Carole Owens: Domestic violence rooted in history


STOCKBRIDGE — In first part of this two-part column ("A common, disturbing story," Nov. 6), time, place, severity of the crimes, and similarity of the victims, were different. What then did the examples of physical/sexual abuse have in common? Answer: the way in which people and police responded.

Did Freud change a key element of his theory from real to imagined sexual abuse to make his theories more palatable to the traditional, male-dominated medical society of the day? Was it to avoid incommoding powerful men?

In 1780 a case was brought in civil court. Colonel Easton of Pittsfield was accused of criminal conversation by Mr. Dexter of Boston. Criminal conversation was 18th-speak for adultery.

It was a civil suit because adultery was considered a civil wrong, that is, a suit for monetary damages. Under the law, Easton despoiled Dexter's property — his wife — by sleeping with her. The claim was not proved, Easton's character was restored, and Dexter returned to Boston empty-handed.

What happened to Mrs. Dexter? No one cared enough to mention it. It was a matter between men.


The laws and the accompanying attitudes date back to 12th Century English Common Law. English Common law rested upon the belief that a patriarchal society was the natural order of things. Male supremacy was natural; female supremacy was anathema. Equality of the sexes was unnatural, against the word of God, and therefore, not reflected in the laws of man.

A female was property; husband or father had the right to sue for damages if his female was "interfered with." She was feme covert, that is covered by a male with no independent standing before the law. She could not vote, run for office, own property, or sign a contract.

To control her, a husband or father may have to beat her or lock her up — those acts were not illegal — they were the man's obligation.

It was not until 1898, that rape was considered a crime. It was not until the nineteenth century that the age of consent was raised from 10 years old to 16.

After 1898 it was possible to bring a criminal charge of rape but not against a husband. Legally, a husband could not rape or assault a wife. Even if a husband's ill-treatment were widely known, no one would "come between" a husband and wife.

The attitude towards abused wives persisted. The Violence against Women Act was passed during the Clinton administration in 1994 when the country was almost 220 years old.

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It specifically protected women from violence by men even when the man was a husband or father. It was necessary since a disproportionately high percentage of violence against women was committed by a relative or intimate. The sadness of violence perpetrated by those we most want to love and trust cannot be overstated.

Once the laws were passed, the problem was enforcement. A law was in place before attitudes changed. It continued to be considered "a shame" if a husband were brought up on charges. Rape continued to be viewed as a sexual rather than violent act.

If a woman was raped, she had encouraged the advance. Domestic violence was something the wife brought on herself by persisting in unacceptable behavior. Blaming the victim was in its heyday and prosecution was difficult.

The common denominator in response to sexual and physical abuse cases is protection of our social order. Detestation of radical social change — better the devil you know.

Phyllis Schafley claimed it was more than social organization. She said, "Feminism is doomed to failure because it is based on an attempt to repeal and restructure human nature."


If you want the simple logic of the batterer removed from the home and the battered wife left in place, that is, if you want the man punished and the woman protected by society, then you must stare down 2,000 years of laws and custom and risk massive social upheaval.

If you include the whole spectrum of sexual and physical abuse from causing discomfort to perpetrating assault, then every woman you know — your mother, sister, your aunt, your cousin, your wife and your love — has suffered at one time and to some degree. Our Constitution guarantees all of them the right to happiness and equal protection under the law. None of those facts make the rock those who want change are pushing uphill any smaller.

Men are still paid more money and paid more attention when they speak. This is not to say Schafley was right. This is not to say give up. This is to say that the enormity of the problem cannot be minimized or reduced to simple binary choices.

Why do we beat and rape our women? When she is speaking the truth — what do we do then? What should a civilized and empathetic society do on behalf of its vulnerable members against perpetrators of violence? Are we violent because we tolerate it?

Our district attorney has a new task force: physical and sexual abuse. In a meeting of advisors, the question was posed: why do women refuse to report? Another question is: what happens when she does? Perhaps one question answers the other.

Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.


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