Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Skimmington Revisited

Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Skimmington Revisited

Article excerpt

"Patriarchal" authority has been inherent to the exposition and research on intimate violence and abuse of women by male partners during the past 20 to 30 years. The subordinate status of women during early periods of history, whereby women had few legal rights, has been supplemented within the study of intimate violence by reference to wives as being the "appropriate" victims of marital chastisement by husbands (Dobash & Dobash, 1978). Consequently, a worldview has developed in Which only, or almost only, women as wives, cohabitees, or intimate partners are viewed as the victims of intimate violence under the schema of patriarchal authority (Dutton, 1994). However, this paper contends that English historical evidence, and the later analysis of it, shows that in the 19th century and before there was not only concern for male violence against wives, but also considerable concern for the violation of patriarchal norms wherein wives perpetrated violence against their husbands. This paper explores the evidence of an early social custom, Skimmington, whereby husbands who had been beaten by their wives were publicly humiliated (Steinmetz, 1977). From this it possible to explore how exposure of women's violence against men has become controversial and termed "The Great Taboo" (George, 1994).


A central tenet to patriarchal male authority, the dominance of males in heterosexual relationships, has been suggested to be that both in England, and later in America, a "law" existed that allowed husbands to chastise their wives providing that they used a stick no thicker than their thumb. The so-called "rule of thumb" has, over the last 30 or so years of research and advocacy for female victims of intimate violence, been an important clarion for the exposure of the ordinariness of male violence towards women and the subsequent enactment of measures to combat it.

Surprisingly, despite vast and wide-reaching research of the subject of intimate violence, rather little further examination of historical issues has been undertaken. In her book, Who Stole Feminism, however, Hoff Sommers (1995) touched upon this historical matter and undertook research into the so called "Rule of Thumb" noting that a popular textbook in women's studies stated:

   The popular expression "Rule of Thumb" originated from English common law,
   which allowed a husband to beat his wife with a whip or a stick no bigger
   in diameter than his thumb. The husband's prerogative was incorporated into
   American law. (p. 203)

In other writings it had been suggested that this common law resulted from Blackstone's 1768 treatise, Commentaries on the Laws of England, which codified the laws of England. Hoff-Sommers, however, opined that no such law existed in Blackstone's seminal work and that British and American law from this time prohibited wife beating, even though the extent of enforcement was often times variable. Earlier, Pleck (1979) had also noted that wife beating was illegal in the Plymouth Bay Colony of 1655 and that wife beaters were often the subject of social approbation or sanction. Sommers reported that Blackstone's 1768 work actually related that there was an ancient "law" of this nature, but stated that in the "politer reign of Charles the second ... a wife may now have security of peace against her husband" (p. 205). How far back this ancient law existed in England is a matter of conjecture for it was already apparent that in the first codification of a system of written law by Anglo-Saxon kings such as Aelhelberht (circa 587 A.D.) and Alfred the Great (circa 878 A.D.) there was recognition of individual rights and a rule of law within which women received protection from violent acts by men (Saklatvala, 1969). Thus, well before the Norman invasion of England (1066 A.D.), there is evidence that there was a long tradition of a belief in "a rule of law" that respected the rights of the individual, including women. …

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