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Overview of Historical Laws that Supported Domestic Violence

Battering, like the sexism which supports and fosters it, is a practice of long standing in Western culture. Whenever women and children are seen as 'belonging' to a man, violence has been used as a tool of legitimate control. Throughout history, the rights and regulations pertaining to this control (often-termed castigation, discipline or chastisement) of a man's wife and children have been codified in various laws, both civil and religious.

In 1800 BC, the Code of Hammurabi decreed that a wife was subservient to her husband and that he could inflict punishment on any member of his household for any transgression.

The Roman Code of Paterfamilias reads, "If you should discover your wife in adultery, you may with impunity put her to death without a trial, but if you should commit adultery or indecency, she must not presume to lay a finger on you, nor does the law allow it." Some other offenses punishable by death were walking outside with her face uncovered or attending a public event without permission.

Medieval Canon law encouraged that wifely disobedience be punished publicly, using devices like iron muzzles with spikes which depressed the tongue.

In Renaissance France when it became clear that too many women and children were being beaten to death and their economic contributions lost, lawmakers acted to moderate the effects of domestic chastisement. One statute, considered in its time to be progressive, restricted the chastisement of wives and children to "blows, thumps, kicks or punches on the back...which did not leave any marks," but added, "the man who is not master of his wife is not worthy of being a man." Another law even later, designed to protect women and children stated that, "All the inhabitants have the right to beat their wives so long as death does not follow."

Some time in the 1700s, an English common law came into effect that decreed that a husband had the right to "chastise his wife with a whip or rattan no bigger than his thumb, in order to enforce...domestic discipline. For as he is to answer for her misbehavior, the law thought it reasonable to entrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children." This law came to be known as the "law of thumb".

In the U.S., the courts continued to uphold a man's right to punish his wife with violence until 1871. In a case known as Fulgam vs. the State of Alabama, the court ruled that, "The privilege, ancient though it may be, to beat her with a stick, to pull her hair, choke her, spit in her face or kick her about the floor or to inflict upon her other like indignities, is not now acknowledged by our law."

In 1910, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that a wife had no cause for action on an assault and battery charge against her husband because it "would open the doors of the courts to accusations of all sorts of one spouse against the other and bring into public notice complaints for assault, slander and libel."

As recently as 1977, the California Penal Code stated that wives charging husbands with criminal assault and battery must suffer more injuries than commonly needed for charges of battery.

Today, women have the ability to obtain protection orders through the court. However, in almost half of our states, the police are not empowered to enforce these orders, nor is there any penalty for the men who violate them.

In Vermont, violation of a protection order became a crime with the passage of a law to that effect in 1990. Police officers are authorized to enforce orders, and the law outlines penalties for violations.

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