A Troubled Marriage: Domestic Violence and the Legal System

A Troubled Marriage: Domestic Violence and the Legal System

A Troubled Marriage: Domestic Violence and the Legal System

A Troubled Marriage: Domestic Violence and the Legal System

Synopsis

Choice's Outstanding Academic Title list for 2013 The development of a legal regime to combat domestic violence in the United States has been lauded as one of the feminist movement's greatest triumphs. But, Leigh Goodmark argues, the resulting system is deeply flawed in ways that prevent it from assisting many women subjected to abuse. The current legal response to domestic violence is excessively focused on physical violence; this narrow definition of abuse fails to provide protection from behaviors that are profoundly damaging, including psychological, economic, and reproductive abuse. The system uses mandatory policies that deny women subjected to abuse autonomy and agency, substituting the state's priorities for women's goals.
A Troubled Marriage is a provocative exploration of how the legal system's response to domestic violence developed, why that response is flawed, and what we should do to change it. Goodmark argues for an anti-essentialist system, which would define abuse and allocate power in a manner attentive to the experiences, goals, needs and priorities of individual women. Theoretically rich yet conversational, A Troubled Marriage imagines a legal system based on anti-essentialist principles and suggests ways to look beyond the system to help women find justice and economic stability, engage men in the struggle to end abuse, and develop community accountability for abuse.

Excerpt

The telephone rings. Your daughter—or sister, or friend—is on the other end, describing how her partner abused her and asking for your advice. What would you tell her? To call the police, press charges, seek a protective order or divorce? The chances are good that one of the options that immediately came to mind involved the legal system. Even if your initial response was not legal, it is virtually certain that if your daughter or sister or friend chose to disclose the abuse to anyone else, she would come into contact with the legal system at some point. While shelter, counseling, and other services are available for women subjected to abuse, no other intervention is as frequently invoked as the law—indeed, access to other services may only be available if a woman subjected to abuse pursues some sort of legal remedy against her partner. Women subjected to abuse are steered toward the legal system, assured that the system will keep them safe, offered a proscribed set of choices reflecting prevalent notions of what an appropriate intervention in a case involving domestic violence should be, and expected to choose one of those options.

That there is a legal response to domestic violence at all is, for some, a victory in and of itself. Historically, domestic violence was treated as a private affair, an extension of the husband’s right to control the behavior of his wife, to be handled within the confines of the home. Only in the last 40 years or so has American society—pushed by the feminists, activists, and women subjected to abuse who made up the early battered women’s movement—acknowledged that public systems and institutions have a responsibility to address abuse, and chosen the legal system as the primary vehicle for doing so.

Convinced that the state should intervene on behalf of women subjected to abuse, advocates urged the state to assume responsibility for policing and prosecuting domestic violence. The drive to criminalize domestic violence, the focus on police response, and the development of civil and criminal laws specifically designed to address domestic violence were policy choices proposed and endorsed by many, although not all, within the battered wom-

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