"He Had Right to Chastise Her" : How American Family Ideals Reinforced Domestic Violence and Impacted the Legal System, 1824 to 1900
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The author examined records from divorce cases tried in Kalamazoo County from 1824 to 1900 found in the Zhang Legacy Collections Center at Western Michigan University. These court cases represent more than just individual women's battles for divorce, though. They represent larger social convictions that started growing with the beginning of the United States. They show the ideas of coverture, which came to the United States from England, implanted in men's minds the idea that they had superiority, and control, over their wives in all ways. They also show that the ideas that coverture implanted in men's brains lasted for much longer than coverture. Though coverture came to an end in the middle of the nineteenth century, wife beating continued to be a serious problem in homes around the United States. It was a problem that courts refused to address, and continued to avoid addressing them through, first, the legal prerogative of chastisement, and later, standards of privacy and confusing laws surrounding what actually constituted extreme cruelty. By examining court cases that involve domestic violence, one can see what truly happened behind closed doors in Victorian America. In addition to this, the court cases show how the United States legal system handled domestic violence during a turbulent and changing time period. As the social beliefs and concepts changed, the court system changed to accommodate them, while also ensuring that marriages remained intact. The legal statutes that came out of the court system at this time had drastic impacts on the legal system, and continue to live on in various ways. They provided basis for the allowance of marital rape, which did not end in the United States until the 1970s. As the twenty-first century still struggles with issues of domestic violence, these court cases and legal statutes show exactly why marital abuse is such a problem in our society.