A lot of talk this week about domestic violence and why women stay with abusers, as feminists and other writers respond to the painful case of Janay Rice. As many have pointed out, it is Janay’s (and every other woman’s) right to stay with and even to defend her husband, as horrifying as that may be for some of us to witness. It is her path to take, and I’m not interested in judging her even as I worry about her safety.
For many, it’s so hard to understand why these attitudes and behaviors toward women are so persistent. How are the attitudes constructed and why are they so hard to change?
So much commentary on the Web about larger issues doesn’t include historical context––as if anything that was written prior to the Internet is irrelevant. A lot of this context comes from sources fading from memory or that younger readers have never even heard of.
So it’s great when we find stuff like this: Rebecca Onion’s piece on the column “Can This Marriage Be Saved,” which ran in the Ladies Home Journal magazine and was hugely popular throughout the mid- to late-20th century. The column offered what was considered sound marriage advice to middle-class, educated women, a major part of which included making sure that wives understood their inferior status in the marriage relationship. Putting up with emotional and physical abuse was simply part of the deal:
Perhaps most disturbingly, ‘Can This Marriage Be Saved?’ counsellors minimised and ignored domestic violence… Wives would report incidences of physical aggression, but these were never headlined as the major complaint – they were submerged in the couple’s larger story. Popenoe introduced the September 1953 column, which featured ‘Sue’, a wife who showed up to the counsellor’s office with a ‘large purple bruise darken[ing] her cheekbone’, by referring to the husband’s complaints, rather than the wife’s: ‘Many a husband has to pay the penalty for his wife’s failure to get any real education in homemaking before she married, or to acquire such skills after the wedding, when she must have begun to realise that she needs them.’ (Again: the wife should have known that she wasn’t measuring up.)
The column repeatedly advised women that it was their responsibility to keep their husbands’ tempers under control, that if they wanted to avoid violence, they needed to make sure dinner was on time and that men controlled what happened in the bedroom.
Onion goes on to tell us how, in the 1970s, feminists protested the magazine and even occupied its offices, to demand change, but how much change has occurred in more recent years? Read the full piece here for Onion’s answer.
More important, remember that if you’re scratching your head over why Janay Rice and other women stay with their abusers, understand that it was not so long ago at all that “respectable” society––including trained psychologists––believed that wives were responsible for whatever treatment they got from their husbands. The cultural sanctioning runs deep and wide. Domestic violence was never and is not some brutish misfortune limited to the uneducated or poverty-stricken. It was rooted firmly in mainstream culture.
Sadly, that tree still bears fruit.