Female Suffrage, Male Violence, and Law Enforcement in Lane County, Oregon, 1853 to 1960: An Ascending Analysis of Power

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

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 [1987]), 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. …


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