Uncharted Violence: Reclaiming Structural Causes in the Power and Control Wheel

55 Az. St. L. Rev.; Forthcoming

45 Pages Posted: 21 Feb 2023

See all articles by Tamara L. Kuennen

Tamara L. Kuennen

University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Date Written: February 15, 2023


For thirty years the “Power and Control Wheel” has been the predominant model for understanding domestic violence, shaping the development of law and policy in the U.S. and abroad. On a single vivid page, it captures multiple layers of abuse in intimate relationships. Activists and experts use the model to explain in a nutshell the complexity of domestic violence to survivors, professionals, judges, jurors and the public at large. The Wheel has been translated into scores of languages and adapted to multiple cultural contexts around the globe.

What the world does not know is that, as it is used now, the Wheel is incomplete. When created by anti-domestic violence activists in the early 1980s, the Wheel was accompanied by a second image, called the “Institutional and Cultural Supports for Battering Chart.” This second analytical tool focused on structures outside the relationship that increase one partner’s capacity to abuse the other. Women in consciousness-raising groups in the early 1980s would connect an intimate partner’s tactics (pictured in the Wheel) to institutions, cultural values, and beliefs (listed on the Chart).

This Article is the first in the legal scholarship to excavate the history of the Wheel-Chart dyad. Relying on primary sources, including interviews of the creators of the dyad, the Article demonstrates that the Wheel, as used in its current form, has been sanitized of its original radical, grassroots political vision. The creators’ vision was 1) to name “battering,” and how it manifested in individual, intimate relationships; 2) to connect individual manifestations of battering to larger structural and cultural causes of it; and 3) to design and execute “direct action” plans to resist and challenge these structural and cultural causes. Today it appears that only the first of the above three parts of this vision for social change remains in place.

The Article argues that the current use of the Wheel sheds light on three essential movement challenges that feminist activists and scholars have long identified. One is the lack of focus on structural causes of domestic violence; second is the set of problems that flow from the professionalization of social movements; and third is the tendency of movements to rely on law — in the case of the battered women’s movement, criminal law — to achieve its progressive goal of ending violence against women. In larger context, the loss of this single document — the Institutional and Cultural Supports for Battering Chart—provides a case study demonstrating how a social movement can fall prey to conservative forces.

Keywords: gender violence, domestic violence, social movement, domestic violence law

Suggested Citation

Kuennen, Tamara L., Uncharted Violence: Reclaiming Structural Causes in the Power and Control Wheel (February 15, 2023). 55 Az. St. L. Rev.; Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4360984 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4360984

Tamara L. Kuennen (Contact Author)

University of Denver Sturm College of Law ( email )

2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics