It Began With the Rule of Thumb


I never knew the origins of this phrase until recently.  Rule of thumb.  It began in 15th century England.  Common Law said that a man could beat his wife as long as the instrument he used was no wider than his thumb.

Women, much like children, needed to be kept in line.  Disciplined.  Obedient.  And the law gave men this right.  And society accepted it without question because women were essentially property.  For some of you, your minds are probably already drawing connections between 15th century England and some contemporary Middle Eastern countries.  In some parts of the world, times haven’t changed that much.  And in other parts … things haven’t changed at all.

The First Wave of Change

In America, the progress we’ve made in terms of preventing and stopping domestic violence can be attributed to the work and sacrifices of many MANY women and men.  As a whole, the Women’s Suffrage Movement played a major part.  As did the Women’s Movement of the 1970’s.

Iron Jawed Angels

Iron Jawed Angels (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If any of you are at all unfamiliar with Suffrage, I suggest adding the following movie to your “To Watch List:” Iron Jawed Angels. It stars Hilary Swank, Frances O’Connor, and Patrick Dempsey.  I promise you will not be bored and you’ll get the point rather succinctly.  Once women secured the right to vote, their concerns were at the very least up for debate.  Suffrage wasn’t a magical cure-all but it was the beginning of the country finding value in women that extended beyond their roles as mothers and wives.

The Women’s Movement of the 1970’s pushed that agenda along even further.  It was undeniably about sex.  Birth control, abortion, and promiscuity ranked high among the topics discussed on both sides.  But the overall accomplishment of the Women’s Movement was that women were no longer viewed as property.  It established us as people with thoughts and preferences that were to be taken seriously.  We could decide for ourselves what kind of life we wanted to live – if we wanted to have children, if we wanted to get married now or ever.  And from this Feminism took hold in the hearts of a new generation of women.

Still, in the area of domestic violence little progress had been made.  Police forces (made up of mostly men) did not want to investigate these incidents.  They didn’t want to make arrests.  If they did anything at all it looked like what we today call mediation.  Except, both parties were not necessarily present for this mediation.  Hospitals didn’t bother questioning women about the origins of their injuries.  And to further complicate matters, economic and custody concerns persuaded many women to stay with their abusers.  The system was rigged against them.  If an abuser managed to be charged AND convicted of a violent assault the maximum sentence he could get was 6 months.

The Second Wave of Change

In the 1980’s things began to change with the Tracy Thurman case.  She was beaten, stabbed, and literally stomped on by her ex-husband in front of a crowd of her neighbors and police officers who did nothing to stop it.  Her spine was crushed and she was permanently disfigured.  People were outraged.  Women were outraged.  They made it into a made-for-TV movie which played on Lifetime.  It’s called A Cry for Help: The Tracy Thurman Story.  Her ex-husband was sentenced to 20 years in prison and upon his release she filed a petition for the most detailed restraining order in history.  After all the publicity, this incident got lawmakers instituted a mandatory arrest law in several states.

Fast forward to the 1990’s and two more women captivated the nation: Anita Hill and Nicole Simpson.  The murder of Nicole Simpson reminded the nation that domestic violence was not a thing of the past and just how high the stakes are for women whose lives are touched by it.  Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment just as he was going through confirmation for the Supreme Court and she was crucified for it.  Outraged, women began to flock to the polls and the number of women politicians surged, which resulted in new policy that was more reflective of the concerns of women.  Namely the Violence Against Women Act.

But none of this came easily.  It came from the blood, sweat, and tears of our brave sisters.  They had to endure insinuations about their mental state and claims that they either overreacted or brought it on themselves.  They lived with the knowledge that safety for them did not exist, only fear.  Many faced all of this with children at their side.  Some ended up homeless.  And some ended up dead.


Today, hospital employees – doctors and nurses are trained to be on the look-out for signs of domestic violence and rape.  Some hospitals automatically call the police in such cases.  And some police departments will automatically remove the abuser from the situation – either temporarily as  a “cooling off period” or they will just arrest him.  For some states, it’s not even necessary that the abused press charges.  Whether the abused wants to or not, the law says that it is a crime.  And the violence is treated much like any other crime.  Evidence is collected.  Charges are filed.  And the case goes to court whether there is a complaining witness or not.  We also have resources that abused women didn’t have in the 70’s and 80’s – shelters, organizations, advocacy groups, counseling services, legal services, and general awareness.

But the situation is far from perfect.  There is still work to be done.  25% of all women and girls in this country will be abused in their lifetimes and most domestic violence goes unreported.  New surveys show that men are victims of domestic violence in equal numbers to women but they only receive a tiny fraction of the services and sympathy.  What does it say about our progress that some victims are still shamed into silence? Well, history has shown us on this issue and countless others that nothing changes until we make it so.  If you’re following me on Twitter take a look at some of the domestic violence organizations that I follow, pick one, and get informed then get involved.  Name abuse when you see it, regardless of who’s on the giving or receiving end of it.


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