The Racial Origins of U.S. Domestic Violence Law

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 11:15
Oral Presentation
Margo MAHAN, University of Michigan, USA
My research challenges conventional accounts about the historical origins of U.S. domestic violence legislation. Since the proliferation of early wife-beating laws (1870-1900) coincided with first wave feminism, scholarship assumes that they were the result of feminist agency and borne out of a desire to protect women. These assumptions have led to two important limitations in domestic violence scholarship. First, most scholarship focuses on the U.S. North, where first wave feminism flourished. Second, even when research considers the effects of other social factors, such as race and class, it foregrounds the effects of feminist agency. Both limitations are troubling because the first state to legally rescind a husband’s right to chastise his wife was Alabama, whose 1871 Fulgham v. State ruling was also the country’s first in which the litigants were black. In fact, anti-wife-beating laws proliferated throughout Southern U.S. states where, like Alabama, there was neither a feminist movement, nor female collective action against wife-beating. The key questions I investigate are thus: What were the social conditions in which wife-beating laws emerged in the nineteenth-century South? What do these conditions reveal about the primary functions of these laws? Based on analysis of 19th-century legal and government data, local and appellate case records, federal reports, Freedman’s Bureau documents, periodical data, and family records, I argue that, in contrast to the feminist narrative, U.S. Southern wife-beating laws were a white supremacist post-Civil War response to the legalization of black family formation. They functioned to control black labor and degrade the status of blackness. Situated at the intersection of the sociology of law, political economy, criminalization, race, and gender, my research reveals how racial projects to symbolically and materially privilege Whiteness motivated the emergence of “feminist” laws that scholarship and social policy largely conceptualize as apart from race, class, and market forces.