Four women sitting at a table with identifying sign that reads "Rape and Domestic Violence Programs at the Affiliated Hospitals Center".

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.

Crowd of people marching holding anti-domestic violence signs that read "Rapists must be stopped!!!" and "Sexism Kills Stop Wife Abuse".
Women rally in City Hall Plaza, in Boston to speak out against violence against women, August 26, 1976
©Ellen Shub 2015 all other rights reserved

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.

Four women sitting at a table with identifying sign that reads "Rape and Domestic Violence Programs at the Affiliated Hospitals Center".
Brigham and Women’s Hospital, an organization on the vanguard of identifying and treating women who were battered, sponsors a neighborhood health fair, 1980
Courtesy Brigham and Women’s Hospital Archives, Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University

Learn more about why NLM is hosting this important exhibition, and read about the traveling banner exhibition in The Washington Post.



  1. Now we have much better services provided for victims of domestic abuse – they key is to promote awareness of such opportunities.

  2. This is really interesting, especially since in Australia at the moment domestic violence has been brought centre stage by some wonderful women speaking out. It is fascinating to see some of the history and how far we have come, as well as how far we have to go. While very sad, it is also promising to see how much progress can be made.

    1. I was abused and battered for 5 years and because my husband was in a high profile job and could talk the talk every time the police came they did nothing to help me. Talking about 10 years ago know I’m away from him but can’t have a relationship every again. They failed me

  3. I remember being in a marriage with violence but was able to get out. I was scared to death that i would be murdered.. There were no services in the 1970s. My husband and i did go to a therapist that was on his work insurance but my husband was able to manipulate the therapist to believe it was my fault even though i had been beaten with broken bones. It was awful. I am so glad there is better help these days.

    1. I was exactly the same he talked them round and they left thinking it was my fault although I was sitting with a black eye

  4. I was in a long term abusive marriage from 1968 until I left in about 1991. I was the codependent and he was an addict (money addiction) and I made excuses for his behavior. I was afraid of him and his threats. I believe this was common during the 1970’s. Later, we had a long 5 year high conflict divorce as he wanted me to have nothing from the marriage. Both of my grandmothers left abusive men but there were no community property laws so one of them died trying to escape, the other was homeless with a baby. I believe there are genetic links to some of these family situations and we have to make HUGE personal change to make generational change. (see Pia Mellody work) I have done therapy and a lot of work on self. My ex-husband has done nothing and is still a money addict as he never felt anything was wrong with his behavior. The 1970’s were very, very hard to live through as men did not do housework etc. Women suffered and were slaves to these men. The men felt entitled that she did everything for him including being his “mom.” The 1980’s etc. were not any better. The theme throughout was that I was a “bitch” if I spoke up. I will never forget him calling me a bitch. I never forgot Rush Limbaugh calling women “Femma Nazis.” My ex husband listened to Limbaugh – this was REALLY sick stuff and reeked of male entitlement.

  5. My mother was beaten in the 1970s by my father. Between beatings we went on a family drive one evening and we came upon that billboard “Have some fun, beat your wife tonight”. It was awful driving past that billboard sign. Nothing was said in the car of course, but it let my mother know that no one was going to help her and it reinforced to my father that he was justified in beating her. No one helped my mother, and she asked family to help and no one would. The only family she had were inlaws, and they were all backing my father up. The last beating, before we fled the State where we lived, was the worst. He always beat her at night after we went to bed. He pushed her face down on the floor and kicked her in her rear until she lost consciousness. She lay on the floor all night, bleeding, until he picked her off the floor in the morning, put her in bed and then left for work. She lay in bed screaming and crying for two days until he finally admitted her to the hospital. She almost died. The police were never called and the hospital personnel told her that she did not have to go back home. My mother went back home and they let her. We lived in the south, the bible belt. Her mother, who lived in NYC, came and got us while father was at work. We all fled to Queens in New York in 1975. My mother and us (her three daughters). There were many beatings she took besides the last one.

  6. It’s hard to believe things were like this, that this evil was just blatantly ignored. Thank God I grew up at the end of it & was able to see its turning around. Thank you so much to all of the women in the past who fought so hard to make this happen.

  7. I remember domestic violence being illegal in the 70’s. It certainly happened, and was often hidden, as it still can be today, and police were not well trained in prosecuting it, but it is incorrect to say that it was legal or widely accepted in society or in the law. I don’t know how old the persons are who are writing this article, and I would never minimize the suffering of anyone who was abused at that time. Feminism was new. However I challenge the authors to actually check the laws before stating something that I know from my own experience as a high school and college student at that time, was not true. It is not accurate to say it was legal or accepted “in the 70’s.”

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