Day Twelve | From ‘Battered Wives’ to ‘Coercive Control’: Domestic Abuse in Late Twentieth Century Scotland

Anni Donaldson

Women's Aid

Image reproduced courtesy of Scottish Women’s Aid

Scotland’s response to male violence against their wives, partners or girlfriends has come a long way since the 1970s when wives’ were ‘battered’ and police didn’t get involved in ‘domestics’. Forty years since the publication of Violence against Wives – A Case against the Patriarchy, new legislationThe Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 – criminalised coercive control, and reflects our long journey to a deeper understanding of this complex and enduring problem.  

Whatever it is called, men’s violence against women has been a reality in Scotland for centuries. I wondered if a close look at its history in Scotland could teach us anything new.  My oral history research into domestic abuse experienced by a group of women who grew up in the post-war period shed some light on how we got from ‘battered wives’ in the 1970s to ‘coercive control’ in 2019. Most, but not all, of the women grew up in working class families in towns, cities and villages across Scotland.

Girls growing up in changing times

The women I spoke to were dating, getting married or moving in with their boyfriends when Scotland was experiencing fairly dramatic and contrasting social and economic change. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the country’s traditional heavy industries declined, male unemployment rose and more women entered the workforce. In the 1960s and 1970s, progressive legislation was advancing women’s reproductive rights and equality in relation to abortion, pay, maternity leave and sex discrimination. Although marriage was still the norm, the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s had challenged the conventional patterns of young people’s sexual relationships.

‘All men were interested in in the sixties was sex, and at that point I was terrified you know, I’d never met anybody that liked just me so I was a bit confused’ (D. b. 1949)

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female Prime Minister when the new Conservative government was elected. However, Mrs. Thatcher did not express allegiance to feminism or support for women’s equality; the Conservative’s neoliberal politics were profoundly patriarchal and based on her party’s traditional family-centred values of individualism and traditional gender roles.  Freedom and citizens’ rights were reframed as consumption; as Thatcher said:

‘…who is society? There is no such thing! …There are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’

Against this backdrop, the group of women who participated in my research experienced violence and abuse early in their relationships, often whilst dating.  Before their eyes, they watched boyfriends shape-shift from romantic suitors to budding patriarchal tyrants.  

‘I think that once we’d had sex he had some sort of ownership over me’ (S. b. 1963). 

Family life, work and violence

By the 1970s and 1980s, the women had become teachers, nurses, accountants, health professionals, civil servants and administrators. Settling into family life and having children, family incomes and standards of living gradually rose as home and car ownership, family holidays and home improvements were made possible through joint loans and mortgages.  However, these same women continued to experience domestic abuse – physical, emotional and sexual abuse – whilst juggling demanding jobs, childcare, housework, parenting, family debt and the need to ‘keep up appearances’. 

A new financial balance of power challenged the patriarchal family conventions which the women and their husbands had absorbed since childhood. Historically, men’s higher status in the family came from their role as the main breadwinner and for many, assaults on their wives was a common practice for enforcing the family pecking order. 

 By the 1980s and 1990s, with women’s earnings now essential to the family budget and to maintaining their living standards, the function and the way the men used violence began to change. Easier access to credit led to higher spending, and mounting family debt created ever more complex family finances which further entrapped the women.  Women lived their lives with the constant threat of severe physical and sexual violence and described wearing a ‘mask’ in public.

Men devised new ways to extend their control into women’s working and social lives.  Cars and telephones made surveillance easier: husbands telephoned women’s workplaces to check they had arrived, drove them to and from their work and social events.  Men decided if women could attend social events alone; refused to look after their own children; scrutinised their partner’s clothes; insulted their appearance; monitored when they returned home from nights out and punished them for being late.  Women were subjected to jealous outbursts and some were raped for speaking to other men in their husband’s presence, or because they were suspected of flirting.   

In these closely examined narratives, it is possible to see how being a ‘battered wife’ in the confines of the home evolved into being a victim of  ‘coercive control’ –  a constant, invisible presence in every area of the women’s lives.  

While advances in women’s equality, better jobs and higher wages broadened women’s horizons, the violence and abuse did not end.  Instead it adapted to the new context and persisted. The patriarchal legacy was alive and well and violence against women survived into the late twentieth century by adapting successfully to changing times.  

From private violence to public prevention 

The patriarchal system was tenacious and adaptable but so too were women. With no help from the police or other services, and with society still largely hostile to their situation, the women I spoke to finally separated from their partners by devising carefully planned, long-term exit plans, helped only by a small circle of trusted family and friends.

zero tolerance

Image used with the kind permission of Zero Tolerance

However, the first public Zero Tolerance campaign, which launched in Edinburgh in 1992, showed women that their private hell was becoming public business.  

‘I remember seeing big Z-Z-Zs… how empowering that would have felt to me in 1986 to have seen that, that would have just made such a difference.’ (M. b. 1955) 

The state’s efforts to advance women’s equality have yet to lead to an end to domestic abuse.  Here’s hoping Scotland’s commitment to prevention and its new Domestic Abuse Act create a truly hostile environment for violent men. 

 

Anni Donaldson is a Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Strathclyde., follow her on Twitter @AnniDonaldson, and read her blog here.

 

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