Drunkard Attacks Wife

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Drunkard Attacks Wife


By: George Cruikshank

Date: 1848

Source: © Historical Picture Archive/Corbis.

About the Artist: This historical illustration is credited to George Cruikshank, and is part of the collection of the Corbis Corporation, headquartered in Seattle, with a worldwide archive of over 70 million images.


The roles of husbands and wives throughout history have generally been governed by societal expectations. Many cultures, both past and present, practice female subordination, particularly in the context of marriage. Husbands in these cultures are typically older and better educated than their wives, giving them an intellectual advantage in the relationship; such cultures often either openly condone or simply ignore physical violence in the home, creating an environment in which men use their physical strength to control their wives.

During the nineteenth century, most Americans saw husbands as the head of the home, with wives expected to submit to their leadership. Though physical violence was generally frowned upon, it was not legally prohibited and was in many cases seen as a necessary evil while enforcing each sex's divinely ordained role. Men generally took control of their wives' financial resources; women who chose to leave an abusive marriage often found themselves penniless and unable to support themselves or their children.

Not all cultures have tolerated physical abuse. Seventeenth-century Puritans in Massachusetts passed laws strictly prohibiting spousal abuse, though these laws were offset somewhat by the fact that women were rarely allowed to divorce their husbands, even in the case of severe physical abuse. English lawmakers passed legislation in 1853 that made wife abuse a crime, specifically by prohibiting wife beating in the same terms that abuse of farm or domestic animals was already prohibited. In 1857 several American states passed laws making spousal abuse a misdemeanor punishable by fine or jail time.

As new laws began to toughen the government response to domestic abuse, other efforts were underway to minimize its causes. Though little research existed to substantiate the link, many women knew from personal experience the relationship between alcohol and violence. In response, the nineteenth-century temperance movement attempted to reduce alcohol consumption and abuse. Groups including the Anti-Saloon League and the Women's Christian Temperance Union initially used moral pressure to campaign against alcohol abuse; they later adopted political tactics to advance their cause through legislation. Though not formally connected, the temperance movement and efforts to end domestic violence had a common objective: safer lives for American women.



See primary source image.


The temperance movement soon grew to include local organizations, reaching the zenith of its power in 1919 with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the sale, purchase, production, import, or export of alcoholic beverages. While the law was lauded for its role in reducing alcohol abuse and its many resultant social ills, it faced an uphill battle. In the following years the alcohol industry reemerged, this time outside the bounds of the law and frequently in the hands of organized crime. By 1933 most Americans had concluded that the law was a mistake and it was repealed with little debate, allowing states to once again regulate the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Domestic violence laws were much slower in coming; from 1900 to 1960, little progress was made in providing legal protection to women from abuse by their spouses. The National Organization for Women (NOW), founded in 1966, along with other women's advocacy groups began to push for greater legal protections. The early 1970s saw the establishment of battered women's shelters, facilities that offered abused women a place to escape an abusive home and receive food, shelter, and support. In 1979, after extensive congressional hearings on the problem of domestic violence, President Carter established the federal Office on Violence against Women, a division of the Justice Department.

Despite numerous state laws prohibiting domestic violence, police departments were often reluctant to become involved in violence between husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend; as a result women seeking police assistance for domestic abuse were often ignored. In response, a group of women filed a 1976 class-action lawsuit against the Oakland, California, police department, charging that it failed to respond to domestic violence calls. A similar suit was filed soon thereafter in New York state. Both suits were settled when the respective law enforcement agencies agreed to modify their guidelines for responding to domestic violence complaints.

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed a flurry of state and federal legislation designed to protect women from abuse by a spouse, boyfriend, or live-in partner. Numerous programs were also launched to attack the cause of domestic violence and prosecute offenders. A growing understanding of the scope and nature of the crime led to additional programs and services for both women and children affected by domestic violence.

In 2001, the American Institute on Domestic Violence assessed the financial costs of domestic violence, estimating that medical and mental care for victims cost more than $4 billion per year, much of it paid by employer health plans. Lost productivity and earnings added another $1.8 billion to the toll. Victims of domestic violence missed almost 8 million days of work as a result.

Despite numerous initiatives designed to reduce and punish spousal abuse, the problem remains widespread, affecting approximately 4 million American women each year. It accounts for as much as one-fourth of all violent crime in the U.S., although law enforcement agencies believe that most domestic abuse cases are never reported.



Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 2002.

Summers, Randal W., and Allan M. Hoffman, eds. Domestic Violence: A Global View. Westpoint: Greenwood Press, 2002.

U.S. Department of Justice. Criminal Victimization in the U.S., 1991. Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Justice, 1992.


Glazer, Sara. "Violence Against Women." Congressional Quarterly. 3, no. 8 (February 1993): 171.

Silverman, Jay, et al. "Dating Violence Against Adolescent Girls and Associated Substance Use, Unhealthy Weight Control, Sexual Risk Behavior, Pregnancy, and Suicidality." Journal of the American Medical Association. 286 (2001): 572-579.

Web sites

Almanac of Policy Issues. "Domestic Violence." April 2000 〈http://www.policyalmanac.org/crime/archive/domestic_violence.shtml〉 (accessed July 4, 2006).

Binghamton University. "'The Rule of Love': Wife Beating as Prerogative and Privacy." 〈http://www.binghamton.edu/womhist/vawa/prologuefootnotes.htm〉 (accessed July 4, 2006).

U.S. Department of Justice. "Office on Violence Against Women." 〈http://www.usdoj.gov/ovw/〉 (accessed July 4, 2006).

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