The Case for Legal Remedies for Abused Women


The serious physical abuse inflicted on women by men who supposedly care for them is finally becoming a matter of public concern. Women have long suffered beatings and assaults from husbands and male friends which, if com- mitted by strangers, would be punishable under our criminal laws. Woman abuse, however, has long been treated as different from any other assault and has never been considered a crime. Society has, in fact, always accepted such treatment of women. Until the early twentieth century, the law explicitly permitted men to beat their wives. Today, the nonenforcement of laws whose application could give women some protection against abuse allows men to continue to beat them without fear of punishment and denies women much needed protection.

Woman abuse has continued because it has been approved of, condoned, or ignored by the general public as well as concealed by its victims. This has led society to neglect woman abuse as a social and political problem. The public policy of family privacy, the myth of the happy harmonious family, and the “cultural norms which implicitly make the marriage license a hitting license” have supported and sustained this neglect. The victims, who are ashamed, weakened physically and psychologically, and fearful of retaliatory beatings from which they have no protection, are forced to acquiesce in silence. By failing to speak out and seek help, they have failed to educate and sensitize society to the problem.

The current activity in the areas of women’s rights, crime prevention, childabuse, and rape has helped to prepare society to confront the real injustice ofwoman abuse. The growing recognition of woman abuse as a serious problemis stirring efforts to eliminate the violence which is destroying the lives of somany women. Social service agencies, legal services, and women’s groups are actively striving to awaken people to the problem of woman abuse. Such groups are also developing emergency housing and counseling services and helping to draft and promote legislation which will provide women with thelegal protection they presently lack. Concurrently, litigation designed to enforce the rights of abused women is also being presented to the courts.

The capacity of the legal system to contribute to the prevention of woman abuse and the protection of its victims is the subject of this Note. The first section describes the characteristics of woman abuse which make legal remedies necessary. The following section examines the inadequacy of the presentresponses to abused women by police, prosecutors, and courts. The succeeding sections analyze current and potential strategies to reform the law so that it better serves the interests of battered women. Although the legal system alone cannot end woman abuse, it can and must do more to protect the victims, deter the perpetrators, and reduce the incidence of this problem.

Suggested Reading

Max R. Selver∞ I. Introduction New York Family Courts routinely admit “validation testimony” in cases involving allegations of child sexual abuse. Validation testimony consists of a mental health professional’s opinion that a child’s behavior is consistent with the occurrence of