Spouse Abuse Is Serious, but Data Are Overblown

By Mona Charen Copyright Creators Syndicate Inc. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), July 4, 1994 | Go to article overview

Spouse Abuse Is Serious, but Data Are Overblown


Mona Charen Copyright Creators Syndicate Inc., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The murder of Nicole Simpson has jolted the nation into a re-examination of domestic violence. From every talk show and magazine, we learn that we have been far too tolerant for far too long of wife beating on the part of men and that this has resulted in an epidemic of battery.

But how much of the new wisdom is really true?

There is little doubt that police and prosecutors have, in the past, treated violence against spouses more leniently than violence against strangers. O.J. Simpson's was a case in point. If he had beaten a stranger with the ferocity with which he beat his wife - in the instance to which he pleaded "no contest" - he would almost certainly have received a jail sentence. Intimacy is not an invitation to abuse and must never be treated as such by the courts.

But in the wake of the Simpson case, we've been hearing a rehash of some "facts" about domestic violence that are not really facts.

One hoary myth is the so-called "rule of thumb." Any number of news articles, commentators (Cokie Roberts on "This Week With David Brinkley," for one) and editorials have referred to the fact that the colloquial expression "rule of thumb" derives from the English common law rule that a man was permitted to beat his wife, provided the stick he chose was no thicker than his thumb. This "rule" is cited as evidence that our cultural tradition has tolerated wife beating for centuries.

But as Christina Hoff Sommers points out in her excellent study of modern gender politics, "Who Stole Feminism?" (Simon and Schuster), there is no such rule in English common law. It is not to be found in William Blackstone's 18th century treatise on English common law. Blackstone did say that the "old law" had permitted a husband to give his wife "moderate correction . . . in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or his children. . . . But this power of correction was confined within reasonable bounds and the husband was prohibited from using any violence to his wife."

Though the courts had been known to permit the lower classes more latitude, Blackstone noted, "in the politer reign of Charles the Second, this power of correction began to be doubted, and a wife may now have security of the peace against her husband. …

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