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.