Societal behaviors develop over time, as historical influences change, new powers emerge, and societal attitudes gradually adapt and become part of the dominant culture. In the case of domestic violence, getting a historical overview of how far the world has come in recognizing domestic abuse and violence as unacceptable behavior is important to the big picture. The Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence ICSDV expands the historical view of domestic violence back in time to 753 B.C. when Romulus of Rome was in power and wife beating was considered acceptable behavior among the Romans. In order for there to be a wrong behavior according to society, it must be labeled and categorized as morally and legally wrong before society as a whole takes it seriously. Societal beliefs and attitudes have to change during this process as the level of awareness is brought to the forefront. Rules and Laws have to change to reflect the seriousness of societal boundaries, and consequences have to be enforced upon those who ‘break the rules’. The first step is always labeling the ‘wrong’. In the case of domestic violence, a behavior that was once trivialized, American society had a long way to go before arriving at a healthy point in the continuum of change.

Slavery is an extreme example of how societal beliefs and attitudes affect societal response. In the United States of America, the advent of slavery began as a behavior that became the norm among those in power, to own slaves and to abuse slaves, was also the ‘norm’: there was no societal wrong involved, therefore no criminal behavior to punish, because those in power either embraced slavery or swept it under the rug. In the case of child abuse within the home, or violence against women, there was no established ‘wrong’ until the behavior was first labeled as unacceptable by society at large. Wife abuse was considered normal until the early 1900’s when statutes such as the 1945 California ruling that any man who willfully beats his wife or child severely enough to cause “traumatic injury” will be guilty of committing a felony

Take notice of the legal wording that suggests a man may beat his wife or child as long as there was no ‘traumatic injury’, which is a clear indication of how important wording was in the legal advances of domestic violence issues. The raising of social and societal awareness came before the implementation of change, both in the United States and globally, as women and children graduated in their societal status from that of being the property of a man to being human beings deserving of holding the right to humane and just treatment both in the home, and outside the home. In Italy, the law first decreed it a crime to kill a wife, or female relative by a man who acted to ‘uphold his honor’, as late as 1960. Society has universally undervalued female life until the American Civil Rights movement created the Women’s Rights movement during the 1960’s, gaining strength over time as the causes of women were heralded over the next decades, resulting in the national framework that today supports domestic violence legislation, and the Federal funding of victims services that exist now.

The terms Domestic Violence, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault, were also vestiges of the women’s movement, as new awareness bred the creation of new tools used to evoke change. Society needed to know that ‘beating’ a spouse was a serious violation of human rights, therefore the term ‘battered woman’ was first coined by Lenore Walker who was instrumental in awakening society to the ugliness and prevalence of domestic violence across all economic and social spectrums. The domestic violence movement gained momentum with the release of Lenore Walker’s 1979 book received national attention, as it brought to the fore the dirty secret of domestic violence that was occurring behind closed doors all over the country. The domestic violence terminology that followed for the next 20 years produced labels that defined a once accepted behavior as now ‘taboo’: Domestic Violence, ‘Battered Woman’, Domestic Abuse, Sexual Assault, sexual abuse and many others that were first labeled and defined as wrong, and later supported by legislation that criminalized the behavior. The inclusion of family members was suggested by the more generic term Family Violence, as well as the fact family violence affected males as well as females.

In order for society to fully meet the challenge of providing not only validation to victims of violence, but physical assistance via shelters and counseling programs, funding was needed-a lot of funding in all 50 states. The Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA Act of 1994, was first initiated and is now one of the largest and broadest federally funded domestic violence grant initiatives in U.S. history. VAWA is expanded annually to provide intervention and services that address the needs of victims as well as the prosecutorial muscle to hold perpetrators of domestic violence accountable.

The 2014 VAWA initiative is a landmark marking 20 years of positive change in domestic violence legislation and societal awareness. Vice President Joe Biden spoke of the significance of that change when he cited the fact that 20 years ago, there was little legal consequence if a man “kicked his wife in the stomach” or habitually raped her, because our culture did not recognize abuse as abuse http://time.com/3319325/joe-biden-violence-against-women/

Twenty-seven years ago, I was a victim of severe domestic violence that forced me to flee for my life, and disappear with my five children with no support from a domestic violence agency. In 1987, society had a different view of domestic violence and its impact upon families, so I am well aware of the change in societal attitudes over the past few decades. I was surprised to see the effect of the Ray Rice scandal and how societal response has changed. Twenty years ago, the Ray Rice scandal would not have been a ‘scandal’ any more than O.J. Simpson’s abuse and murder of his wife, Nicole Simpson was at the time. I remember one juror making a statement that minimized the role domestic violence played in the O.J. Simpson murders, when she said “This is no domestic violence trial-this is a murder trial”, when is fact, they were one and the same, the murder of Nicole was a domestic homicide, with Ronald Goldman’s murder a tragic secondary part of the collateral damage. The O.J. Simpson trial was possibly the first big domestic violence slap in the face that helped to promote a major change in societal attitudes toward domestic violence. Domestic Violence was, and still is often fatal, a fact that victims are usually aware of before becoming homicide statistics.

In the case of Nicole Brown Simpson, just as in the case of many domestic homicide victims, the victim usually is aware of the perpetrator’s level of dangerousness. The now world famous Chris Jenner, mother to the Kardashians, was a close friend of Nicole Brown Simpson before her murder and reported this fact to the world via a Dateline NBC Special : “Things are really bad between OJ and I, and he’s going to kill me, and he’s going to get away with it.” Nicole had told her just weeks before her murder.”O.J. is going to kill me”, Nicole said yet it still happened, and O.J. Simpson was acquitted and ‘got away with it’ as Nicole eerily predicted. The societal stance at that time was embedded in the general attitude that if she was in danger ‘Why didn’t she just leave?’:but of course, leaving is usually what triggers the majority of domestic violence homicides. Leslie Morgan Steiner, the author of the bestselling book Crazy Love, does an excellent job of explaining that dynamic in this video:

Society has come a long way since the 1994 murders committed by O.J. Simpson, an example of societal change can be seen in the societal response to the Ray Rice domestic violence assault, caught on tape here:

The O.J. Simpson case was a societal wake-up call, whereas the Ray Rice event took stock of how far society has come:
TIME: OJ Simpson and Ray Rice

Although Society has traveled an impressive distance in the journey toward enlightenment. the domestic violence journey is not over yet. There is still work to do on a large scale to keep change moving forward in a positive direction. In-school education on the dynamics of healthy versus unhealthy behaviors in families and by individuals needs to become part of national policy in order to eradicate the roots of domestic violence from within dysfunctional families.Until you remove the root-the weeds always come back.

Pennsylvania Welfare Resource Center: Course 310
ICADV History of Battered Woman’s Movement


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