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Education: Higher Education

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

Class 3: Changing Families, Changing Laws: From “A Private Matter” to Public Accountability


Legislation, community response, and media exposure in the late 20th century all contributed to significant cultural and social changes around the issue of domestic violence. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (reauthorized in 2000, 2005, and 2013) was the culmination of advocacy from all sectors—activists, social workers, lawyers, and medical professionals. The law allocated federal funds for organizations and interventions at the state and local levels. The Department of Justice opened the Office on Violence Against Women in 1995 and continues to provide resources, reports, and information regarding legislation, grant programs, and outreach. The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence opened its doors in 1998 as a center for training, consultation, and advocacy. As a result of such institutional advances and ongoing research, names and terminology emerged that reflected a changing social awareness and an expansion of experiences of domestic violence. Relationship violence, intimate partner violence, LGBT partner violence, and an acknowledgement of women’s violence against men, have all broadened the discourse around relationship violence. While men have remained the overwhelming majority of perpetrators, this expanded understanding has broadly and solidly placed the issue in the public eye. Family law experienced dramatic change as a result of the growing social awareness and stigma around domestic violence, but it has remained an area of ambiguity and misperception. The dogged work of policymakers, social workers, and women’s organizations played a crucial role in the dissemination of knowledge about the impact of family violence on society.

Class Resources
  • Schneider, Elizabeth M. “Domestic Violence Law Reform in the Twenty-First Century: Looking Back and Looking Forward.” Family Law Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 3 (Fall 2008): 353–363.
Film Resources
  • Hillcrest Films. Power & Control: Domestic Violence in America. Directed by Peter Cohen. 2010. Blooming Grove, NY: New Day Films, 2010. DVD.
    For discussion questions, interview transcripts for Cathryn Curley, Michael Paymar, Sharon Rice-Vaughn, and Sarah Buel are available on line at Accessed 08/21/2015.
  • ———. Domestic Violence and Law Enforcement: It Started in Duluth. Directed by Peter Cohen. Blooming Grove, NY: New Day Films. DVD.
    For discussion questions, interview transcript for Lt. Vernell Shaheed is available online at Accessed 08/21/2015.
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
  1. For the film, Power and Control: Domestic Violence in America: View or read transcripts for the interviews of Cathryn Curley, Michael Paymar, and Sharon Rice-Vaughn. How do they describe what has changed and what still needs attention? How do their accounts compare with Schneider’s in the Family Law Quarterly? What consensus and difference exist among these leaders, and why? What do they say about the work that yet remains to end domestic violence?
  2. For the two films: Watch or read the interview excerpts of Professor Sarah Buel (Power and Control: Domestic Violence in America) and Lt. Vernell Shaheed of the Baltimore Police Department (Domestic Violence and Law Enforcement: It Started in Duluth). What do they share in common about how police and law respond to victims who have been coerced or threatened about testifying? What do they say about how the community can help?
  3. Watch or read the interview excerpt of Michael Paymar (Power and Control: Domestic Violence in America) in which he discusses a pivotal case in Duluth in which a battered woman killed her abusive husband. A turning point in the community, her story and the murder made the police department agreeable to work with domestic violence advocates. The work of the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project addresses sentencing issues of domestic violence survivors who are in prison for violence against their abusers. Use Paymar’s interview and the Clemency Project as a starting point for your discussion about sentencing justice for these domestic violence survivors. How has the battered women’s movement changed societal perceptions of victims and abusers?
  4. For the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence website: Explore the vast number and diversity of “wheels” now available to a wide, international, intercultural and broad group of survivors and advocates. How do some of the wheels relate to what you know about the history of the battered women’s movement? What do we know today about who is affected by intimate partner violence by looking at these various wheels?
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