Feminism and the Rule of Thumb

By Wilson, John K. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 12, 1994 | Go to article overview

Feminism and the Rule of Thumb


Wilson, John K., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Has the feminist movement betrayed women? Have feminists deceived the public by publicizing false statistics about wife beating, date rape, sexual harassment and gender bias? That's the thesis of a controversial new book, "Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women" by Christina Hoff Sommers, a philosophy professor at Clark University. In it, Sommers condemns what she calls gender feminism.

It's easy enough to find a few examples of feminists like Naomi Wolf, who make remarkably stupid mistakes (such as claiming that 150,000 women die of anorexia every year). But Sommers casts her attack in broad conspiratorial terms: Feminists intentionally deceive the public and withhold facts to escape critical attention.

For someone who claims that feminists and journalists use bad statistics, Sommers proves her argument with a number of factual errors. She dismisses a survey that found that one in four college women have experienced rape or attempted rape because she challenged one question about alcohol and drugs. According to Sommers, when the responses to this question are removed, "the finding that one in four college women is a victim of rape or attempted rape drops to one in nine." But this is false. The one in nine figure includes only the victims of rape. When the attempted rapes are added in, the true statistic is one in five - as Sommers could have easily discovered by reading the scholarly works she cites in footnotes.

Perhaps the most glaring mistake in Sommers' book is her attack on the rule of thumb - the old English common law rule that allowed a husband to beat his wife if he used a stick no wider than his thumb. According to Sommers, this is an "excellent example" of a "feminist fiction" spread by feminists who want to win "converts to their angry creed." Moreover, she writes that "many women's studies scholars know very well that the `rule of thumb' story is a myth" and claims they conceal the truth.

The only problem is that abundant evidence exists to show that the rule of thumb was real. Sommers quotes William Blackstone's "Commentaries" to show that the rule of thumb never existed in English common law - but she conveniently omits the phrases where Blackstone says that older law allowed a husband "to beat his wife severely with scourges and sticks."

My own research of 19th century American state supreme court cases found four cases where the rule of thumb was mentioned, along with a 1917 law review article - making it much more than a feminist fiction. While the rule of thumb wasn't generally accepted as the law of the land, there's virtually no evidence that wife-beating was taken seriously as a crime, since most courts defended the autonomy of the family and refused to intervene in trifling domestic violence.

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