Chastisement: Wives and Slaves in Nineteenth Century North Carolina
In the 1800s, marriage and slavery were often analogized as similar conditions of servitude. Neither wives nor slaves could own property or act independently. Both were bound to duties of obedience. Husbands and masters had the right to exert physical power over their wives and slaves, though the extent to which they did so differed.
Slave owners had the right to beat and whip their slaves, as long as the slaves did not die. Even if physical punishment of a slave resulted in death, the master could be charged with a lesser offense if he had caught the slave in an act of resistance, or if the slave provoked the master into beating him. Any sign of disrespect or disobedience, even mere insolence, was considered provocation.
Slaves were considered to be their masters' property. Owners had complete authority over them. Physical punishment was used to keep slaves in submission to their masters, punish disobedience, and serve as an example to other slaves. Judges and legislators were reluctant to intervene in slave beatings. They feared that any signs of weakness would interfere with masters' absolute power over their slaves, encourage slave rebellions and open the "private" master-slave relationship to public view.
In a less severe way, wives were subjugated to their husbands. At common law, a husband could whip his wife with a switch no larger in diameter than his thumb, opening the door for sanctioning various other forms of domestic violence. Wives were expected to comply with their husbands' demands. Punishment was allowed for disobedience. The level of violence husbands were permitted to inflict, however, was less far reaching than the power granted to masters. Domestic violence was not sanctioned if it was unprovoked, or if the physical harm inflicted was permanent or serious. Wives seeking protection had to prove they did not provoke their husbands or show any sign of disrespect. Disagreeing with her husband's opinion, in addition to disobedience, could be considered provocation.
In an 1868 case, the North Carolina Supreme Court rejected chastisement as a formal legal right, but refused to intervene if a battery was "trivial." The domain of home, marriage, and family was deemed part of a private realm largely beyond the purview of the courts. Domestic violence not causing serious bodily harm was ignored to preserve the sanctity of the home and promote reconciliation between spouses.
A husband's right to chastise his wife stemmed from his legal rights of control, not ownership of his spouse. Though wives were not owned by their husbands in the same way that slaves were owned by their masters, marriage caused the merger of husband and wife into one legal entity represented by the husband. Since husbands were legally responsible for their wives' economic obligations and misconduct, they could use physical force to control her behavior.
Chastisement was part of a wide-ranging set of rules and social norms designed to keep wives subservient to their husbands. During the nineteenth century the ideology of separate spheres was very influential. Men, it was thought, belonged in the public sphere of the work force, government and economy, while women belonged in the private sphere of home and family. Women were taught that their primary goal was to be a good wife and mother--obedient, even-tempered, and devoted to pleasing their husbands and raising their children. Many women accepted the ideology of domesticity in order to retain social approval. Their acceptance of a subordinate role in the family played a greater role in subjugating women than did chastisement.
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