot of companies. They will all need to comply with this new requirement, congress will be exempted.

  • sma9231961@aol.com' the Old Adam says:


    I don’t even know what “proper Christian womanhood” is.

    Men and women in the Christian church are just sinners. Forgiven sinners who quite often fail to live up to the proper calling of their humanity.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Who are you to judge?

  • jimbentn@verizon.net' Jim 'Prup' Benton says:

    The author somewhat loses his focus and his point by trying to do too much here, and by throwing in too many side issues. (And as someone who makes the same mistake in almost all of his longer posts, believe me, I understand the temptation.) With all the possible — and interesting — historical issues available for discussing that were overlooked, the ‘side trip’ into questions of abortion and the ordination of women could have been left for another piece. In fact, had the author merely mentioned the Rice case as a reason for investigating these historical questions and then left ‘present day’ questions entirely he might have had more room to explore some fascinating aspects. The author does not even mention the ‘unwritten law’ — the long history of juries refusing to convict a husband if he discovered his wife and another man in bed together and killed one or both of them. (In fact, discussing this, and answering whether a wife would have been granted the same ‘exemption’ — an answer I don’t know, btw — might have led to quite a fruitful discussion) The McFarland case was similar, yes, but the difference is the time for which he’d known about the affair. This made the claim of ‘temporary insanity’ absurd, but what about the cases where the husband (or wife) was genuinely surprised and shocked at finding the spouse in flagrante delicto? [sp?]
    Even more important would have been a comparison as to how the subject was handled in areas dominated by different religions. The author — as is far too common — uses “Christian” to mean ‘the sort of Christianity they have in the ‘Bible Belt.’ (I hate it when right wing fundies try to grab sole ownership of the term, but it is even worse when we help them.)
    Was domestic violence treated the same in predominantly Catholic Northeastern cites? What about the parts of the Midwest that were strongly Lutheran? Were there differences between Mormon and Christian areas of states where Mormonism was strong? For that matter, were there differences between Catholic areas of the Northeast — frequently Irish-dominated — the Midwest — where many Catholics were Polish, German, or from other middle European countries — and the Southwest and California where the Catholics came from a Hispanic heritage and were not immigrants but settlers who had been there since before the region became part of the US?
    The racial aspect is important, but the example you give is from the former slave state of Maryland. Was there this strong a racial divide in other areas with no slavery at least in recent history — recent in relation to the time discussed?
    The author at least implies that acting ‘unfeminine’ could rob a women of the protection of the laws in this area. I would have appreciated seeing examples of this.
    It’s not usually wise to complain because an author didn’t write the article you would have written — and with the Internet, it is also unnecessary, since anyone can write his own article and submit it. But I know I couldn’t have written the piece I would have liked to see, and I was hoping that someone had.

  • phatkhat@centurylink.net' phatkhat says:

    Sheesh. This is an essay, not a book! Maybe you should read Harris’ book – it might go where you want to go. I don’t know, because I haven’t read it.

    Personally, I thought the essay way very good, brought up a lot of food for thought, and the paragraph you didn’t like struck ME as being right on target. But, then, I’m a woman, and I see the way the patriarchy affects women’s lives up close and personal.

  • ecm192 says:

    I think the complaint about doing too much is fair. Obviously this piece was inspired by the anecdote from 1882 Maryland and its parallels to current headlines.

    Harris’ book may satisfy your interests. She talks about the “unwritten law” at length. My intention was simply to note that Ray Rice is not an anomaly, that domestic violence is incredibly common (if usually without video) and that there are historical connections between domestic violence and notions of Christian propriety – understood as an influential American tradition rather than a symptom of Bible Belt politics today.

    So this incident should be viewed as an opportunity for national (and Christian) introspection rather than a trending moral panic with one (and only one) clear villain.

  • Dennis.Lurvey@live.com' GeniusPhx says:

    The Bible’s, and by extension Christian’s, view of women is clear. Woman being created from man, woman being subservient to man, women being used only for procreation, women should be in he home to care for the children only, women being paid less, women at first doing dumbed down work, are ALL a result of biblical culture. It is also known that black women are the most religious according to Pew and the US census, so they are the most likely to believe they deserved it and it’s the man’s place to dole it out.

    As we know Christians are reluctant to change these views because the scripture never changes. We still have pockets living back in those times in this country. The ones we hear about are the Quakers and Mormons but others included the Jim Jones and David Koresh cults.

    We still have too many Judges in this country, who believe that way, and typically decide cases based on Biblical principles before the law. (Like the one who decided a 8′ stature of jesus on federal land was NOT a religious symbol.)

    This subject will not go away anytime soon because the Bible will always be god’s word to many regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    If women don’t like it, then they should make up their own religion. Regardless of what you say about the Bible, religion comes from MAN.

  • maryann26@toast.net' maryann26 says:

    I never understand women who put up with abuse, and I never will.

  • revlindacarter@aol.com' Linda says:

    The NFL should be concerned about this particular private behavior because it reflects so badly against their organization. That is their prerogative.

  • revlindacarter@aol.com' Linda says:

    Perhaps you’ve never been abused, which is very fortunate. Ask around. At least 1 in 10 of your female friends can help you understand.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    True, but it is up to them. Their primary business is selling high velocity but beautiful collisions between big, strong, and fast athletes. Should we rely on the police and criminal justice system to find, try, and punish violators of the law, or should we just fire them from their jobs, and any future job they want to apply for? I am just trying to think this through a little farther than an immediate reaction.

  • maryann26@toast.net' maryann26 says:

    I never have been abused so I do not understand why a woman would stay with someone who abuses her.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    No woman wants to get beat up, but it may be something that they have been selecting for for tens of thousands of years. Women want men who are violent, and who can beat up everyone else to get their way, because that is better than having a man who gets beat up. They select these men for breeding. There is a certain risk that the woman might get beat up too, but the risk is worth it to be at the top of the species. At least that is the way it seems if you look at the societies that we have been building for those tens of thousands of years. In the current version of that society, we are trying to redirect some of the violence into sport. This has its pluses and minuses. Most of the violence has been directed into the game, but the rewards for selecting for violence are even greater than before. He is one of the extremely rare winners in the game of violence, or at least he was until his banishment. Most of the violent men never make it to his level of riches and violence, so any minor wife beating that they do is not noticed. It sounds a little strange to call the wife beating minor, but what can you do? You can’t put him on trial, or put him in jail. This one can only be tried in the court of public opinion. That cost him his millions, and since he is a naturally violent person without the game to direct his violence into he might turn into a monster. Public opinion can only do this for one or a very small number of violent people. The rest are on their own along with their families to deal with their violence issues without our intervention.

  • ellen.valle@utu.fi' red-diaper-baby 1942 says:

    “high velocity but beautiful collisions”? A deliberate and violent collision between two human beings is NEVER beautiful, but always repulsive. As for “big, strong and fast athletes”; if they were competing against each other in a running race or other track event, I would agree; but in this case I would replace your three adjectives with just one, which is more relevant: “high-paid”.

  • ellen.valle@utu.fi' red-diaper-baby 1942 says:

    “Women want men who are violent, and who can beat up everyone else to get their way”: boy, are you wrong! I don’t know what kind of women you’ve been associating with, and how you treat them; but I’m a woman, a mother and a grandmother, and I can tell you most intelligent women can’t stand violent men. Manhood isn’t about beating other men up (whatever it may have been in the Paleolithic era), but about being intelligent, witty, responsible, adroit and creative. It helps if you can use an electric drill — that’s something I’ve been happy to leave to my husband — but even those kind of skills aren’t essential if you have others.

    I live in a country that has compulsory military service for young men, and one reason I chose my husband (back in the sixties) was that he was a pacifist and conscientious objector. It would have been hard to have loved him otherwise.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    I totally agree with you. I was just trying to see it from a scientific point of view. We need to change, but it is hard to quickly change what has been programmed into our DNA for a hundred thousand years.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    I think that is what I was trying to say. Plus “high paid” means most successful at being big, strong, fast.

  • ellen.valle@utu.fi' red-diaper-baby 1942 says:

    So you mean you were being sarcastic in your original post? If so, I’m sorry I didn’t recognize it. I’m new on RD, so I’m not yet familiar with the regular posters’ style.
    As for sarcasm, nowadays it’s impossible to tell the difference. No matter how extreme the irony or parody. a RWNJ will say something even more extreme and with a straight face.

  • ellen.valle@utu.fi' red-diaper-baby 1942 says:

    okay, I get it now. (See also my reply to you above.) Obviously I’m going to have to figure out your style of somewhat oblique discourse.
    Just to add something which is probably no longer necessary: a lot of women (at least the ones I’ve known in my long life) admire men who are clever at resolving disputes with verbal adroitness, even if sometimes it has to be a bit manipulative; but NEVER with fists, much less guns.
    You’re right about our DNA, but culture, education and the values inculcated in children from a young age play a considerable role. Why else are some countries and regions endemically violent, others much less so?
    I’m an American (actually a New Yorker, which is quite a different sort of animal) who’s lived in a Scandinavian country for many years, so I’ve assimilated the cultures of both. Sort of Henry James superimposed on the early, neurotic Woody Allen, if you know what I mean.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Why else are some countries violent, others less so?

    I think I can answer that regarding America. We are violent because we are a nation that values freedom, and freedom means opportunity to rise above and get rich, if you are lucky enough to be in that position and it works out for you. We have been pushing this to the limit, where those who are rich can set the stage to get more and more rich, compared to the others. A key to making this work is working the media to make the rest of the population think this is the best kind of system there could be. Unfortunately this has a kind of runaway effect where the more rich the rich become, the more they want to get even more rich, and the more that next one percent of the population wants to also get rich too. We end up permanently short of money to make this happen, so everything in society has to be cut back, in a thousand ways, and to whatever extreme society can stand. It has worked very well for a few decades, but ultimately more of the population becomes more frustrated with the system, and they become more angry, and start to hate each other, not so much hate of the rich as hate of the other non-rich who they are now in competition with for the basics of living. You people over there should pay attention and watch to see how it all turns out.

  • DiggittMcL@gmail.com' Diggitt says:

    Maryann, you must not have been listening very closely to your sisters, your aunts, your mother, your friends. Some of those very women have been abused, and perhaps they sense your insensitivity and WON’T speak to you about it. Abused women select their audiences VERY carefully.

  • DiggittMcL@gmail.com' Diggitt says:

    You’re hilarious, Jim. You married?

  • DiggittMcL@gmail.com' Diggitt says:

    We should all be concerned about the NFL because it was created as, and still remains, a non-profit organization. Yes, like a religious organization or a charity. Here in Minnesota, we bid for and received an upcoming Super Bowl. The City of Minneapolis said in its proposal to the NFL that it would return any and all sales taxes coming from any business relating to the Super Bowl. I am assuming the City will not refund, for instance, a tariff charged on hotel rooms or beer….but if Super Bowl cities don’t get tax revenus from sales, why do they want the Super Bowl? The NFL has its hands in all of our pockets even if we don’t go near football, just by virtue of being a nonprofit. It should be ten times the scandal of Ray Rice.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Every city and state is giving tax breaks to every business because they don’t want that business to go to a different city or state. They are all going broke, but those who don’t give out the tax breaks are losing their businesses, then not only are they broke, but the people who live there no longer have jobs. The only way to survive is to give out traffic tickets.

  • maryann26@toast.net' maryann26 says:

    Not everyone is in abusive relationships. I have one twin sister. She and I have been happily married for over 20 years. My parents have been happily married for 53 years. I do not come from a violent family.

    Some women are stupid. It makes no sense for a woman to marry a man who shows himself to be abusive. I have read that many abusive men show signs of abusive tendencies.

    Far too many women make themselves dependent on a loser. They get pregnant, drop out of school and cannot take care of themselves. Some women are pathetic.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    These are cruel, ignorant, victim-blaming words. There are all kinds of social, psychological, and emotional reasons for why people do what they do. Congratulations on your happy life. It doesn’t make you better than anyone.

  • Lucky you. I have parents who beat and sexually abused me. Set me up for all kinds of abuse and abusing in my life. Why don’t you sit on a fireplug and spin.

  • lulu_44@hotmail.com.au' TheRealReginaPhalange says:

    An abuser is not going to beat their victim on a first date. A lot of abusers are very charming and manipulative. They slowly chip away at their victim’s self-esteem and isolate them from family and friends so that they have (or feel that they have) nothing and no one left to turn to if/when they decide to leave. Additionally, many people grew up in abusive homes and are emotionally vulnerable to falling victim to people who will abuse them in adult relationships.

    Furthermore, the most dangerous time for a victim is when they leave their abuser. That’s why you hear about abusers tracking down and kidnapping/beating/torturing/raping/killing their victims (and sometimes others in their path) AFTER they have already left them. Its not just mustering up the courage and resources to leave – there are serious safety risks involved.

  • maryann26@toast.net' maryann26 says:

    It is not my fault that your parents were abusive. Many people do not come from abusive homes. You should not be taking your anger out on people who did not suffer as you have. It is very hard to have any empathy for someone who spews venom..

  • maryann26@toast.net' maryann26 says:

    I have not been around abusive people. I have been very lucky, but I certainly would know that many abusive people show signs of being abusive that are often ignored. People need to be careful.

  • Narcissus, thy name is Mary Ann.

  • lulu_44@hotmail.com.au' TheRealReginaPhalange says:

    How exactly can you be so sure of the signs of abuse when you admit that you have not been around abusive people?

  • mel_arewar@yahoo.com' Jennifer Starr says:

    Frankly, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Not that it seems to stop you, but I just thought I’d point it out.

  • mel_arewar@yahoo.com' Jennifer Starr says:

    It is very hard to have any empathy for someone who spews venom.

    Precisely what I was thinking about you.

  • maryann26@toast.net' maryann26 says:

    I have read about “red flags” that indicate people can be abusive and those read flags should not be ignored. If someone went to a verbal rage, I would be suspect about such a person’s ability to handle his emotions properly. I would not have anything to do with such a person.

  • maryann26@toast.net' maryann26 says:

    Women who marry men who have slapped or beaten them are stupid.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    You’re already assuming that the abuse starts before marriage. Often it does not. Should I comment on the intelligence of people who make unwarranted assumptions?

  • MaryMeMeMe still here?

  • lulu_44@hotmail.com.au' TheRealReginaPhalange says:

    Why are you so insistent on arguing the same point when you have admitted that you have no personal experience with abuse? Is it so important that you talk over those who have both personal and professional experience, even if it means being hurtful to victims of abuse?

    So you’ve read a few tips in magazines here and there, but as I stated earlier, most abusers are very charming and manipulative. They are not going to beat their victim or fly into a verbal rage on the first date or even the fifth date. By the time they do that, they would likely have chipped away at their victim’s self-esteem. They also make their victim feel as though they are going crazy and are imagining the (relatively) smaller things that emerge in the beginning of their relationship. They may be very controlling before they begin with the verbal/physical abuse, but they know how to frame it in a way that doesn’t appear controlling. They claim to be ‘concerned’ about the person’s safety or that its ‘harmless’ jealousy and they just ‘love’ them so much.

    You claim to know exactly what you would do in an abusive situation. You’ve made your point. We get. Why don’t you sit back and listen to those explaining that its more complicated than you think?

  • fiona64@livejournal.com' fiona64 says:

    MaryAnn, I’m a little late to this party. I have been in an abusive relationship, and I can tell you that “why doesn’t she just leave” is about the most simplistic and asinine question that can be asked. By the time the physical abuse begins, the emotional and mental abuse has been going on for a long time. When the gaslighting starts, you start to doubt your own sanity … especially when your abuser is “the perfect gentleman” in public. No one believes that he would do anything to hurt you … because he’s careful to make it look like that.

    I broke up with my abuser *nine times.*

    You clearly have no idea what the dynamics of abuse are like. Count yourself lucky.

  • fiona64@livejournal.com' fiona64 says:

    Do you think that the hitting starts during the first coffee date? Christ on the cross; is anyone this simple?

  • fiona64@livejournal.com' fiona64 says:

    And some women do none of those things and still wind up in abusive situations.

    There’s only one stupid woman I see here, and it’s you.

  • fiona64@livejournal.com' fiona64 says:

    Oh, you’ve “read about” these things, have you?

    Well, perhaps you should read some more … and talk to some survivors. And get out of your fucking bubble.

  • fiona64@livejournal.com' fiona64 says:

    It is very hard to have any empathy for someone who spews venom..

    Then you’ll understand why I feel no empathy for you.

  • cristinadhaines@gmail.com' CristinaHaines says:

    Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Love can make us do stupid things.

  • jenniferhindes@yahoo.com' onebluestocking says:

    Some women prefer these relationships, and consider healthy ones and the people who espouse them too “vanilla”, and men who do not “keep them in line” too weak. I know of three women like this. Two were raised in abusive homes, I don’t know about the third, so they probably grew up thinking that this was the man’s role in a family. Not something you usually hear about, though.

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