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Education: Confronting Violence

Domestic Violence: A History of Reform and Activism in the United States


Amy C. Sullivan received her Ph.D. in Modern U.S. History from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2013 with concentrations in women’s history, history of childhood, and the history of medicine. Her research interests include child psychology, PTSD, trauma studies and addiction studies, with an emphasis on oral history sources. She is at work on a book entitled, ‘What fear is like’: The Legacy of Trauma, Safety, and Security after the 1977 Girl Scout Murders, that recasts in narrative form an infamous triple murder tragedy from the perspective of Girl Scout survivors. She is also beginning an oral history of the heroin epidemic in the Midwestern United States.

Currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, Dr. Sullivan has been studying and teaching the history of feminism, gender, and race since 2002. Previously, as the Director of the Self-Sufficiency Program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, she worked closely with student-parents experiencing domestic violence.

Suggested Use

Domestic Violence: A History of Reform and Activism in the United States is a module that uses women’s history and the history of domestic violence to understand reform efforts of the past three centuries, as well as analyze current knowledge and best practices for victims of relationship violence. The module is interdisciplinary in content but grounded in history. Feminists, temperance leaders, battered women’s movement activists, lawyers, police, policy makers, and medical professionals all play a part in the history of domestic violence reform. Like the interdisciplinary nature of the class materials, their many voices and experiences are represented in the four classes. Developed for undergraduate and graduate level courses and using sources that can be tailored to different courses and subject areas, this module offers students a deeper understanding of the history and status of domestic violence in the United States. With a special focus on 20th-century history, resources, films, and primary documents, students will learn how spousal abuse moved out of the shadows and into public activism, medical discourse, and legislation.

This module could be used effectively in history, gender and women’s studies, sociology, criminal justice, and social work courses. It could also provide important sociocultural education for medical and nursing school students.

Note to instructors: Discussing sensitive topics such as domestic violence may be difficult for some students, particularly those who have experienced violence in their homes as children or adults. As with any course that deals with interpersonal violence, it is highly recommended that the instructor provide students with the contact information and phone number of the campus counseling center and local domestic violence services. This can be accomplished indirectly by sharing with students a list of local domestic violence shelters and hotlines, or directly, by pointing out that many of us have experience with family violence, and so sharing local resources is essential to ending violence in the home and in our relationships.


After successfully completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Chronicle a historically grounded and broad understanding of the history of domestic violence reform efforts in the United States, from the Puritan era to the present.
  • Identify the social and cultural norms that kept discussion of domestic violence taboo in public, governmental, and legal settings.
  • Describe the role that feminist activism played in the battered women’s movement during the late 20th century.
  • Understand how public policy around domestic violence was shaped and implemented in medical, legal, and social service settings.
  • Research and access educational resources, tools, and services related to relationship violence issues.

The author extends a special thanks to Dr. Sandi Krajewski, Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, for her consultations and encouragement.

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