Skip Navigation Bar

Education: Higher Education

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

Class 1: Domestic Violence and The Family Ideal


Family violence has a long history in America. This class focuses on the evolution of the concept of privacy and its relationship to domestic violence from the Puritan to the post-Revolutionary eras, and then examines the rise of social reform movements in the 19th and early 20th century. The concept of personal privacy in early American history differs greatly from ideas about individual and rights-based privacy in the 21st century. Legal and social norms around who was granted privacy, primarily white male heads of household, had a lasting impact on how wife-beating and other forms of domestic violence were policed by social institutions.

Underlying early reform efforts, successful and unsuccessful, were powerful societal ideas about the family. Historian Elizabeth Pleck describes this as the “Family Ideal…unrelated but nonetheless distinct ideas about family privacy, conjugal and parental rights, and family stability…where the ‘family’ consists of a two-parent household with minor children.” She argues that this social construct was the single most predominant barrier to domestic violence reform in the U.S. and, despite dogged efforts of women reformers in the 18th and 19th centuries, it only became a viable social reform issue of its own after cruelty to children and animals had become socially abhorrent. Despite the cultural power of the “Family Ideal,” reformers during this period tried to use public humiliation (whipping-post legislation), exposés of child neglect in the press (Mary Ellen case in 1874), and moral judgment (alcohol temperance) in their efforts to end violence against women and children in the home.

Class Resources
  • Bloch, Ruth H. “The American Revolution, Wife Beating, and the Emergent Value of Privacy.” Early American Studies, vol. 5, no. 2 (2007): 223–251.
  • Gordon, Linda. Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence. New York: Viking, 1988. Chapter 2.
  • Pleck, Elizabeth. Domestic Tyranny: The Making of American Social Policy against Family Violence from Colonial Times to the Present. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Introduction, Chapters 1 and 4–7.
Discussion Questions
  1. For the Bloch and Peck, Chapter 1: What were the differences between the concept of community correction among New England Puritans, and post-Revolutionary America’s focus on the individual? How did the concept of wife beating change from “a breach of peace” in the community to privacy rights of a man’s control of his home and family? What was the impact of this change in shaping society’s perception of wife abuse?
  2. For Bloch: How does the author interpret the oft-quoted letter of Abigail Adams to her husband John? How do Adams’ ideas about happiness and companionate marriage challenge larger issues around “tyranny” and male violence in Revolutionary America? What recourse did women have before and after the American Revolution regarding domestic violence?
  3. For Pleck, Introduction, Chapters 5 and 7: What was the “family ideal,” and what individuals and institutions benefited from it being upheld? How did the concept play out in the ideology of family preservation in the courts and social services?
  4. For Pleck, Chapter 4 and Gordon, Chapter 2: How did “protecting the innocents”—i.e., children and animals—emerge in the history of reform efforts to reduce domestic violence in American families? Who were the major leaders and reformers of anti-cruelty in this era? How did their work later come to influence social opinion about wife beating?
  5. For Pleck, Chapter 6: What were some of the attempts that women reformers made to end male violence against women and children? Which strategies worked and which failed completely? Why?
Back to top