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Domestic Violence and State Intervention in the American West and Australia, 1860-1930

Carolyn B. Ramsey

University of Colorado Law School

August 20, 2010

Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 86, p. 185, 2011
U of Colorado Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-24

This article calls into question stereotypical assumptions about the presumed lack of state intervention in the family and the patriarchal violence of Anglo-American frontier societies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By analyzing previously unexamined cases of domestic assault and homicide in the American West and Australia, Professor Ramsey reveals a sustained (but largely ineffectual) effort to civilize men by punishing violence against women. Husbands in both the American West and Australia were routinely arrested or summoned to court for beating their wives in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Judges, police officers, journalists, and others expressed dismay over domestic assaults. However, legal authorities struggled with the dilemma of how to deter batterers whose victims were reluctant to prosecute. To be sure, the state’s response was not as aggressive as under modern mandatory arrest laws and no-drop prosecution policies. Yet the “why didn’t she leave?” question actually may have seemed easier to answer in the late 1800s and early 1900s than it did later in the twentieth century. Due to the failure of the state to prevent recidivist domestic violence, juries and even judges often deemed the actions of women who killed their abusive husbands wholly or partially justified. In contrast, husbands who killed their wives tended to be convicted of murder because their crimes violated the ideal of the “respectable family man” that was vital to the efforts of both the American West and Australia to project a civilized image.

This article makes three contributions. First, it presents a complex and surprising picture of gender relations in the American West and Australia by showing that men punished other men for physically attacking their wives and that there was greater public concern about violent marriages than scholars have realized. Second, it documents the criminal prosecution of wife-beaters and wife-killers on two continents during a seventy-year period, which indicates that this was not just an isolated peak of intervention in a long history of apathy toward domestic violence. Third, Professor Ramsey shows that scholarly emphasis on women’s insanity claims has obscured the extent to which female defendants successfully raised self-defense arguments to obtain acquittal or mitigation in intimate-partner murder cases. The justification of abused women’s use of deadly force acknowledged the desperate circumstances they faced in societies that condemned domestic violence, but had neither succeeded in deterring it, nor provided victims with adequate escape routes.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 72

Keywords: domestic violence, intimate partner violence, intimate partner abuse, assault, battery, murder, manslaughter, homicide, insanity, self-defense, provocation, capital punishment, death penalty, Australia, American West, family, marriage, divorce, gender, masculinity, respectability, civility, Victoria

JEL Classification: K1, K18, K14, K48. K41, K42

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Date posted: August 22, 2010 ; Last revised: September 23, 2013

Suggested Citation

Ramsey, Carolyn B., Domestic Violence and State Intervention in the American West and Australia, 1860-1930 (August 20, 2010). Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 86, p. 185, 2011; U of Colorado Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-24. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1662527

Contact Information

Carolyn B. Ramsey (Contact Author)
University of Colorado Law School ( email )
401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States
303-735-5028 (Phone)
HOME PAGE: http://lawweb.colorado.edu/profiles/faculty.jsp?id=44

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