When did hitting your wife cease to be "a thing"? (anglosphere-specific question)

One of the various (and arguably most significant) achievements of the womens’ liberation movement is the fact that physical domination of one’s wife, including by means of corporal punishment and other physical attacks, is considered unacceptable. At the extremes of this issue, we know that in the Middle Ages and probably long after, beating one’s wife was not only legal but seen as a husband doing his duty and sanctioned by the clergy, whereas in recent decades (certainly in English-speaking countries; I am restricting this discussion to places like the UK, Canada and the USA), it is almost universally considered unacceptable and unequivocally a breach of the criminal law of assault. But…when exactly did it become so? When did hitting your wife start becoming a rare occurrence among decent people (i.e. not all-out boors and primitives)? Is there a time within the memory of anyone posting on these forums when it was still common for husbands to think they could so much as give their wife a light spanking, slap across the face, etc. from time to time, or would even “lightly” or “occasionally” hitting your wife have been something unacceptable even before 2nd-wave feminism (which was kicked off in 1963) took swing?

I was born in 1979 and all my life I have grown up with the notion that spouses are equals and that hitting your wife is something utterly unacceptable. But what was it like (again, in English-speaking countries) in the time of my parents’ generation or my grandparents’ generation? Could a woman marrying ca. 1950 (or 1940? or 1930? or 1920?) expect to get hit at least “lightly” from time to time in an argument with her husband, or was this already recognized as wrong by that time?

I would like to believe that by the mid-20th century at the very latest, decent, educated people knew they shouldn’t ever hit their wives, but then here are some factual things to consider:

In the 50s and early 60s, there were still examples where violence toward one’s wife was used as humor. In both “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners”, there are episodes where the husband makes empty threats to hit the wife. Moreover, look at the first, and especially the third of the ads in this vintage collection of sexist advertising: https://www.businessinsider.com/sexist-vintage-ads-2015-9#chase-and-sanborn-1952-this-ad-makes-light-of-domestic-violence-3

I know that probably until at least the 70s, if not the 80s or 90s, it was common for the police not to take reports of domestic violence seriously but to treat it as a private matter or, for example, for the wife to be compelled to file charges of her own initiative, rather than automatically charging the husband. In England, although a court had ruled back in 1891 that husbands did not have the right to physical possession of their wives, it wasn’t until just about a hundred years later that an English court unequivocally stated that hitting one’s wife was criminal (a Scottish court did so about the same time, one slightly earlier than the other).

Not wives, but in the 1950s romantic movie “Lili” (admittedly set in France but a Hollywood movie), the male lead slaps the youthful female lead’s face when he sees she has a crush on another man (not the only example of cruel behavior on his part). They have an argument and she leaves, but ends up coming back to him. In “From Russia With Love”, James Bond slaps the female lead in anger.

I recall seeing a reproduction of an article from the 1950s where men of various ages and professions are interviewed and asked if they think it’s all right for men to hit their wives. They all answered to the affirmative, giving various reasons for it. Of course, the answers could have been cherry-picked by the newspaper and I don’t know if some of them could not have been tongue-in-cheek, but still.

Those of you who were alive in those days or earlier, do you recall what the culture was like as regards this question back then? Did you, for example, ever see your father hit your mother or your grandfather hit your grandmother, or hear them talk about it, and see it presented as something normal rather than as domestic violence? Or could women getting married in the decades before second-wave feminism already do so with a reasonable expectation of never being hit, even “lightly”?

I daresay random violence was never acceptable among “decent people”; we have Martial vituperating someone for flogging a slave.

Your cites that domestic violence was OK in the 1950s notwithstanding, consider the Offences Against the Person Act, 1828:

So, no, by the 19th century it was not a “thing” in the Anglosphere.

In 1958, Asimov wrote the short story “All the Troubles of the World”, about using the huge Multivac computer to predict specific crimes.

This passage has stayed with me:

Although Asimov wrote science fiction set centuries in the future, his social attitudes were mid-century American. That passage seems to me to indicate that wife beating was seen as a problem that needed to be addressed, but certainly hadn’t been a priority. It had only been added to the list of offences five years earlier, and the “the average man was not yet accustomed to the thought that if he planned to wallop his wife, it would be known in advance.”

Plus, it would spare wives “fewer bruises”. It minimises the serious threat that domestic violence can pose.

FWIW, since it came up in a conversation I was having yesterday with a friend about Sean Connery, who passed away yesterday – Connery was a fairly unrepentant misogynist, but I think his comments are indicative of the idea that hitting one’s wife was still seen as acceptable by some people into the middle of the 20th century.

Since the OP is asking about personal experiences, and there is probably no definitive answer to this question, let’s move this to IMHO.

Colibri
General Questions Moderator

Asimov was well known to be a pig, of course. As for Connery, I’m not sure whom he is talking about slapping in that interview. His wife? An enemy soldier? S&M partner? Random women that just might need a good slapping?

Here’s the full transcript of that question (from the 1965 Playboy interview), and his answer (source). It seems to have been his POV about any female partner, and maybe just women in general:

I think there is a lot of territory between “Okay to hit a woman” and “It’s not okay, but what happens inside a household is no one else’s business and it’s none of our beeswax”. I don’t know if it was ever unambiguously “okay” to hit your wife, like, for fun, but that doesn’t help the wife if there’s no where to go, if reporting it is seen as a bad thing in itself (airing dirty laundry), and if socially the consequences of beating your wife are minimal (we shouldn’t judge, we weren’t there, some women ask for it).

According to this site, the first battered women’s shelters didn’t open in the UK or the US until the 1970s; it was the mid-80s before they were widespread and before marital rape was firmly made illegal. This doesn’t mean that those things were considered socially acceptable before then, but I would argue it indicates really strongly that society considered violence within a household to be basically outside society’s reach or responsibility.

In the late 1980s a friend was killed by her husband in the presence of a police officer. She was stabbed seven times. In the build-up to that her experience with the police was unsatisfactory to say the least. The triggering event was her having an abortion without telling him (for medical reasons, it would have been a very high risk pregnancy for both mother and baby). The police seemed to largely be of the opinion that she was bringing the beatings and eventually murder upon herself.

So at least that recently in the eyes of several police officers in suburban Washington, beating your wife for not showing you enough respect, using birth control, and killing your wife for having an abortion was at least considered a semi-justified action.

A coworker of mine in Kansas City was being beaten by her ex-husband In the early-mid 1990s, an “elite” KC cop. There wasn’t a lot she could do about it. She moved across the state line to Kansas, and it made no difference. Professional courtesy apparently still applied. What stopped it was their teenage daughter threatening to cut off all contact with him and applying to be emancipated.

He was Catholic and did not recognize divorce. So he considered his ex-wife to be an adulterer. After a priest came to tell her that she should go back to her husband, I was done with the Church.

in some states for a long time you could not be charged with raping your wife. Pretty sure that is not true now in all states. I think it changed here in NC in the 80s .

It seems to have been his POV about any person, and just people in general.

For me, this brings him closer to the origin of the term ‘misogynist’. Treating women the same as if they were men indicates a lack of awareness that might even indicate dislike or hatred.

I’m 68 and fortunately, there was never any “wife beating” in my family (immediate or otherwise)growing up. “Wife beating” has never been “acceptable” IMHO, but it did not have the taboo significance it has today.

I’m not sure it’s ever been entirely acceptable, even before the rise of feminism. It’s long been deemed “unmanly” to hit a woman. Such men were looked upon as bullies and cowards. As a kid in the 1960s, I remember both my father and grandfather being quite upset about the opening titles to Wild Wild West depicting the hero slugging a female assassin.

Yes. I was born in 1970. I think spousal “abuse” was illegal and socially frowned upon, but what constituted abuse was serious, and lesser violence was ignored or considered no one else’s business. So breaking your wife’s bones would be seen as abuse, but a black eye, where she said she fell, or ran into a door frame – people would accept the explanation to the person’s face, but often knew what was really going on. So “ran into a doorknob” becomes a euphemism.

There were many tropes and social pressures that we largely recognize as toxic now, but were in full effect then. Like, she provokes him, she was asking for it, you can’t give him a reason, you should make up–he didn’t mean it, it was just a slap, women want someone to dominate them, etc. I know I saw movies and tv shows when I was growing up where men spanked women, slapped them, forcibly kissed them, or forcibly carried them somewhere against their will, and these were all seen as advancing a romantic plot.

Divorce was still seen as shameful in the 80s when my parents got divorced, although less so than before. It wasn’t until the 90s I think that police started to be required to make an arrest if someone was injured on a dv call. That isn’t always a great policy now, but at the time, they just let it go as “just a domestic dispute,” with maybe a talking to for the husband.

So, it may have been illegal for a long time, but would only have been prosecuted rarely, and for the most egregious offenses. In my lifetime the social view has changed from a look the other way, none of our business thing to it being a serious issue.

I wonder if one measure might be when pro athletes started being fined, and even more importantly, suspended, for dv, because it made the league look bad. In 2014 Ray Rice was suspended for only 2 games for knocking his wife unconscious in a hotel elevator. So, I’m not sure it has fully ceased “being a thing.”

It wasn’t good, but it was also in this weird zone where you certainly wouldn’t behave that way yourself, but you don’t feel comfortable making judgments about what other people do. Like cheating on taxes or stealing office supplies from work. Not good, at all, but none of your business. And the snitch in cases like that is often criticisized more than the perpetrator: in the case of DV, the woman was ruining something important to the group (her family’s reputation) for something not that important (if it wasn’t “bad”) and that benefited only her.

This is a long post, but I have several items I can provide that help establish a timeline. Sorry if this looks like a wall of text, but I think it will be useful to the OP. I bolded the references to time periods and years, for people who just want to skim it.

My grandmother told a story at the dinner table some time in the 1980s, when a lot of family was visiting, about her mother back in what was probably the late 1920s or early 1930s. One of their neighbors was regularly beaten by her husband, and she had sought help from her priest (they were Roman Catholic), and I guess the priest talked to the husband (to no avail), but told the woman that under no circumstances could she leave him, because there was no excuse for divorce.

My great-grandmother felt sorry for her, because even though Jewish women weren’t technically allowed to ask for a divorce other than on the grounds on not being satisfied sexually, the fact was that a woman could generally get one any time she wanted, because the man could ask for one on any grounds or no grounds, and would, rather than have it known that his ex-wife had said he couldn’t satisfy her sexually. There was also the possibility of a rabbinical court high-pressuring a husband to grant one, in the case of a woman being beaten.

So, my great-grandmother used to let this women stay with them when her husband was in a particularly foul mood (I have no idea about any children they had).

Well, anyway, the neighbor’s abusive husband died.

And two years later she remarried-- another abuser.

This time, my great-grandmother washed her hands of the woman. The first time she’d been married very young, mostly because her parents wanted it, and she didn’t really have a say in the matter. But the second time, she’d “made her own bed.” (FWIW, my great-grandparents’ marriage was brokered, but by all accounts, it was very successful, and they were happy. They had seven children over 16 years. One of my earliest memories is my great-grandmother sobbing at her husband’s shiva.)

Of course, I’m thinking all kinds of things, like that the neighbor may have been trying to support several children on the kind of job a widow could get during the Depression, and remarried out of desperation a man who might not have abused her before they were married, so she really might not have seen it coming.

My great-grandmother died when I was three & 1/2 (1970), and was always very old in my memory: she wore thick glasses, made me cookies while telling my mother I was too skinny, and complained about her feet a lot; but I could easily see both my grandmother and my mother having exactly the attitude my grandmother described. So it wasn’t hard to imagine my great-grandmother having been pretty tough, and taking the same line once upon a time.

Anyway, when my grandmother told this story, all the women at the table, ranging in age from me as a teen, to about 80, concurred that the woman in the case was “narshe” (foolish), but the Catholic view on making women stay in abusive marriages was even worse. I asked did the church still have that rule? And they all said they didn’t know, but they didn’t think so, because they each knew a divorced Catholic.

Then, and I distinctly remember this (and the information about Catholicism may be incorrect, but it’s not the point-- the point is what people thought about abusive men): one of my mother’s cousins, who is a lawyer, but not a family lawyer, a tax lawyer, said that abusing one’s wife to the extent this man did, clearly would now be a felony, and one’s spouse committing a felony was a way to get an annulment, even back during the Depression, so if this husband had been charged with a felony, the wife could have gotten an annulment, and abused wives could get them now. But that in her grandmother’s (my great-grandmother’s) time, abusing one’s wife was not a felony. It wasn’t even a crime unless the husband caused some really serious injury.

She went on to talk about the fact that the first child abuse case was prosecuted under an animal cruelty law, and apparently there were occasional attempts to charge abusive men under child or animal cruelty laws, on the grounds that if you couldn’t whip a horse until it bled, or break a child’s bone, you shouldn’t be able to do those things to your wife. I did not look any of that up. She was a lawyer in PA, who went to law school in a different state, but I can’t remember which one. Assuming such charges were ever filed, this probably happened either in PA, or wherever she went to law school. I also don’t remember whether she said that filing such charges worked.

All the women agreed that one of the best reasons to stick to dating and marrying Jewish men was the fact that they didn’t beat their wives. <-- This was a very common stereotype, or belief, or whatever in the Jewish community, which is still around, though not as often heard; there may be a kernel of truth in that Jews have somewhat lower rates (in studies I’ve seen, it’s lower than the margin of error) of alcoholism that the general public (alcohol is a big factor in incidents of abuse), albeit, it is not non-existent. There are certainly abusive men who are Jewish, and I am merely repeating what was said that day, not stating something I believe as fact, nor something I am prepared to defend, so please don’t make comments saying that this is untrue. I already know this.

In the mid-1990s, I was part of a discussion of the way people talked about women’s issues, and someone pointed out that for “years” we had been talking about the problem of “battered women.” While it was great that this was “finally” recognized as a social problem, why did we call it that, as though the problem originates with the women? The problem is “men who beat their wives.”

The “very special episodes” of TV shows about “battered women” started to show up in the late 70s. The one I remember seeing first, was an episode of Lou Grant, which IMDb says aired in 1977; Julie Kavner (the voice of Marge Simpson, but at that point, best-known as Valerie Harper’s younger sister on Rhoda) played the abused wife.

I remember being kinda shocked by the episode. Part of the shock, I’ll admit, came from seeing the role played by Julie Kavner, so the producers knew what they were doing, casting a known actress. But the idea of wife abuse was itself shocking to me. I only 10 years old at the time, and Lou Grant was one of my favorite shows-- part of the reason was that it was frequently shocking to me; probably wouldn’t have been had I been older.

Not merely coincidentally, I’m sure, 1977 was the year Francine Hughes killed her husband. She was the first woman to use Battered Women’s Syndrome as a defense to murder, and she was successfully acquitted.

1977, because of the Francine Hughes, was a watershed year in terms of the issue of wife abuse. It led to Battered Women’s Syndrome becoming a standard defense, and also an issue at appeal for a lot of women previously convicted of murdering their husbands.

It led to making domestic violence a felony, because people suddenly realized that domestic violence usually ended in the death of one spouse or the other, one way or another. Making DV a felony was an attempt to set up a chain of events that could prevent a death. Upon first conviction, men were sentenced to anger management, 12-step groups, and community service that somehow was supposed to raise awareness. It began a chain of evidence for women to get restraining orders.

And it led to many communities providing funds for shelters for battered women.

However, there were still changes happening this millennium. My son was born in 2006, and I remember that he was a baby when my county in Indiana passed a statute making charges for DV automatic. A woman could not choose whether or not to file them. They were filed any time police suspected it, or were called out for it. I remember distinctly, because I had my son, as an infant, at a Chanukah party, so that would have been about December 2006, where the topic was being discussed. I was the only person who thought it was anything but absolutely wonderful. I could see women thinking twice about calling the police in the first place if they knew charges would be mandatory, and thought that adult women should not have choices taken away from them. No one agreed with me.

The statute was a response to a perception that the County Prosecutor’s (Indiana’s version of a District Attorney) office and the police, were not taking DV seriously enough, and trying to talk women out of filing charges in many cases. Honestly, I don’t remember what the stats were on this.

So, that’s personally what I know, and what I can provide in terms of a timeline.

As a data point, the short story, “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern, was published in 1943, George Pratt wishes he had never been born, but discovers to his horror that his wife Mary was married to a man who beat her.

When they adapted it into It’s a Wonderful Life, they made Mary an old maid. I suspect it had to do with not angering the Hayes office.

So it was clearly considered in an extremely negative light by the 40s.

But was it considered worse than going public and leaving a man because he beat you? And did people interfere when their was DV, or did they assume they “didn’t know the details” and “there are two sides to every story”. In other words, was the horror in the story that a woman was getting hit, or was it that a woman who was known to be a good and decent person was getting hit, and in real life she wouldn’t have been given the benefit of the doubt?

Another good example is drunk driving: no one in their right mind would say out society approves of driving under the influence, but it’s pretty rare to forcibly take the keys from someone unless they are literally stumbling, and if a co-worker is known to have maybe one or two more drinks at happy hour than other people are comfortable with, well, no one approves and they may think less of him for it, but they won’t break off the friendship or ban him from happy hour. It might hurt your professional prospects, in a round about way, but to most people, the attitude is “Well, it’s not a good idea, but it’s not my place to interfere”. I think that was the attitude of mainstream culture toward DV up until the 70s at the earliest, and arguably much longer than that.

A wife beater was condemned. In the story, the George Pratt is appalled to see her living that way. (It was also implied but not actually shown). It helps him realize that his life actually was important even though he accomplished very little (the movie made George into a saint, which went against the message of the story – in the story just working in a low-level job at the bank made a big difference to the town).

That said, the idea of divorce was anathema to most Americans, so they would not accept it as a solution. So you were stuck between two conflicting mindsets: Wife beating is bad, but so is divorce. The “solution” was to either blame the wife or trying to talk sense into the husband. But the social assumption was that she would stay with him.

There were a couple of movies where divorce was mentioned, but in most of them, the divorced woman went back to her former husband. The Women broke ground in that respect, and Miracle on 34th Street was notable in that it featured a divorced woman who moved on from her first husband (who is never shown and not directly referred to*).

But I think the social system definitely came down on the side of the wife. It’s just that there was no easy way for her or anyone else to take action. “I’m going home to mother” was a joke at the time.

Note, too, that there were many examples of nagging wives (see anything with W.C. Fields), but they were always treated for laughs, or to make them murder victims.

*Though the issue of the first marriage is implied.

Which is really weird since the majority of actors and actresses in Hollywood at the time were serial divorcées.