What is domestic violence? A series on Dr. Bradley’s sourcebook (part 5) The History of Domestic Violence

What is domestic violence? A series on Dr. Bradley’s sourcebook (part 5) The History of Domestic Violence

August 13, 2018

The History of Domestic Violence 

In order to get a full understanding of domestic violence and learn what we can do to successfully combat it, it is important to learn about how we got to this point in the first place. Bradley suggests that domestic violence is as old as man himself, and states that records of wife beating stretch thousands of years, and it is only until recently that the public has decided to take a stand against it. She gives an account of times in ancient Rome, where a man could beat or even kill his wife on grounds as petty as public drunkenness or attending the the public games, while all the while men were encouraged and expected to partake in each of the above activities (Bradley 19). The idea of accepting domestic violence as something that just happens, was as idea which was reinforced through out centuries of patriarchal run societies, from the dark ages to the enlightenment. The wife was the husbands property and as such, he could treat her however he wished, and as soon as the woman tries to exert a similar power, it’s grounds for death.

Finally though, after years of continually being assaulted, the topic of domestic violence in it’s earliest forms started to be talked about and debated. Bradley notes that in 1405, a French writer Christine de Pizan complained of the harsh beating women received by their husbands for relatively no reason. Through the 15 century to the 19th, domestic violence was gaining more and more mainstream traction. Different significant writers, lawyers, philosophers, and other scholarly critiques were bringing the issue to public attention (Bradley 20). Some of these notable figures include, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Susan B. Anthony, and many more (Bradley 20).

A contemporary example of the reinforcement of social acceptance towards domestic violence is the colloquial phrase, “the rule of thumb”. Bradley states that although the term itself was a step in the progressive direction, it originated from English common law which dictated how thick the instrument you could hit your wife with could be. As long as the stick or whatever you chose to beat your wife with that day was less thick than your thumb, then you were good to go (Bradley 21). The fact that this phrase still dominated popular culture today, is just one small example of how the public is indoctrinated to accept domestic violence. American courts went ahead and adopted this rule for their own laws in 1822, and for the next few decades courts flipped back and forth on the exact size and measurement which a man could beat his wife with. While England passed its first laws against what we now know as domestic violence in 1853, it wasn’t until 1883 that the U.S finally deemed wife beating illegal (Bradley 21). Years of arguing the specifics of what a man could and couldn’t hurt his wife with resulted in the nation falling behind in terms of criminalizing domestic violence.

Although laws were finally being passed condemning wife beating, the public perception was hardly changed due to several factors, but one of those being very weak enforcement of those laws being created. Punishments were few and far between for husbands who would break these progressive new laws, and the legality of the situation itself was in limbo because in American and British culture, the wife was still viewed as the husbands property (Bradley 22). In fact, Bradley states, early American settlers adopted laws which put wives in the same legal status as a slave owned by the husband (Bradley 22). In this system, the husband was legally responsible for the entire household, so he was encouraged to do whatever it took behind closed doors, in order to present the picture perfect family to the outside world. Luckily this notion is finally beginning to be teared down, but not without the sacrifice from many women before us.

The attorneys at the Edgar & Dow are dedicated to the practice of Family law and juvenile dependency matters.  We have offices in Riverside, Temecula, Anaheim and Palm Desert. Committed to helping you get the results that your family deserves.  Contact [email protected] 951-684-6885 or EdgarFamilyLaw.com


Berry, Dawn Bradley. The Domestic Violence Sourcebook. Contemporary, 2001


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