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Education: Higher Education

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

Class 2: Feminism and the Battered Women’s Movement, 1970–2000


Domestic violence once again became a public issue in the U.S. during the late 20th century when feminist activism and community action around battered women emerged nationally to include protection and support in the form of shelters, clinics, and other services. Del Martin’s 1977 book Battered Wives remains a powerful example of feminist thinking and action in the history of domestic violence reform during this period. Linda Gordon argues that unlike the history of child protection, battered women themselves helped to advance the idea that women have a right not to be beaten in their homes. Similarly, Elizabeth Pleck posits that it was the rebirth of feminism that brought domestic abuse back into the public eye. How shelters organized, and whether they identified as feminist, was the focus of sociologist Carol Wharton’s study of 25 different women’s shelters around the country. Feminist affiliation or not, this did not impede the success of the movement; it simply changed how shelters emerged and were received in various communities around the country.

In addition to the readings, suggested class activities include studying and discussing materials from the training and education resources collected by the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. These include studying the formation and history of the Duluth model’s “Power and Control Wheel,” and listening to archived 911 domestic abuse calls. These activities offer students an opportunity to directly engage with current educational tools and resources used by professionals.

Class Resources
  • Gordon, Linda. Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence. New York: Viking, 1988. Chapters 8 and 9.
  • Martin, Del. Battered Wives. San Francisco: Glide Publications, 1976. Chapter 1.
  • 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. Chapter 10.
  • Wharton, Carol S. “Establishing Shelters for Battered Women: Local Manifestations of a Social Movement.” Qualitative Sociology 10, no. 2 (1987): 146–63.
Online Resources for Small Group Activities
Discussion and Activity Questions
  1. For Gordon and Pleck: What are the key concepts and pivotal moments in the history of domestic violence between the 1930s and the 1970s? How did the burgeoning feminist movement shape public discourse around wife beating?
  2. For Martin: Discuss the letter written by the battered wife. How does Martin describe family violence and the battered wife’s position in society? What is she advocating for on behalf of women?
  3. For Wharton: How did the battered women’s organizations’ histories relate to the 1970s women’s movement, if at all? Given the varied responses Wharton collected about the role feminism played in the battered women’s movement, discuss how and why a feminist affiliation might help or hinder a social movement that exposes violence against women.
  4. For “‘Wheels’ Adapted from the Power and Control Wheel Model” activity and questions: Watch the video of Ellen Pence and study both Power and Control Wheel and Equality Wheel in a small group of three to five people. How was the Power and Control Wheel created? What are some behaviors associated with domestic violence that they had perhaps not previously understood as abusive and controlling? What about elements on the Equality Wheel? How do these resources expand your understanding and prevention of domestic violence issues?
  5. For “911/Emergency Call Taking Audio Recordings”: What are some specific elements from the Power and Control Wheel that you can hear in the recordings? For the calls initiated by children, what did you learn about the victim, the abuser, and the children involved in these brief but intimate recordings?
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