Document 1: "Battered Women," Plank 2 of the National Plan of Action from the National Women's Conference, Houston, Texas, 18-21 November 1977. National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year. The Spirit of Houston, The First National Women's Conference: An Official Report to the President, the Congress and the People of the United States March, 1978. U.S. Government Printing Office.


       On November 18-21, 1977, 20,000 women, men, and children gathered in Houston, Texas for the National Women's Conference. The official report of the conference, The Spirit of Houston, was issued by the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year. With Bella Abzug serving as Presiding Officer, the conference represented a distinct high point of the feminist movement of the 1970s. It was the first time that Congress and the President had authorized, sponsored, and financed a national gathering of women to debate and act upon issues of concern to women. Never before had women come together as elected representatives from every state and territory in the nation to voice their needs and hopes for the future.

       The main work of the delegates was to vote on a proposed National Plan of Action, a 26-plank agenda of recommendations on major issues affecting women. Plank 2 of the National Plan of Action was devoted to Battered Women. That plank provided statistics about the widespread incidence of domestic violence, critiqued the unwillingness of police to intervene to protect women, and described the legal obstacles that women faced in gaining court protection against violent husbands.



       The President and Congress should declare the elimination of violence in the home to be a national goal. To help achieve this, Congress should establish a national clearinghouse for information and technical and financial assistance to locally controlled public and private nonprofit organizations providing emergency shelter and other support services for battered women and their children. The clearinghouse should also conduct a continuing mass media campaign to educate the public about the problem of violence and the available remedies and resources.

       Local and State governments, law enforcement agencies and social welfare agencies should provide training programs on the problem of wife


battering, crisis intervention techniques, and the need for prompt and effective enforcement of laws that protect the rights of battered women.

       State legislatures should enact laws to expand legal protection and provide funds for shelters for battered women and their children remove interspousal tort immunity in older to permit assaulted spouses to sue their assailants for civil damages; and provide full legal services for victims of abuse.

       Programs for battered women should be sensitive to the bilingual and multicultural needs of ethnic and minority women.

"Wife abuse is chronic and widespread
at all economic and social levels."

Wife beating is a nationwide social problem. While nobody knows exactly how many American wives are physically assaulted by their husbands, the National Institute of Mental Health believes that at least 7.5 million couples go through a "violent episode."

       A random sample of official reports indicates that wife abuse is chronic and widespread at all economic and social levels. In New York Stae, 14, 167 abuse complaints were handled in Family Court in 1972; 23,136 complaints in 1975. Boston, Massachusetts police responded to 11,081 family disturbance calls in 1974. And Boston City Hospital records show that 70 percent of the assault victims received in its emergency rooms are women who have been attacked in their homes, usually by a husband or lover. In Kansas City, Missouri family assault calls comprised 46,137 or 82 percent of all disturbance calls in 1972. In Oakland, California the police responded to 16,000 family disturbance calls during a six-month period in 1970.

       Physical abuse of wives is not merely an urban phenomenon. In one rural area, researchers found that police calls for "family fights" were exceeded only by calls relating to automobile accidents. In a rural Michigan county, 42.7 percent of all 1974 assault complaints were cases of wife assault. Another study of 40 known violent families and 40 neighboring families revealed that even among the supposedly nonviolent families, more than a third had experienced at least one incident of spousal assault.

       Wife beating affects women of all ages, classes, and races. Police in Fairfax, Virginia, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, reported receiving 4,073 family disturbance calls in 1974. Another study found that the number of wife abuse cases reported in the white upper middle-class community of Norwalk, Connecticut was approximately the same as that reported in a West Harlem black working-class neighborhood of the same size.

       These findings come from a number of sociological, police, and legal studies. Many of them are summarized in Del Martin's book, Battered Wives, published by Glide Press, and "The Assaulted Wife: Catch 22 Revisited," writted by S. Eisenberg and P. Michlow for the Women's Right's Law Reporter, vol. 3.

Acceptance of wife abuse       Many Americans consider spousal violence an acceptable form of behavior. A survey conducted by the Harris Poll in 1968 for the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence found that one in four men (and fewer than one in seven women) approved of slapping a spouse under some circumstances.

       The FBI estimates that 25 percent of all murders in the United States occur within the family and that of these, one-half are husband-wife killings. The Kansas city police found women to be the most frequent homicide victims. However, women who kill are seven times more likely to be motivated by self-defense than men. Even where wife abuse does not result int he death of one of the spouses, the effect on other members of the family is likely to be severe and to perpetuate the problem. One observer believes that at least 10 percent of children who witness parental violence become adult batterers themselves. In a study prepared by students at Western Michigan University School of Social Work, it was found that of assaulters whose family history was known, over one-half had witnessed parents involved in assaultive situations and two-fifths had been abused themselves.

Police response        The reaction of police personnel often frustrates and undermines the battered woman's attempts to get protection and help. The training manuals used by most local police forces follow the old advice (since revised) of the International Association of Police Chiefs to avoid arrest, restore the peace, and leave.

        The police do not make the safety of the victim their prime concern, and she frequently is in mortal danger. The Kansas City Police Department found that police had been called at least once before the actual murder took place in 85 percent of domestic homicide cases; and in 50 percent of the cases, the police had been called five times, reports Susan Jackson in an unpublished work, "In Search of Equal Protection for Battered Wives."

        A woman who has been beaten may tell the police that she wishes to make a citizen's arrest, but most people are not aware of this right, and the police rarely tell victims about it.

        In New York City, 59 abused women resorted to a class action suit against New York City policemen and family court personnel for unlawfully denying them assistance after they reported beatings.

Legal obstacles        The law itself contributes to the problem. Under English common law, which is the basis for much American law, a man had the right to "correct his wife for her misbehavior." In nearly 23 States, one spouse may not sue another, and this prevents a woman from bringing a civil suit against a husband who injures her. In many other States, limitations on the right to sue make it an ineffective an uncertain remedy. A recent court decision in Pennsylvania held that a woman who had been beaten by her husband could not sue him for the medical expenses required to treat her injuries. In New York a husband charged with a family offense is entitled to a court-appointed lawyer, while his wife is not so entitled and must act as her own prosecuting attorney. Only one State in the country allows a wife to charge her husband with rape if he forces sexual intercourse. In New Hampshire the penalties for wife beating or simple assault range from a verbal warning to a small fine. In some States, the husband will not be arrested unless the type of battereing is severe enough to charge the husband with a felony. District attorneys rarely prosecute those who assault their spouse. And many women do not prosecute for fear of reprisal.

The economic bind        It is not easy for a battered woman to extricate herself from the marriage. If she should divorce, she is unlikely to be awarded alimony or child support. And even when she does receive such support, studies show that a large majority of all husbands will default in their payments. If she works, her average earnings are much less than those of a man.

Emergency help        The number of existing emergency shelters is grossly inadequate to provide physical protection for women in immediate danger. A television program on ABC, aired in November 1977, reported that there were only 30 shelters in the 50 States.

        Leaving her home to go to a shelter is the only recourse for a woman in danger in most States. But in Massachusetts, she may get an order to have her husband vacate the primises if she is instituting action for divorce or separate maintenance. Violation of the court order is considered trespass and is enforced by the police. The order is in effect for 90 days, and it can renewed. (Massachusetts General Law, chapter 28k, sec. 34b, 1970, amended 1975.)

        The essential features of such an injunction are that it can be obtained, if necessary, very quickly and that it has strong enforcement provisions.

Pending legislation        Several bills have been introduced in Congress by Representatives Barbara Mikulski, Lindy Boggs, and Newton Steers, Jr., that call for establishing a grant program to support community gruops that would provide direct assistance to battered spouses and support research on domestic violence. Hearings on the legislation were scheduled for March 1978.

  Prologue   Document


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