A Rule of Thumb for Wife Beaters?

wifebeating rules, violence against women,

Have you been watching Amanda Vickery’s series on the Suffragettes on the BBC? It is a brilliant show but watching it made me realise once again just how little distance we’ve travelled and how far we had to go. It’s salutary to be reminded that one half of the population was totally subjugated by the other half. Parliament was totally male and women were not even allowed into the public gallery but forced to listen via ventilator shaft. (You might argue that parliament is still not a very welcoming place for women, and I’d agree with you. Read this from a female MP if you’re unconvinced)

Something Amanda said in the first episode particularly piqued my interest when she referred to ‘the notorious rule of thumb’, in connection with wife beating. Women were governed by men and men, amongst other things, had the right to administer punishment to their wives, apparently as long as it was with an implement no thicker than a thumb. However, there is some doubt about whether that is actually true.

This is what a quick internet search revealed from Jone Johnson Lewis:

“Rule of thumb” is a rude reference to an old law permitting men to beat their wives with a stick no thicker than a thumb, right? According to many attempts to research this history, the phrase “rule of thumb” predates by a couple of centuries the first known reference that connects it to a supposed law or custom about wife-beating.

A reference to this connection is found in 1881, in a book by Harriet H. Robinson: Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement. She says there, “By the English common law, her husband was her lord and master. He had the custody of her person, and of her minor children. He could ‘punish her with a stick no bigger than his thumb,’ and she could not complain against him.”

Most of her statement is undoubtedly true: married women had little recourse if a husband treated her or her children badly, including many acts of battery.

No one has yet found any written reference to such a rule in English common law, and if you read Robinson’s paragraph carefully, she only ascribes that “her husband was lord and master” to English common law. The rest can be read as examples. It sounds as though she’s quoting something or somebody, but that reference hasn’t been found. Perhaps it was just common knowledge of her time, and she assumed her readers would recognize it. Whether the rule about “a stick no bigger than his thumb” was a common saying of the time, or something she invented, we don’t know, but it sounds like it probably was.

These references don’t connect the actual phrase, “rule of thumb,” to the “old doctrine” that was appalling to most of those who cited it.

“Rule of thumb” as a phrase predates all such known references, in any case. The “rule of thumb” was used for measurements in many different fields, from brewing to money-changing to art.

Yet … there can be no doubt that wife-beating was once common and, in most legal circles, acceptable if it didn’t “go too far.” The origin of “rule of thumb” may not be accurate, but the culture that it calls to mind was real. Debunking the myth of the origin of “rule of thumb” may be fun, but that doesn’t make domestic violence, past and present, mythical. Nor is it a myth that culture has tolerated such violence. Domestic violence was, and is, very real. That women had little recourse was very real. Debunking the myth of the origin of “rule of thumb” cannot be used to debunk the reality of domestic violence or the role that cultural acceptance plays in keeping domestic violence a reality in too many lives.

What the hell. The terminology doesn’t really matter but the fact that men could beat women with impunity does. And that didn’t disappear with universal suffrage. Even in my lifetime it was considered ‘none of your business’ if a woman was beaten; the authorities did little about it. There’s a modern day parallel here with the recent *sex ring cases where young women’s evidence were ignored and it was ‘OK’ for older men to have sex with and traffic teenage girls. For centuries women have been abused, used for sexual gratification, and beaten; it continues to this very day.

We have nothing to be complacent about. But at least we can vote now so please do use your vote in the forthcoming UK election. It was hard won and we women need to make our voices heard!

You may also enjoy reading Why Feminism is Still Relevant

Click here for link to BBC page on the suffragettes.

*I’m referring to Oxford. See this news story.

RenewYou is my international one day course for women. For more information click here!


Posted on March 12th, 2015 by

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