Murder, Violence, and Women’s Rights

The “rule of thumb” is said to be the rule, in how thick a switch could be in which to beat your wife.  It goes back to an English ruling in 1782 by Sir Francis Buller (to later be known as Judge Thumb). It was never really law though, and the term rule of thumb would often apply to many measurements such as inches and beer temperature.

“Judge Thumb” A cartoon mocking the 18th century “rule of thumb” ruling.

In the 1970s women’s right groups rallied to the term as proof of lasting domestic violence issues. Which was not inaccurate. In our study of Colorado and the American west we hear of all kinds of stories of extreme domestic violence and even today 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

Yet, out of some of these brutal tales and stories comes a fight for protection and a legal system that backed up the rights of women to have a safe home. “Western American states and territories wanted to attract female settlers, curb drinking and other vices, and make a bid for civility; hence, temperance campaigns were paired not only with woman suffrage and the expansion of legal opportunities for divorce, but also with the criminal prosecution of wife beating and wife murder.” states Carolyn Ramsey in a legal paper written to analyze the American West and its stance on violence from men on women. Read the full paper here.

She argues that women had changing roles in the west, unlike women in more developed parts of the United States. Often these women were homesteaders and wives, respectable in their time. Yet the stereotype of brothel worker and mistress still holds strong in the mythology of the time. Part of this comes from a lack of women in the western states, where about 23 men existed for every woman creating a high demand for sex workers. When women would lose a husband, or financial stability, often their only income had to come from sex work.

Though by 1900, 95 women existed for every 100 men in Colorado, changing the dynamic once again. Where it became more common to marry and settle into domestic existence, to take care of a family and be a respectable partner. There became a push for a more civilized west, opera houses, fine homes, cultural groups and movements to improve the lives of many.

Heavy drinking was common among 19th century men. In the past drinking alcohol or water mixed with alcohol, was the only way to ensure what you were drinking was safe. In the late 19th century cities began establishing water systems that pumped clean water to the people which decreased a need for alcoholic beverages but did not quash the desire. Men and even women would continue to drink heavily which often contributed to domestic violence and was often blamed for “wife beating and desertion”. These events would give rise to the temperance movement that would forever change the history of the United States.



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