A ‘Rule of Thumb’ on Spouse Abuse

Published February, 20 1986. It was a very emotional experience for me, as well as the young woman. She had called from out of town and wanted to know if she could talk to me. I agreed. She finally arrived and for nearly one hour tearfully disclosed what has become all too common in today’s society. She is a physically abused wife.

As she revealed the several recent incidents of abuse by her husband, I became tense inside. It is difficult for me to understand how many marital relationships can begin on the supposed intentions of love and then, as in her case, turn to physical and verbal assaults by the husband within weeks after the marriage.

As I arrived home that evening my mind was still dwelling on the meeting with the young wife. I was still tense inside and was glad Susan and I had decided to go to the movie. Both of us needed a break.

“What movie are we going to?” I asked as I took off my coat. “Have you decided?”

“I heard about one that is supposed to be good,” she replied. “It has received a lot of nominations for this year’s Academy Awards.”

“What one is that?” I asked.

“The Color Purple,” came her reply.

Suddenly I became tense again. One of my colleagues at the university had recently seen the movie and recommended it to me. He said it was a story about a young black girl in the southern states around the turn of the century. He also warned that it depicted incest and, yes, spouse abuse.

I told Susan I didn’t know if I was ready for that particular movie. But we went, and I’m glad we did. It was good, even though it vividly portrayed what has become for many an unpleasant part of life. The conversation with the young wife that afternoon, combined with the dramatic portrayal of spouse abuse in “The Color Purple,” left a deep impression on me for several days.

In their book, “The Family Secret,” William Stacey and Anson Shupe note that the typical wife seeking shelter after being physically beaten by her husband is young, white, married with a high school education, and a fulltime homemaker with two small children. The young woman I talked to fit this category. The authors suggest that the widespread problem of spouse abuse is not receiving enough attention in America today. I agree.

To correct the problem, we need to look both to the future and the past. It was the Russian custom to place a whip over the bridal bed as a symbol of the power the husband had over a wife.

You undoubtedly have heard the phrase “A Rule of Thumb.” It originated in Britain during the 19th century. At that time a husband had the right to “chastise his wife with any reasonable instrument.” So husbands beat their wives with huge sticks.

It appears in some cases, husbands were taking considerable liberties in the permission granted to keep their wives under control, so the law was defined more precisely. In beating his wife, a husband might justly use “a rod not thicker than his thumb.”

If you see the movie “The Color Purple,” be prepared to shed tears for all women, past and present, who have experienced the outcomes generated by such philosophies as “A Rule of Thumb.”

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