Female Suffrage, Male Violence, and Law Enforcement in Lane County, Oregon, 1853 to 1960: An Ascending Analysis of Power
Websdale, Neil, Social Justice
TOTAL OR TRADITIONAL HISTORY TENDS' TO PRESENT EVENTS AND PHENOMENA IN a linear and cumulative scheme that is often underpinned by a sense of development or progress. Power is often seen to be imposed upon dominated and subordinated subjects from above by a sovereign or a centralized state. This descent is captured in histories that celebrate the achievements, lives, and strategie's of the "powerful." "Celebrity history" tends to exclude, marginalize, or disqualify the experiences of so-called subordinate or dominated people. Within this hegemony of total history, which seeks to explain all in terms of the few, the acquisition of voting rights has frequently been portrayed as a "liberating phenomenon." Suffrage amendments are typically points of culmination in a progressive series of developments. With the vote in hand, newly emancipated groups are free to embark on a course of legitimate activism in order to undo past discrimination, disadvantage, and misfortune. The vote therefore liberates the oppressed group by enabling it to participate in the political affairs of the state.
In this article I will argue that celebrity history and its overemphasis on political rights obscures the fact that social and economic rights are in many ways more meaningful and significant in the lives of the majority of people. I shall adopt an ascending analysis of power, which prioritizes the experiences of hitherto disqualified subjects. Such an approach follows in the tradition of those historians who have attempted to write history from the "bottom-up" (see Rude, 1964; Hobsbawm, 1972). The feminists have also actively pursued this approach. Joan Kelly (1984) has written of women's experiences in Italy during the Renaissance. Joan Scott (1986) has warned that writing women into history means more than simply adding women to established historical discourse course. Rather, it means resurrecting subjective experiences over the traditional "names," "dates," and "places" approaches that tend to celebrate the actions of famous men.
My focus is female suffrage and the possible impact of women's voting rights on the incidence of domestic violence in Lane County, Oregon. I ask the question: Did women's acquisition of the vote in Oregon somehow translate into any discernible shifts in the incidence of male violence within families? This question raises the more general issue of the significance of formal political rights vis-a-vis the deployment of what Michel Foucault has called "micropowers." Since the history of domestic violence remains largely unwritten (for notable inroads, see Pleck ), the questions raised by my research are intended to suggest new lines of inquiry. If I reach a tentative conclusion, it is that suffrage rights appear to have made little difference to women's experience of battering in Lane County. It must be stated from the outset that this is a speculative conclusion that I offer in order to generate more research in this much-neglected area. It could easily be objected that suffrage did make a difference, but that this difference was offset and therefore hidden by a multitude of other influences. For example, the continued entry of voting women into the wage labor market may have somehow acted to encourage husbands to exert more physical control over their wives (I will return to these objections later).
It is not my intention to argue that the laws regarding domestic violence worked exclusively for men and against women. During the latter half of the 19th century, a number of reforms were introduced that broke with the English common-law tradition, which allowed a husband to beat his wife. Under English law, this beating was legal provided the circumference of the rod or switch he used was less than the girth of the base of his right thumb. The "finger-switch rule" was confirmed by a Mississippi court in 1824 (Okun, 1986: 5). In North Carolina v. Black [60 N.C. 162, 163, 86 Am. Dec., 436 (1864)], a court held that the state could intervene to protect a battered wife from permanent injury (see Okun, 1986: 5). Other reforms followed. In 1871, a Massachusetts court held that "a rod which may be drawn through the wedding ring is not now deemed necessary to teach the wife her duty and subjection to the husband" [Commonwealth v. McAfee, 108 Mass. 458, 11 Am. Rep 383 (1871), cited by Tong (1984: 128)).
These rulings offered the potential of real protection for wives against violent husbands. Such rulings also legitimized the law by offering an apparatus that, in theory, could assist battered women. It is my argument that voting had the same effect, namely, the legitimation of patriarchy. Legal reforms in the areas of domestic violence and suffrage rights reflect the dialectical relationship between legal/political change and the structure of patriarchy.
With that dialectical relationship in mind, this article first offers a brief note on the concept of "gender relations" and then proceeds to outline the establishment of patriarchy in Oregon. This information provides important background detail for the analysis of marital discord and policing. Having established this context, I then discuss the manner in which data on wife battering and law enforcement was gathered. My presentation of this data includes a short note on the social silence that surrounded domestic violence and its "nonpolicing," followed by several possible interpretations of these findings in the "discussion" section (VII).
II. The Early Establishment of Patriarchy in Oregon
Before Oregon became a state in 1859, there was a marked preponderance of men over women. In the 1840s, males over 18 years of age outnumbered females by two to one. In Portland in 1850, the male-to-female ratio in the 20 to 29 age range was 9.2 to 1 (Bowen, 1978: 14-16, 53-58). This meant that many men were deprived of the "advantages" of marriage. These differences in the number of men and women provide a context against which to frame the passing of the 1850 Oregon Donation Land Act (DLA).(1) This act was unique among federal land-grant statutes insofar as it allowed women to own land. As Chused (1984: 45) notes, in passing this act the U.S. Congress was clearly influenced by the need to encourage female migration to Oregon.
The DLA specifically targeted married women as the recipients of these unique land-owning rights. Only wives were entitled to 320 acres of free land. Single women, unlike single white men, did not qualify. This legislative strategy was therefore intimately connected with the establishment of patriarchy in Oregon. Evidence suggests that husbands were the prime beneficiaries of their wives' 320 acres. Moore, McCornack, and McCready note that when DLA land was sold there was no record of any wife receiving her share of the sale (1949: 44). Evidence from diaries shows that some pioneer women were apparently aware of the rationale behind the DLA. For example, Jennie Stevenson Miller noted that she received numerous proposals of marriage between the ages of 13 and 24 years. She suspected many of these proposals were due to the "extra" 320 acres men could acquire (Lockley, 1971: 250). A husband's right to "manage" his wife's land continued in accordance with American legal tradition. Oregon land accruing to wives under the DLA was not exempt from the debts incurred by their husbands.(2) It also appears that the DLA had little effect upon coverture law in Oregon prior to statehood, although Chused notes that it may have helped to contribute to the rise of a women's law-reform movement (Ibid.: 75-76). This information reminds us that the great labor of social formation in Oregon, which involved the parceling up of physical space, was in fact a gendered work of creation.
The rise of women's legal rights in Oregon must be seen in terms of class and gender. New legal rights, which appeared to give women more financial independence, also acted to bolster the economic stability of the patriarchal family. These rights first appeared in the state constitution. A clause was introduced that protected the property and pecuniary rights of married women if acquired by gift, devise, or inheritance, from husband's debts and contracts.(3) This measure was pushed through by Republican David Logan at the Constitutional Convention in 1857. Logan was supported by Thomas Dryer, Republican editor of the Oregonian (Moynihan, 1983: 60). Nevertheless, the money or property acquired by married women through their own labor remained subject to the debts, contracts, and liabilities of their husbands.
As the economy of laissez-faire capitalism began to emerge across Oregon in the 1870s, the Women's Rights Movement took firm root. Supporters of the railroad in Oregon also advocated for women's rights. Alliances were formed between leading businessmen, lawyers, Republican politicians, and women's-rights leaders. In the early 1870s, Ben Holladay's Oregon-California Railroad Company (OCR) stimulated capitalist development as it moved south from Portland. In the same year as the OCR reached Eugene, 1872, the Sole Trader Bill became law. This law allowed a woman to carry on a business in the absence of her husband and to keep property without being liable for the husband's debts. As business began to pick up again after the Depression (1873 to 1878), the Married Women's Property Act (MWPA) (1878) was passed. This act permitted women to own property, keep wages, and manage, will, or sell their own property. The legislative fight for the passage of this bill was led by the powerful pro-railroad Republican lawyer, J.N. Dolph.(4)
The correspondence between the rise of women's legal rights and the emergence of capitalism ought not obscure our appreciation of the significance of gender relations. Women's property rights cannot simply be understood in terms of women becoming businesswomen or consumers. The changes in Oregon vis-a-vis women and property that were introduced in 1859, 1872, and 1878 acted to protect the family as an economic unit. In particular, the MWPA allowed wives to maintain a financial safety valve against the potentially ruinous speculative activities of their husbands in a rising capitalist economy. Such a safety valve was particularly useful to bourgeois and petty bourgeois families. This tendency to preserve family economic stability, like the family itself, served the long-term interests of men.
The legal subordination of women was enshrined in state law. In the area of dower, for example, the state constitution actually took away women's existing rights. Dower was that part of a husband's property that a wife inherited for life. It was connected with land and did not extend to a husband's stocks, bonds or business holdings. The remainder of the husband's estate, if not subject to the prior claims of creditors, passed along his bloodline. Both the Organic Code of the Provisional Government (1843 to 1848) and Territorial Law (1849 to 1858) permitted a wife to pass on her dower. The state constitution removed this right and granted widows only one-third of their husband's property as dower (R.C. Clark, 1927: 716-718). After perhaps many years of unpaid housekeeping and childbearing, this one-third of the husband's nonbusiness related property represented the sum of a widow's legal entitlement.
Married women were not entitled to act as executors or administrators of wills.(5) A will made by an unmarried woman was deemed revoked by any subsequent marriage.(6) Neither married nor single women could act as jurors,(7) election judges, or election clerks.(8) Control over the binding out of children into apprenticeships rested with the father and reverted to the mother only upon his death or incompetency.(9) The father was also the parent able to prosecute for injury to or death of the child or for the seduction of "his" daughter. These rights only passed to the mother if the father died or deserted.(10) A mother could not appoint a legal guardian for her children in her will, although her husband had this right.(11) There was no legal provision for a married woman to hold property in her own name to support herself and her children if the husband absented himself for long periods of time. The only possible redress a wife had in this situation was to seek divorce on grounds of desertion. Given the rather glaring legal inequalities noted above, it is essential to reiterate my earlier point about the MWPAs in Oregon. These Acts appeared to be "reforms." They mostly benefited bourgeois women who could set up their own businesses. By acting as a "safety nee" and preserving the long-term economic stability of families, these reforms tended to lock wives into a marital bond that lay at the root of patriarchy. Again we witness the dialectical relationship between law and patriarchy and the intersecting nature of class and gender relations.
The next section will analyze domestic violence and law enforcement. To question the argument that the vote was "liberating" for Lane County wives, I will attempt to show that suffrage rights do not appear to correlate with either a lessening of male violence or an increase in police intervention in domestic altercations. This article is therefore organized around the periods before (1853 to 1912) and after (1913 to 1960) women acquired the vote in Oregon (1912). To construct an ascending analysis of power, I draw upon primary source materials to access wives' experiences of violence and the policies and practices of local police. These sources include two random samples from circuit-court divorce-case transcripts (1853 to 1912, 1913 to 1960), police records, crime statistics, press, census, and oral history data.
III. Methodology: Divorce Case Data as a Window into Marital Violence
Random samples of divorce cases were drawn from the 1853 to 1912 and 1913 to 1960 periods in Lane County to enable comparison of the periods before and after Oregon women won the vote in 1912. The total number of divorces indexed over the 1853 to 1912 period is 1,166. The number of cases contained in the random sample is 323 (290 cases give a five percent margin of error). For the later period (1913 to 1960), 404 cases were sampled out of a total of 15,622 (376 cases give a five percent margin of error).
For each divorce case selected, the reasons for bringing the action were noted. These reasons fell into one of six categories.(12) Sometimes more than one reason was given. These reasons were:
1. Impotency existing at the time of marriage and continuing to the
commencement of the suit;
3. Conviction of a felony;
4. Habitual gross drunkenness contracted since marriage and continuing
for one year before the commencement of the suit;
5. Willful desertion for the period of one year;
6. Cruel and inhuman treatment or personal indignities that had rendered
The final category was of particular interest since it covered physical violence, which may or may not have been policed.
A strict distinction was made between allegations and proven statements. Allegations were statements made by the parties to the divorce proceedings that were not confirmed as accurate by the trial judge, or were rejected as untrue by the judge. Statements made by parties in cases that were later dismissed were always coded as allegations even if these statements had been supported by a referee or notary public. In earlier 19th-century cases, it was not always clear whether divorces were finally granted and on occasion judgments were not recorded. Again, these statements were categorized as allegations, in spite of the fact that they may have been true. On some occasions the newspapers were used to confirm whether a divorce was granted. Proven statements were those accepted as true by the judge either explicitly in his judgment or implicitly because of the outcome of the decision itself. Criteria for reasons to enter the category of "proven" were therefore strict.
Having stated my methodological approach, I will briefly list a few problems with interpreting the findings.
1. Much marital violence resulting in divorce proceedings may not have been revealed in trial testimony and might simply have been discussed by the respective parties in their lawyer's offices prior to the rendering of a general and succinct statement. In some cases, "cruel and inhuman treatment" was given as a reason for granting a divorce. On occasion, the form this cruelty and inhumanity took was not specified. In such cases violence was assumed not to have occurred, although there is a good possibility that this assumption was incorrect.
2. Relatively few marriages ended in divorce, especially in the 19th century. The divorce rate only began to increase considerably in the later 1960s. This means that divorce-case transcripts can only be seen as indicators of what might have been happening in marital or heterosexual relationships generally. The evidence from these materials provides a window into marriage and the family that is not available from other historical sources. From the results it is clear that there was widespread violence and cruelty directed at married women in Lane County. Divorces granted on grounds of violence usually contained evidence of multiple incidents of battering.
3. The judiciary considered it within a husband's rights to use violence on his wife from time to time, provided it was not excessive and did not result in permanent injury. What a wife might have deemed oppressive, lawyers, husbands, and judges may have understood to be an acceptable expression of patriarchal control. Judges, clerks, lawyers, court officials, law-enforcement personnel, and newspaper reporters were all men. In domestic-violence cases, the only woman present was the victim herself. Women's definitions and opinions counted for little and both the categories of reasons for granting a divorce and the criteria that had to be satisfied in connection with this, were set up by men. These limitations meant that many women who endured what lawyers and judges might have perceived as occasional, trivial, or negligible violence would not have pursued divorce as a possible remedy to their oppression. These observations do not mean that the law acted solely on behalf of men. It is important to recall that for the law to be legitimate, it also had to take into account the plight of battered wives. For this reason, we see a number of divorces granted because of male violence.
4. Some women might have perceived male violence as "normal" and "legitimate" and therefore not even considered divorce as a possibility.
5. Another problem is that women's statements were considered to be "allegations" rather than "proven." An "allegation" may just as accurately reflect what happened in terms of violence as does a "proven" statement. There is a hierarchy of credibility operating here and the historical validity of "alleged" and "proven" categories has to be weighed against the background of who made the definitions, interpretations, and final decisions. It does not follow that women's statements on their experiences of violence at the hands of their husbands are any more or less valid simply because they are held to be proven by the male judiciary.
These problems in interpreting the empirical findings probably produce a low estimate of the level of domestic violence within marriage. However, this estimate is still much higher than the impressions of the extent of domestic violence conveyed by the local press, a phenomenon I will now briefly examine.
IV. Wife Battering and Social Silence in Lane County, Oregon
While the 19th-century local press was vocal on issues such as women's suffrage, equal rights and biologically determined roles in marriage, it was silent on the issue of domestic violence. Male newspaper owners and editors were able to use their power to censor the dissemination of information on this form of assault. This political control through exclusionary strategies conveyed the impression that marital violence was infrequent and isolated.
One of the few Oregon State Journal (OSJ) references to domestic violence noted that "Marriage improves a woman's beauty. Some of them never have a lovely pair of black eyes until after they are married a year or two" (September 29, 1879). In one of the isolated Guard references, the idea was conveyed that marital assault was a wife's responsibility: "Albany has a wife beater. She deserves it if she continues to live with him" (June 30, 1894). In a later reference the Daily Guard reminded its readers that wife beating only carried a $50 fine and "was not a penitentiary offence" (July 28, 1896).
Press silence on domestic violence continued to characterize local patriarchal discourse in the 20th century. There was a close correspondence between this silence in both 19th and 20th centuries and the nonpolicing of offenses against women. Both the press silence and nonpolicing were crucial themes in the power relations of gender. These silences are all the more significant given the fact that court personnel were fully aware of the number of divorces being granted on grounds of cruel and violent conduct. Judges, lawyers, clerks, police, and court reporters could not help but be aware of the phenomenon of marital violence.
Bearing in mind the above problems of interpretation and the social silence surrounding wife battering I will now proceed to analyze the extent of intra-familial violence in Lane County.
V. Findings from Divorce Transcripts
A. The Battering of Wives prior to the Granting of Female Suffrage (1853 to 1912)
From the transcripts it is possible to identify four main categories of reasons accepted as grounds for divorce. These reasons were adultery, desertion, violence, and cruelty. Violence and cruelty are combined by the court as "Cruel and Inhuman Treatment." For the purposes of this study, I have found it useful to distinguish between the physical and emotional aspects of spouse abuse. This distinction is important because of its implications for analyzing policing foci. Reasons were coded according to whether the husband (H) or wife (W) was proven (Pr) or alleged (Ag) to have been adulterous, guilty of desertion, violent, or cruel (see bar graphs at end of the article). (Only six divorces out of the 323 were given for other reasons, with three each for the sole reason that husbands were felons or alcoholics.)
The level of violence reflected in the reasons for granting divorce is only a rough guide to the actual distribution of violence within the sampled cases. As I have noted, the actual number of proven (Pr) cases of violence is probably a considerable underestimation given all the factors that would tend to work against violent behavior being disclosed in the transcripts.
We must not forget that empirical research provides us with a numerical sign. It is important to transcend this quantified message before we can realize its full historical import. For example, as the bar graphs reveal, husbands deserted wives more frequently than wives deserted husbands. This information tells us nothing of the consequences of desertion. These consequences were much more serious for women than for men, because wives had very limited opportunities for independent economic survival.
The category of cruelty also warrants mention since this term was applied differently to the actions of husbands or wives. By merely looking at the numbers, we do not firmly grasp the gendered construction of the concept of cruelty. Under Oregon law the cruel and inhuman treatment in divorce cases had to be unmerited, unprovoked, or wholly disproportionate to the provocation (Hartwig v. Hartwig, 1897: 4111). This often worked against women who sought divorce on grounds of cruelty. The policy of the law was to sustain the marital relation. In Wheeler v. Wheeler (18th Oregon, 1878: 261), the court held that the "mere fact that a husband has been imprudent, overbearing and unreasonable does not necessarily constitute grounds for divorce."
That Oregon women were expected to tolerate abuse was clear from certain legal precedents. A party was not entitled to divorce on the grounds of cruel treatment when such treatment did not appear to have been "sufficient in character to furnish a reasonable ground to apprehend |critical danger' by a continuance of the marriage."(13) Here we see the legal articulation of the finger-switch rule in Oregon.
The cruelty of wives was constructed out of their position as gendered subjects within the family. This cruelty sometimes included a failure to make meals or perform housework (Skinner v. Skinner, 1897: 4200). Another form of cruelty inflicted upon husbands by wives was a woman's refusal to bear children. For example, in Brown v. Brown (1865: 452), the defendant Simpson Brown, argued that his wife had been guilty of cruelty since she had sought out medicine to effect an abortion and had refused to bear him any more children.
As the bar graph entitled "Divorce Case Evidence of Male Violence" indicates, roughly one-quarter of the sampled divorce transcripts revealed evidence of male violence. The majority of the violence was proven (21.0%) rather than alleged (3.7%). (As I noted, it is important to remember that divorce cases containing evidence of cruelty, desertion, or adultery without specific reference to violence may in fact have been violent marriages.) In contrast, we note that only 1.5% of the cases reveal evidence of female violence (1.2 [Pr], 0.3 [Ag]).
A total of 80 divorces was granted for the reason of proven (68) or alleged (12) male violence. Most of these cases contained evidence of multiple assaults over a number of years. Given that this is a random sample of cases, we might project that among all the divorce cases we would find 289 granted on grounds of male violence.(14) If we factor in the likelihood of "undisclosed violence" (especially in cases showing male cruelty but no overt violence), we end up with a much larger number of potential cases revealing assaultive behavior toward wives. As mentioned, we have no way of knowing whether the marriages ending in divorce reflect a representative sample of the distribution of violence within all marriages. It could be argued that those marriages ending in divorce would tend to be overrepresented by incidents of violence. However, this argument stems from an ideological position that sees marriage as fundamentally "companionate." Even if we accept the dubious possibility that marriage was companionate, it seems very likely that many violent marriages never reached the divorce court. Whatever our willingness to extrapolate from the sampled transcripts, it must be said that these transcripts alone uncover a systematic and extreme expression of violent behavior. If we take into account that many of the cases reveal multiple incidents of violence, we are left with a vast number of assaults, which appear to outweigh all other manifestations of assault in society.
With the passage of the Women's Suffrage amendment in 1912 Oregon women acquired the right to vote. The next section examines whether this change in the status of women correlated with any shifts in the incidence of wife battering.
B. The Battering of Wives after the granting of Female Suffrage (1913 to 1960)
By comparing the bar graphs, we notice a slight increase in both proven and alleged male violence in the later period, together with a marked escalation in the levels of male cruelty (i.e., 34.7% to 55.4%).
In examining the nature of male violence, we are struck by the thematic continuities with the 1853 to 1912 period. We witness a number of similarities in terms of the forms of assault (punching, kicking, knifing), the nature of threats (removal of children, killing wife and/or children), the weaponry used (guns, knives, whips, hammers, fists), the traumatizing effects upon women (taking personal responsibility, denial of severity), the strategies of resistance resorted to by battered women (legal tactics, fleeing, desertion, fighting back), the influence of economic issues (inability of women to survive in the gendered capitalist economy, reliance upon fathers for support, entry into prostitution), and the association of male violence with drunkenness and jealousy.
We find evidence of multiple assaults by a husband in Garcia v. Garcia (1948: 34395). The plaintiff's lawyer recalled that the husband:
became intoxicated and ... displayed an uncontrollable temper ... and
on various and numerous occasions while under the influence of intoxicating
liquor ... struck the plaintiff in the face with his fist. That on
one such occasion, the defendant struck the plaintiff in public and on
other occasions...at ... the home of the parties.
The divorce-case transcripts are filled with such examples. So as not to belabor these accounts of terror, I will now discuss the nonpolicing of battering.
VI. The Response of Local Police to Marital Violence
A. 1853 to 1912
Both the marshal and sheriff were mandated by law to maintain the peace. This responsibility covered all forms of assault, including those committed in the home. The sheriff was the chief executive officer and conservator of the peace in Lane County.(15) He was bound to arrest and commit to prison all persons who broke the peace, attempted to break the peace, or who were guilty of public offenses.(16) The Eugene city charter empowered the council to "prevent and restrain any riot, noise, disturbance or disorderly assemblage in any street, house or place in the city."(17)
The marshal and night watch were required to police breaches of the peace. The municipal code defined breach of the peace as "any brawl or tumult ... assault or assault and battery."(18)
The informal operation of the finger-switch rule meant that some domestic violence was deemed untouchable and beyond the legitimate domain of policing. However, as our cases have disclosed, there seems to have been an enormous grey area of violence, which was clearly in excess of any type of assault viewable as appropriate or acceptable under the most patriarchal of finger-switch rules. Given the possible dimensions of this grey area, one therefore might expect to find wife battering represented fairly frequently both in police interventions and arrests and in court hearings/convictions. This does not appear to have been the case between 1853 and 1912. Instead, what we find is a virtually non-existent response on the part of the criminal-justice system. This passivity seemingly included a reluctance to intervene for the purpose of ascertaining the degree of wounding taking place.
The available evidence reveals four arrests and three convictions for wife battering in 60 years (1853 to 1912) in Lane County.(19) It is quite likely that there were other convictions that were not reported in the press or were handed down by municipal judges in areas of Lane County not covered by my research. Municipal court records in Eugene are not available for the 1864 to 1911 period. However, the proceedings of the municipal court during this period were reported in the press and these reports do not reveal any new information on the local police/judicial response to domestic violence. It is therefore not possible to gauge the exact number of domestic assault charges. However, if later (1912 to 1960) municipal records are anything to go by, we might reasonably suspect that domestic-assault convictions in the earlier period were minimal. Circuit-court cases appear to be equally barren in regard to domestic discord. At most, in the municipality of Eugene, the municipal court probably heard one or two wife-battering cases a year. At county-court level we might expect to be dealing with similar numbers. It will be recalled that over this 60-year period (1853 to 1912), the random sample produced 289 divorces granted on grounds of male violence. Bearing in mind that many cases included multiple assaults, an estimate for the total number of assaults could thus range from 1,000 (roughly four per marriage dissolved) to 10,000 (40 per marriage dissolved). (We must also remember that many assaults will not have been mentioned.) Elsewhere I have estimated the divorce rate for this period to range from a low of 0.4 per 1,000 population from 1853 to 1859 to a high of 2.5 from 1869 to 1871 (see Websdale, 1991: 452). As already noted, it is hazardous to extrapolate from this sample of divorce cases to the entire population of marital relationships. Arguably the estimate of 1,000 to 10,000 assaults for
the 1853 to 1912 period could be multiplied many times over. I will not even use numbers here. It is sufficient to note that the four arrests and three convictions over the entire period give us an arrest and conviction rate of well below one percent.
The lack of police intervention in violent marriages is as striking a phenomenon as the gendered asymmetry of the perpetrator/victim relationship. We cannot understand police reticence by reference to the workings of the criminal-justice system alone. For example, it might be suggested that 19th-century police officers were not interested in domestic violence because they knew that wives were not in a position to press charges. Unless officers made an arrest and set in motion a sequence of fee-generating events, for example, serving papers, gathering witnesses, attending court, jailing, etc., they had nothing to gain financially from an intervention. However, if we look at the policing of wife battering after the introduction of salaried forms of policing (1898), we find no appreciable shift in levels of intervention. It seems to me that we have to interpret the reticence of police agencies as an aspect of patriarchy itself.
B. 1913 to 1960
The municipal court in Eugene and the Lane County Circuit Court reveal no more than a few convictions per year for what might have been cases of wife battering. EPD crime statistics from 1949 to 1953 contain specific references to "offences within the family." These statistics suggest the surfacing of a temporary policing concern with domestic violence, especially between 1949 and 1951. For the years 1949 and 1950, we witness 150 and 79 arrests respectively for "offences within the family." I will discuss the possible significance of these arrests later.
It is clear from oral-history evidence that few arrests were made for domestic violence. If we analyze the evidence of violence from the divorce transcripts, we can obtain some idea of the discrepancy between actual incidents of assault upon wives and official arrest statistics for this offence.
Extrapolating from the random sample of divorces for the 1913 to 1960 period, we would expect to find roughly 3,867 cases with evidence of proven male violence.(20) If we bear in mind that most cases reveal multiple assaults, we arrive at a very high estimate of the possible number of assaults committed by husbands. If we extend our analysis to assaults within marriage in general, we can only speculate as to how many incidents of violence we might be dealing with.(21) Whatever the shortcomings and sources of error with the above statistical maneuvers, we are left with a sense that the actual number of marital assaults per year is best understood as a multiple of thousands rather than hundreds. If we allow for the fact that a few of the disorderly conduct arrests by EPD officers were, in fact, charges against violent husbands (we have no way of knowing how many), then we may suggest that the arrest (not conviction) of violent husbands might be seen as a multiple of 10 per year. This analysis crudely points to something of the order of a one-percent intervention/arrest rate for domestic altercations. Sketchy as this evidence is, I would not hesitate to argue again that it points to the single most systematic expression of unpoliced violence in Lane County during this period.
As in the 1853 to 1912 period, we are left with the problem of accounting for the extremely low level of police arrests or court convictions in the area of domestic violence. Oral-history evidence from rank-and-file police officers provides us with some leads here.(22) A conversation with retired officer Clousseau on the policing of family altercations raised some important points.(23) Websdale: What about husband ... beating up wife, was that an issue? Clousseau: Yes, we had a lot of that, but it got so it was routine to us. I didn't
think that amounted to anything. You'd get a call, a man was beating up
his wife and you'd get out there and find out he was half drunk and, oh,
she would be very indignant, you know, and say that she wanted him
thrown in jail. Well, we'd say "all right ... let's go." He'd say, "I'm not
going with you," and he'd take a swing at the officer. So you might have to
manhandle him a little bit to subdue him. And the woman that had called
would say "You let him be, don't you hurt him." It got to be kind of a joke. Websdale: That happened a lot? Clousseau: Oh yeah, quite often. But then there were other times when they
were glad to get rid of him.... [T]hey wanted us to stop the fight, but they
didn't want us to do anything to him. So we'd sometimes end up taking
him to jail anyway. In those days we could take him down and release him
the next day.
Retired officer Starsky talked of the frustration experienced by police officers in dealing with domestic disputes.(24) He acknowledged what he viewed as the potential danger of policing family disturbances:
It was certainly recognized that it was a volatile thing and police officers
were being shot as a result.... It was their experience that in 9
out of 10 cases, when you got them separated and got things cooled
down and tried to arrest somebody, the other spouse would object to
the arrest. You never could get a wife or somebody to follow up with
an arrest.... Most of the work was for naught. So it was frustrating for
Having presented the empirical evidence on wife battering and its policing, it is now possible to interpret the finding that the period after the women's suffrage amendment (i.e., 1913 to 1960) does not appear to correlate with any lessening of violence or any increase in police arrest/conviction of batterers.
Moynihan's book Rebel for Rights (1983) is an account of the life of Abigail Scott Duniway the famous Oregon suffragist. In the last chapter, entitled "Freedom at Last," the author argues that the vote was a liberating force in the lives of women. The evidence I have presented leads to a far more critical appraisal of Oregon women becoming voters in 1912. If the vote was so liberating and made such a difference to women, then we must ask why domestic violence continued in the persistent manner that it appears to have done. We ought also to be alive to the possibility that histories that present women's suffrage rights in laudatory terms are part of the hegemony of patriarchy itself.
In addition to the introduction of suffrage reforms, it is worth noting the passage of whipping-post laws in Oregon in 1905. These laws were passed in only a few states (Maryland, Delaware, and Oregon) and provided for the public whipping of wife batterers. In a sense, these laws were a public statement about wife battering. They provided the legal framework for the punishment of abusive husbands. However, as Elizabeth Pleck (1987: 119) notes, there is no evidence to suggest that these whipping-post laws were enforced. This concurs with my research, which uncovered no examples of Oregon husbands being whipped for being wife beaters.
Rather than seeing whipping-post laws and the female suffrage amendments as "progressive," it might be better to contextualize them against the dialectical relationship between law and patriarchy. The purpose of the law is to legitimize patriarchal relations and obscure the power relations of gender by introducing legislation that is potentially advantageous to women. Although such legislation attacks certain aspects of patriarchy, it fails to get to the heart of the major contradictions of marriage. In other words it fails to solidly address issues such as the gendering of the capitalist economy, unpaid housework, childcare, marital rape, the cultural objectification of women and the patriarchal construction of sexuality.
Why did this apparently "progressive" legislation appear when it did? Undoubtedly, the nationally famous "Oregon System" of representative democracy was in part directed at legitimizing the emerging capitalist state. It was during the 1900 to 1920 period that large-scale lumber production began. This system of capitalist production was accompanied by the first appearance of statewide labor organizations. However, the "Oregon System" was also directed at legitimizing a changing system of patriarchal relations. It was during this period that we witness the first significant shift toward wives becoming isolated unpaid houseworkers, as opposed to being farm workers who made a "valid" contribution to the household economy. Also, we see the beginnings of the entry of women (mostly single) into the gendered capitalist economy. In other words, new contradictions were appearing in gender relations. The old established pattern of the self-sufficient farming family (1850 to 1900) was giving way to the emergence of wage-supported families in growing towns like Eugene. In a very real sense, the status of single and married women changed. The whipping post and suffrage laws extended certain advantages to women at a time when they were vulnerable to a number of structural changes. These changes diminished their worth in the home and exposed them to the exploitation of the gendered capitalist workplace.
As noted above, it could be objected that the vote did somehow lower levels of wife battering, but that the reduction was countered and therefore masked by the operation of some other factor. One factor that springs to mind here is the gradual entry of married women into the wage-labor force. I will call this the wage-labor thesis. This entry may have served to remind husbands of their own inability to provide adequately for their families. The anger engendered by this reminder may have manifested itself as domestic violence. This effect would, of course, have been fractured across class lines. If there is anything to this argument, we might expect bourgeois husbands to be less prone to wife battering. However, this would be difficult to determine since the bourgeoisie was policed less diligently than, say, the working class. This means that any evidence (meager as it might be) from the policing end of fewer arrests/convictions of bourgeois husbands may in fact be due to class factors and not to any real reduced incidence of battering.
Perhaps a more insurmountable problem with the "wage labor" thesis is that is seems to be virtually impossible to access the reasons behind male violence. The divorce-case transcripts rarely tell us that husbands beat their wives because they felt threatened as male providers. At a theoretical level, there is another problem with this type of approach. It seems that we have to resort to a rather crude and speculative psychologism to explain how a social phenomenon (wives entry into the field of paid labor) is perceived and then somehow translated by husbands into spousal abuse. In addition, if this had indeed been a factor in rising wife battering, then how do we explain how other husbands in similar class and cultural settings did not resort to battering? It seems to me that this line of inquiry raises more questions than it answers. These questions may encourage others to pursue new lines of historical research. My own position is that we would be well advised to exercise caution when trying to separate what appear to be constituent phenomena of the institution of patriarchy. Rather, we might be better served tracing the apparent links between phenomena such as domestic violence, rape, pornography, the gendered capitalist workplace, sexuality, and prostitution. This approach would at least offer a tentative overview with a wide-angled lens. My concern to adopt a more general approach leads me into the final section of this article.
I mentioned that from 1949 to 1953 the category of "offenses within the family" briefly and rather curiously surfaced in the crime statistics of the Eugene Police Department (EPD). Oral-history evidence points to a period in the late 1940s to early 1950s when the EPD at least temporarily paid some attention to domestic violence. Elsewhere I have broken down the 1913 to 1960 random sample of divorce cases into shorter chronological periods and have found what may have been a marked increase in the levels of domestic violence and cruelty as reasons for granting a divorce from 1946 to 1950 (see Websdale, 1991: 409). The number of cases that lend themselves to analysis in these shorter time periods is small (for example 48 of the 404 cases for the 1913 to 1960 period appeared in the years from 1941 to 1945; 82 from 1946 to 1950 and 170 from 1951 to 1960). Therefore, my observations are suggestive rather than statistically significant. Nevertheless, they are worth summarizing. From 1913 to 1920, 45% of the sampled cases showed evidence of proven male cruelty and 30% revealed proven male violence. The corresponding proportions for proven male cruelty and violence during the later periods were 43.6% and 20.5% (1921 to 1930); 44.4% and 15.6% (1931 to 1940); 60.4% and 22.9% (1941 to 945); 64.6% and 28% (1946 to 1950); 56.6% and 26.4% (1951 to 1960). If there was a marked increase in domestic violence between 1946 and 1950 (possibly hidden within the substantial rise in divorces granted on grounds of male cruelty), then we must consider the relationship between this escalation and the policing of offenses within the family from 1949 to 1953. I will briefly consider the factors that may have led to an increase in intrafamilial violence. This will preface a discussion of the changing nature of policing and patriarchy.
It has been argued that violent behavior increases in the immediate aftermath of war (Gartner and Archer, 1984). War brutalizes societies as a whole. It is possible that the local escalation in domestic violence stemmed from the effects of war. There are a number of local factors that could have compounded this brutalization. During World War II, Oregon women entered the wage-labor market in large numbers, breaking old stereotypes vis-a-vis the gendering of occupations. For example, in Eugene women worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. In the immediate postwar period, many of these women were squeezed out of those jobs as men returned from war. Was the increased violence and cruelty of husbands also indicative of their attempts to persuade/coerce their wives back into the subordinate position of non-wage earners?
Whether or not we accept that the 1946 to 1950 period witnessed an increase in wife battering, it is clear that this was a very tense and fast-changing time in the field of gender relations. There was a phenomenal increase in the annual divorce rate in 1946 to 7.1 per 1,000 population, compared with a mean of 2.5 for the 1930s and other highs of 5.6 (1945) and 4.5 (1944). The mean annual divorce rate for the 1950s was 3.7 with a high of 4.2 in 1953. The number of patriarchal families also increased dramatically during the 1946 to 1950 period. One of the reasons for this increase was related to technological change in the lumber industry. The lumber barons sought greater control of the production process by applying labor-saving technology. As a result, large numbers of single woodsmen were displaced. These men moved into the expanding wood-products industries in towns like Eugene. There they started families.
The possibly brutalizing effects of war and the marked expansion of the patriarchal grid of families may have combined to produce a number of problems vis-a-vis the legitimacy of the EPD. Tensions in the field of gender relations began to spill over into the public eye. In 1947, two unprecedented killings made front-page news in the town of Eugene. In both cases, battered women killed their husbands in order to protect themselves.(25)
It almost seems as though the expanding patriarchal grid was no longer able to accommodate the visibility of the double standard as evidenced by the continued operation of houses of prostitution. Bawdy houses had been a regular feature of Eugene's cultural life from the earliest frontier days. The sale of fresh was mostly ignored by local police. Madams and pimps enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with local law-enforcement officials. In return for information, police allowed brothels to operate in violation of city and state law. At some point in the years of 1947, 1948, or 1949, there was a rather abrupt change in the policing of prostitution. Bawdy houses were closed altogether. This marked the end of nearly a century of law-enforcement connivance with organized prostitution. During the 1950s, the sale of flesh continued, but was more discrete and subterranean. Local police only targeted streetwalling during the 1950s.
I do not wish to argue that the closure of bawdy houses was merely brought on by a need to tone down the visibility of the double standard in order to manage the burgeoning base of patriarchy in a legitimate way. These closures were also linked to changes in policing. The professionalization of law enforcement began on a national scale during the Great Depression.(26) In Eugene, increasingly scientific forms of policing emerged during the 1945 to 1950 period and were linked to the rise of city managerialism. The rise of rational bureaucratic codes in local policing and government worked against obvious police complicity with prostitution.
In the postwar period, the gaze of police was also temporarily directed at the phenomenon of rape. The EPD made 13 arrests for rape in 1949, compared with only 15 for the entire decade of the 1950s. In Lane County, 20% of the arrests for rape made between 1913 and 1950 were made from 1947 to 1949. I am not suggesting that police agencies suddenly became aware of phenomena such as rape and domestic violence and instituted a campaign to eradicate them. Rather, I contend that we witness a mutation in the mediation and management of gender relations between 1945 and 1950. This mutation was directed at legitimizing the expanding patriarchal grid by trimming its most obvious and visible excesses without really changing the power relations upon which those excesses were based. The new grid could not benefit from a constant and blatant reminder by bawdy-house operators/users of the existence of the double standard. The temporary policing focus upon rape was, according to oral-history sources, an exclusive focus on "stranger-rape" and therefore may have served as a potent "reminder" to wives of their relative "safety and security" at home. Given the evidence on battering we must emphasize the obvious ideological slant to this "reminder."
It is almost as if policing returned to "business as normal" with regard to gender relations after the 1945 to 1950 juncture. With married women squeezed back into the home and the larger number of families better established, we see the disappearance of the category "offences within the family." Interest in rape subsided among police and local government agencies. Prostitution continued in a newly negotiated, more subtle form in certain hotels, bars, etc. Husbands became increasingly involved in the postwar diversification of the wood-products industry. In short, we see a new dynamic between class and gender relationships, in which men were again inserted as sovereign heads of the household after the temporary and brutal disruption of war.
In the above discussion I have sought to challenge the assumptions of "descending analyses of power," which uncritically conflate the "right to vote" with "liberation." We have seen how battering and the police response to it did not appreciably change after 1912. Substantial police intervention in what appears to be domestic violence appears as a brief phenomenon between 1949 and 1951. I have argued that this temporary interest stemmed from attempts to legitimize an expanding but strife-ridden patriarchal base of families in the post war period. This interest reflected the dialectical relationship between law and patriarchy.
(1.) Section four of the DLA granted 320 acres to each spouse if they had settled by December 1, 1850, and cultivated their land for four years. Single men similarly received 320 acres while single women could not claim. Settlers arriving between 1850 and 1855 were granted half these amounts. (2.) This proviso was consistent with all other federal land grant statutes. (3.) State Constitution. General Laws of Oregon, Chapter 32, Section I. See Deady (1962: 786-787). (4.) Dolph was the attorney retained by both Ben Holladay and railroad magnate Henry Villard. As such, Dolph had a vested interest in the rise of the capitalist mode of production in Oregon. (5.) Civil Code, Chapter 15, Section 1076, p. 418. Deady (1962). (6.) General Laws, Chapter 62, Section 7, p.936. Deady (1962). (7.) Civil Code, Chapter 12, Title 1, Section 918, p.337. A juror had to be a white American male citizen, over 21, and in sound mental health. (8.) Civil Code, Chapter 13, Title 2, Sections 4 and 5. (9.) General Laws, Title 3, Chapter 12, Section 36, p. 687. Deady (1962). (10.) Civil Code, Title 3, Chapter 1, 533, 34, p. 146. Deady (1962). (11.) See Clark (1927: 716-718) for discussion here. (12.) One partner had to be proven to be impotent, adulterous, a felon, an habitual gross drunkard, to have willfully deserted, or to have been cruel and inhuman. (13.) The legal precedents for this judgment were cited as Knight v. Knight (31st Iowa, 451) and Von Glahn v. Von Glahn (46 Illinois, 134). (14.) That is, 1,166/323 x 80 = 289. (15.) General Laws of Oregon, Chapter 13, Title 3, Section 968-969. (16.) General Laws, 13: 3: 968(l). (17.) Section 7. (18.) City Laws, Chapter 4, Title 1, Section 4: 45. (19.) Jim Nevels was arrested and jailed for 40 days for whipping his girlfriend, Josie Johnson (see OSJ, March 9, 1872). In Cottage Grove, a judge jailed James Johnson after Johnson had threatened to kill his wife (see Guard, April 17 and 24, 1880). J.W. Severs was arrested, but appare not jailed or fined for threatening to do his wife "great harm" (see Guard, April 14, 1894). A judge in Cresswell fined Frank Skinner $50 for battering his wife Mary (see Skinner v. Skinner, 1897: 4200). Finally, Walter Eddy was jailed for 36 days for wife battering (see Eddy v. Eddy, 1905: 5561). (20.) The proportion of sampled cases showing violence (P) is multiplied by the total population of cases M. That is: P = 100/404 T = 15,622 Therefore, Projected estimate = 100/404 x 15,622 = 3,867. (21.) Most marriages over the 1913 to 1960 period did not end in divorce. The highest divorce rate for that period in Lane County was 7.1 per 1,000 population (1946). This means that the number of divorces in any one year was a small fraction of the total number of marital relationships. (22.) Focused interviews were conducted with 17 experienced (mostly retired) local police officers. (23.) Clousseau had been a police officer in Eugene from the late 1920s. (24.) Starsky had been an officer at the EPD from the early 1950s. (25.) See Register Guard (March 14 and October 30, 1947). The battered women, Mrs. Harrington and Mrs. Rookard, were both found guilty of manslaughter. (26.) See Platt et al. (1975:31-74).
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Publication information: Article title: Female Suffrage, Male Violence, and Law Enforcement in Lane County, Oregon, 1853 to 1960: An Ascending Analysis of Power. Contributors: Websdale, Neil - Author. Journal title: Social Justice. Volume: 19. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 1992. Page number: 82+. © 1998 Crime and Social Justice Associates. COPYRIGHT 1992 Gale Group.
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