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'The Public Gaze and the Prying Eye': The South and the Privacy Doctrine in Nineteenth-Century Wife Abuse Cases

Jerome J. Nadelhaft

University of Maine

May 6, 2007

A slightly revised version of this paper has been published: Cardozo Journal of Law & Gender, 14: Summer 2008, pp. 549-607.

In the last ten years a new paradigm has emerged regarding wife abuse court cases in mid nineteenth-century America. Put briefly, the argument is that while society moved away from accepting violence against wives, courts found a way to allow husbands to continue to exercise their power to chastise. Judges agreed abuse was wrong, but they argued that society would be greatly harmed by state interference in domestic affairs. In other words, family privacy was more important than protecting wives.

But this new interpretation needs modification. It is based on too few cases and fails to take into account regional variation. Indeed, most of the cases cited are southern. The peculiar decisions of southern judges served not only to perpetuate southern patriarchy but also the region's reputation. In other areas of the country, judges accepted the notion that family matters were often of no concern to society, but they rejected the idea that the privacy argument justified overlooking abuse.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 85

Keywords: wife abuse, privacy, patriarchy

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Date posted: May 7, 2007 ; Last revised: December 16, 2008

Suggested Citation

Nadelhaft, Jerome J., 'The Public Gaze and the Prying Eye': The South and the Privacy Doctrine in Nineteenth-Century Wife Abuse Cases (May 6, 2007). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=984736 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.984736

Contact Information

Jerome J. Nadelhaft (Contact Author)
University of Maine ( email )
Orono, ME 04469
United States
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