Why Domestic Abuse Was Legal (And Why It Took So Long to Change)

Why Domestic Abuse Was Legal (And Why It Took So Long to Change)

Abuse against women isn’t anything new. Women have been mistreated since the beginning of history. But we turned a blind eye to domestic abuse for far too long. Even as women’s rights movements swept across the country, domestic abuse was allowed to continue.

Why was domestic abuse legal for so long? And are modern laws really making a difference for survivors?

Unfortunately, abuse against women has been around since the beginning of recorded human history. Babylonian texts from 1750 BC show a harsh environment filled with fear and violence, where women and children were considered property. Violence was considered an effective and acceptable way to “keep women under control.”

As humanity modernized, many of these views stayed the same. The Roman Empire, the rise of Catholicism, and even the Puritans who settled in early America all followed strict gender roles. Men were seen as superior, and women were expected to follow their direction.

Even into the early 19th century, American women had few rights. They were often at the mercy of the men in their lives to survive. Physical violence was accepted – and even expected, in some cases. Women who were abused had no legal protections, no resources for help, and no other options.

Women’s Rights and Domestic Violence

In the early 1800s, nearly every American legal system considered the abuse of a woman by her husband to be perfectly legal. In fact, the cultural belief of the time was that a husband was well within his rights to inflict abuse on his wife to keep control over her.

However, the rise of women’s suffrage began to change those views. As more and more women demanded equal voting rights and equal representation under the law, public opinion slowly shifted.

The abolition of slavery also took place during this time, bringing awareness to the rights of both women and people of color. But even as laws slowly changed, public opinion remained mixed. Women and people of color were still horribly mistreated well into the 20th century. 

Even in areas where abuse against these groups was technically illegal, the local authorities did little to stop the violence and even less to support the victims.

Changing Views: The 20th Century

Women didn’t secure the right to vote until the passage of the 19th amendment in 1919. “Wife beating,” as it was called in those days, wasn’t outlawed in the U.S. until 1920. 

However, the next five decades would see little movement on domestic violence protections for women. Men remained in power. They were the lawmakers, politicians, business owners, law enforcement officers, and the only source of income in most American families.

The law technically protected women, but very few men in positions of power were willing to intervene. The “what happens behind closed doors” mantra prevailed. Men were viewed as the “heads of the household,” with physical violence considered a culturally acceptable means of controlling both wife and children.

Women didn’t report the violence because there was no one to report to or resources to help those who left. 

Then came the 1970s.

Feminism and women’s rights were hot-button issues in the ‘70s, and improved technology meant their voices were no longer silenced. For the first time, people began focusing on violence in the home. The term “domestic violence” first entered the American vernacular in 1973. New York City opened the nation’s first shelter for battered women. And more states began enacting laws and fines against abuse. 

The issue was gaining national and international attention, but it would still be another two decades before victims of domestic violence would finally receive sufficient public support.

The Violence Against Women Act

With mounting public pressure and rising awareness about women’s issues, the government finally passed comprehensive legislation to prevent domestic violence and protect victims. The Violence Against Women Act went into law in 1994 with bipartisan support. No longer would abusers be allowed to cross state lines to avoid punishment. No longer would domestic abuse be considered a “private matter” in the eyes of the law. 

VAWA was a game-changer for domestic abuse awareness, prevention, and support. Between 1994 and 2010, cases of domestic violence decreased by 64%. This drastic reduction was attributed directly to the heightened public awareness and stricter laws made possible by the VAWA.

In 2022, President Biden reauthorized the Violence Against Women’s Act, adding new protections to strengthen and modernize the law, including more funding for prevention and victim support programs, and non-discrimination laws that protect LGBTQ+ individuals.  

Forward Progress

Physical abuse by a man against his wife was both legal and socially acceptable until just over a century ago. Domestic violence was not federally recognized as a crime until 1994. Today, there is still a social stigma surrounding domestic abuse.

We have come a long way from the cultural views of the Babylonians and Puritans, but there is still so far to go. Women continue to experience domestic abuse at staggering rates in every part of the country, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, sexual orientation, or geographic location. 

Victims certainly have more resources than ever before. But it’s still not enough. We can all do our part by educating ourselves about domestic violence, speaking up about our experiences, supporting survivors, and bringing conversations about domestic abuse into the open. 

Learn more about the signs of abuse and how you can help survivors here.
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