Domestic Violence in the 1970s

This post is the first in a series exploring the history of nursing and domestic violence from the guest blogger Catherine Jacquet, and Assistant Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University and guest curator of NLM’s exhibition Confronting Violence: Improving Women’s Lives.

During the early 1970s, domestic violence remained largely unrecognized and virtually ignored in the legal, medical, and social spheres. Indeed, family violence in general was largely dismissed at this time. For its first thirty years of publication from 1939 to 1969, for example, The Journal of Marriage and Family did not include “violence” in its index. During the 1960s, scholars and social service providers were only beginning to recognize child abuse as a major social problem, while the scholarship and literature on wife abuse was, as one researcher later described, “virtually nonexistent.” The little scholarship that did exist on violence against wives, mostly found in journals of psychiatry, was overtly hostile, suggesting that women provoked their own abuse. The same researcher commented that the “prevailing attitude in the sixties” was that spouse abuse “was rare, and when it did occur, was the product of mental illness or a psychological disorder.” In addition, there were no reliable statistics on the rates of incidence of this understudied problem and no legal or medical protocols for how to effectively respond.

Advertisement: Have Some Fun. Beat Your Wife Tonight.

Ms. magazine, founded in 1971, ran a regular feature “No Comment” that encouraged readers to send in sexist advertisements and other media.
Printed in Ms. Magazine, July 1973

Culturally, woman battering was deemed a “private matter” and one not worth intervening into. Police and medical practitioners alike were reluctant to intervene into “private affairs,” or what was then deemed “matters between a husband and his wife.” By all accounts, wife abuse was also an accepted custom and often regarded with humor. This was reflected in an early 1970s ad for a Michigan bowling alley. “HAVE SOME FUN,” the copy read in bold letters, “BEAT YOUR WIFE TONIGHT.”

There were few services available for abused women in crisis. While there were shelters or temporary housing for those categorized as homeless or displaced, an understanding of “abused woman” as a separate category of person who sought shelter or support services did not yet exist. Battered women found themselves with little to no social support and no place to go. In 1973 Los Angeles, for example, homeless shelters provided 1000 beds for men, and only 30 beds for women.

Over the course of the next decade, the interest in domestic violence would shift from virtual neglect to a significant social concern. This shift was the direct result of 1970s feminist activism. Organizing under the banner of “we will not be beaten,” grassroots feminist activists and formerly battered women launched a nationwide campaign in the mid-1970s to expose domestic violence against women, provide shelter and support, and demand radical change from law, medicine, and society.

The battered women’s movement, as it was called, exposed the failures of the law, medicine, and society at large in responding to the 2-4 million women who were beaten in their homes annually. A massive outpouring of feminist activism and service provision for battered women in the mid-1970s quickly caught the attention of government officials, law enforcement, social workers, and other non-explicitly feminist professionals. By the end of the decade, many groups took on the work of the battered women’s movement.

As a result of widespread feminist agitation, understandings and responses to battered women rapidly changed. As feminist activist Susan Schechter recalled in her account of the battered women’s movement, by the early 1980s, “in contrast to just one decade earlier, battered women are no longer invisible.” Between 1975 and 1978, more than 170 battered women’s shelters opened across the country. In 1978, the US Commission on Civil Rights named over 300 shelters, hotlines, and groups advocating for abused women. In the span of less than a decade, significant gains were made. A researcher in the early 1980s found that the battered woman’s movement had made substantial headway in terms of providing emergency shelter, legislation reform, establishing or extending government policy and programs, and stimulating a proliferation of research and public information on domestic violence. Noticeably absent from this list was medical reform. Indeed, while an outburst of activity came from the government, law, research, and social service agencies, the medical establishment remained conspicuously absent from the conversation.

Learn more about why NLM is hosting this important exhibition.