THE BATTERED WOMAN. By Lenore E. Walker. New York, New York: Harper & Row, 1979. $10.95.
Lenore Walker is a clinical psychologist and feminist whose interviews with 120 battered women form the core of a book which analyzes why men physically abuse women, why women do not escape this abuse, and why other people are unable to help these women. Walker’s sample, composed of American and British women, demonstrates that physical abuse of women occurs in intimate relationships among all age groups, and in every socio-economic class and racial and cultural sub-group.
Walker’s study draws on other researchers’ documentation of the pathology of relationships in which battering occurs. Supported by these researchers’ conclusions, she notes that society sanctions the use of violence as a method of discipline among family members. Researcher Murray Straus, for example, has pointed out that children learn that they are physically punished “for their own good” by adults who love them. Psychologists Darryl and Sandra Bern have shown that, as a result of this socialization process, many people feel that men have the right to punish their women just as adults are permitted to discipline children. One experiment in particular highlights this phenomenon. Three disputes involving the same level of physical and verbal abuse were staged. Passersby more often intervened in the arguments between two men or two women than in the male-female confrontation. When asked why, the strangers replied that they did not feel they should interfere in a marital dispute.
Walker’s contribution to this body of research is her application of certain psychological theories to the problem of battering relationships. First, she applies the theory of learned helplessness to a battered woman’s relationship with her abuser. She explains that in experiments on caged dogs, researchers administered electric shock at random intervals. After trying in vain to avoid the shock through their own behavior, the dogs eventually ceased attempting to escape the shock; they become compliant, listless, and submissive. When the researchers attempted to change this behavior by teaching the dogs to move to the other side of the cage to avoid the shock, the animals resisted the lesson. They repeatedly had to be dragged to the exit of the cage to teach them to respond voluntarily.
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