Emerging Awareness of Domestic Violence as a Social and Clinical Problem

The understanding of the paterfamilias (male head of a household) with life and death control over wife (wives), children, slaves, and property is found in most every culture throughout the world: in ancient Greek and Roman society; in the Middle Eastern cultures represented in Christian,

Jewish, and Muslim scriptures; and in Confucian understandings of the family, to name a few examples. Religious values have played an ambiguous role, sometimes perpetuating, sometimes condemning domestic abuse. For instance, trends in Christian history that attribute to women responsibility for the presence of evil in creation also sanctioned public torture and murder of women accused of being witches or heretics (Brown and Bohn; Fortune). Yet ideals in all religions, such as the intrinsic worth of all people in Christianity or of special obligations of husbands toward wives and vice versa in Christianity and Judaism, have also condemned domestic abuse. The emergence of religious and secular movements to prevent child abuse and violence against women could not occur until women and children began to be seen as individuals in their own right. In her 1999 book, Wounds of the Spirit, Traci West offered a model of how churches can support African-American women in their resistance to violence based on the obligation of congregations to be agents of healing in their families and communities.

The gradual shift in attention from silent acceptance of abuse to its recognition as a problem can be illustrated by examining the history of changing laws in the United States. Until the late nineteenth century, the assumptions underlying laws and social policy in the United States came from English common law, where the husband was considered the head of the house with absolute control over his wife and children. The term rule of thumb comes from a modification of English common law that gives husbands the right to beat wives "provided that he used a switch no bigger than his thumb" (Martin, p. 32). From 1874 until the 1970s, the prevailing U.S. court precedents held that although husbands do not have the legal right to chastise their wives, the courts should not interfere in domestic affairs except when permanent injury, malice, cruelty, or dangerous violence can be proven (Martin). In the 1970s, growing recognition of the severity of abuse against women, due largely to the "women's liberation movement," led most states to offer women legal protection against abuse by their husbands or by the fathers of their children. In many states, however, access to information about legal options, advocates to clarify procedures and support women, and affordable remedies are still hard to find.

The first battered women's shelters were established in the 1970s in England and the United States when women who had suffered abuse came to newly formed women's support groups asking for a place to stay (Schechter). In her 1992 book, Trauma and Recovery, Judith Lewis Herman described the interaction of consciousness-raising groups, increased public awareness, and changes in social policy and the treatment of female victims of rape and domestic violence by medical and psychological professionals in the United States, beginning in the 1970s. Public discussion of domestic violence gave its victims the language, the courage, and the end to isolation that enabled them to decide that abuse against them was wrong even when prevailing social norms had led them to accept abuse as normal and justifiable (Herman; Schechter; Russell).

"Why don't women just leave?" is a frequent query. Unlike children or the elderly, adult women are expected to be able to protect themselves, so women who "choose" to remain with an abuser are often blamed for their situation. Men and women are—in theory—peers in a relationship of mutual equality and need, although the reality of male privilege undermines genuine equality. The long-term effects of abuse by a chosen lover, the economic, social, and legal barriers faced by women living independently or with children, the fear of even greater violence or death for the woman or for other family members if she leaves, and the pressure on women to sustain intimate relationships with men reduce the options available to women who want abuse to end. These same factors also reduce battered women's ability to recognize and act on existing options. According to the National Clearinghouse on Domestic Violence, more than 79 percent of all violent attacks occur after a woman leaves her abuser.

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