"For Every Wrong There Is a Remedy": Changing Law and Fleeing Wives in Nineteenth-century America



Throughout the nineteenth century, husbands were jailed, wives won divorces, alimony, support, and, indeed, in many states, a clear right to run away and to enlist the help of neighbors, relatives, and friends, although none of those protections separately, and not all of them together, effectively protected wives from husbands who wanted to beat them. Illegality was simply not enough for protection, and certainly not when abuse was lightly punished. Moreover, the widespread incidence of abuse led to legal confusion, or at least led many people to the wrong conclusions. If abuse was so prevalent, some seemed to reason, it must have been legal. Illegality, then, did not adequately define how Americans understood or responded to wife abuse. Court rulings did not adequately reflect either the pervasiveness of abuse or society's toleration of it and its consignment of abused wives to continued pain and often horrific suffering. Wife abuse had a resiliency that the law was hopeless to overcome.Still, court decisions need to be considered if only to highlight the suffering--often vividly pictured4--and the tragedy. Indeed, this is a story with a great many 'if onlys' centered around the legal system, alternate scenarios which might have flowed from openings provided by humane judges: their decisions, their sometimes eloquent words, might have penetrated peoples's psyches if only they had been publicized, made part of the public record by mainstream newspapers or those devoted to women’s oppression; they might have filtered down to lower courts, to magistrates, to justices of the peace, to anyone responsible for maintaining order. Unfortunately, however, often only the horrible was publicized. Judicial attacks on wife abuse scarcely made it out of the legal environment, never had a chance to alter peoples's consciences.



Publication Date



Independently published


Place of publication not indicated


Wife abuse, Family violence


History of Gender | Social History | United States History

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