Myths or Facts in Feminist Scholarship?

By Nancy K. D. Lemon, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Christina Hoff Sommers accused me of being a "scholarly merchant of hype" for material in my popular textbook, Domestic Violence Law. In fact, she is the one whose assertions are untrue and who is impervious to correction.

I have worked in the domestic-violence field as an attorney since 1981, and pioneered teaching domestic-violence law. When I started teaching this course in 1988 at the University of California at Berkeley's School of Law, it was the first such course anywhere. I created a reader, which was in such demand by other law teachers that I contacted a publisher, and the book Domestic Violence Law was first published in 1996. The third edition by Thomson/West has just come out, along with an updated teacher's manual.

Sommers first contacted me by e-mail on February 21, 2009, and told me she had been traveling around the United States criticizing me and my textbook. The timing of her e-mail message was fortuitous, as I was working on the final edits of the most recent edition. I double-checked the specific points she expressed concern about and read the sources she cited in her e-mail message. In my response to her, I stated that while I had found some minor inaccuracies in the piece about the origin of the "rule of thumb" and had corrected those, I had confirmed the sources of the other supposed inaccuracies she challenged.

In spite of my response, she wrote in The Chronicle Review that she is "open to correction," yet she ignored my response to her and continued to complain of the same purported inaccuracies.

In regard to the rule of thumb, for example, she asserted that Romulus of Rome, who is credited in my book with being involved with the first antidomestic-violence legislation, could not have done this as he was merely a legendary, fictional character, who along with his brother Remus was suckled by a wolf.

In fact, Plutarch and Livy each state that Romulus was the first king of Rome. He reigned from 753-717 BC, and created both the Roman Legions and the Roman Senate. He is also credited with adding large amounts of territory and people to the dominion of Rome, including the Sabine women. The modern scholar Andrea Carandini has written about the historic reign of Romulus, based in part on the 1988 discovery of the Murus Romuli on the north slope of the Palatine Hill in Rome.

R. Emerson Dobash and Russell P. Dobash, pioneers and well-respected leaders in the field of domestic-violence research, discuss Romulus in their 1979 book, Violence Against Wives. They state that the marriage laws passed in 753 BC, under Romulus of Rome, allowed men to beat their wives, and that this rule continued into England and the United States in the 1700s and 1800s. Dobash and Dobash refer to a "rod drawn through the wedding ring" in describing the size of the stick husbands were allowed to use for this purpose, the same guideline referred to as the rule of thumb.

Professor Henry Ansgar Kelly has also researched the history of the term "rule of thumb," along with the historic right of husbands to chastise their wives. In his article, "Rule of Thumb and the Folklaw of the Husband's Stick," in the September 1994 issue of the Journal of Legal Education, he cites Matthew Bacon, an 18th-century jurist, who published a legal treatise in the United States and England in 1736 containing the comment that husbands had a legal right to beat their wives. Similarly, Kelly cites Sir Francis Buller, an English judge, who said in 1778 that it was acceptable for husbands to beat their wives with a stick the size of their own thumb, though Kelly notes that others disagreed with Butler that this was permissible. Kelly also says that while canon law did not condone husbands beating their wives, the ordinary gloss to civil law did allow this. The history he reviews finds early jurists and legal treatises on both sides of condoning actual wife-beating. However, Kelly cites numerous early sources showing the right of husbands to "moderately chastise" their wives.

There are several 19th-century American cases in which judges referred to the rule of thumb, if not by name, then by reference to sticks or switches and their relationship to the sizes of the husbands' fingers or thumbs. These cases include Bradley v. State (Mississippi, 1824), State v. Rhodes (North Carolina, 1867), Fulgham v. State (Alabama, 1871), and State v. Oliver (North Carolina, 1874).

According to John K. Wilson in the fall 1994 issue of Democratic Culture, Elizabeth Cady Stanton also stated in her 1854 address to the New York legislature, "By the common law of England, the spirit of which has been but too faithfully incorporated into our statute law, a husband has a right to whip his wife with a rod not larger than his thumb, to shut her up in a room, and administer whatever moderate chastisement he may deem necessary to insure obedience to his wishes, and for her healthful moral development!" (quoting Stanton et al., History of Woman Suffrage, 1881).

Sommers has also stated that my textbook includes an article by Joan Zorza referencing a March of Dimes study on domestic violence that never took place. Sommers states that she contacted the director of science education for the March of Dimes, and he denied that there was any such study. Rather than asking me for a citation, she announced in her lectures that the study did not exist and that my book was full of made-up truths. Even when I told her I had seen a copy of the study as provided by Zorza, Sommers went on to make the same assertion in her piece in The Chronicle.

Apparently the March of Dimes employee was unaware of the research this agency financed. The study Zorza sent me, "Battering During Pregnancy: Intervention Strategies," by Anne Stewart Helton and Frances Gobble Snodgrass, appears in the September 1987 issue of the journal Birth. The article states at the bottom of the first page: "This work was supported by a March of Dimes grant for the prevention of battering during pregnancy." The study states that battered women had twice the number of miscarriages than did nonbattered women.

Zorza also sent me a scanned copy of "Domestic Violence, a Women's Health Issue," a 1994 report of the N.Y. State Senate Democratic Task Force on Women's Issues, chaired by Senator Suzi Oppenheimer. That report included a reference to the March of Dimes Protocol of Care for Battered Women, which noted that battered women are twice as likely to miscarry, four times as likely to have low-birth-weight babies, and 40 times as likely to have infants who die within the first year, compared with nonbattered women.

Sommers also challenged a statement by Zorza in my textbook regarding the high incidence of battered women in emergency rooms. Sommers says she received a message from a statistician at the Centers for Disease Control who stated that the incidence of females in emergency departments because of domestic violence was 0.01 percent in 2005 and 0.02 percent in 2003.

Apparently that statistician has not read the Centers for Disease Control Web site, which stated, when I checked it on July 15, 2009: "IPV," or intimate-partner violence, "is a major cause of violence-related injuries. Intimate partners were identified as the perpetrators in 36 percent of all emergency department visits by women who suffered from one or more violent injuries."

Similarly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice has reported that 37 percent of all women who sought care in hospital emergency rooms for violence-related injuries were injured by a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend (Michael R. Rand, "Violence-Related Injuries Treated in Hospital Emergency Departments," 1997).

We also find similarly high figures published in medical journals, hardly bastions of radical feminism. D.C. Berios and D. Grady, in their article "Domestic Violence: Risk Factors and Outcome," in the August 1991 issue of Western Journal of Medicine, found that among 218 women presenting in a metropolitan emergency department with injuries due to violence, 28 percent required hospital admission and 13 percent required major medical treatment.

Doctors Evan Stark and Anne Flitcraft, prominent researchers in this field, announced similar findings in their 1996 book Women at Risk: Domestic Violence and Women's Health: "The initial conclusion of our research was that more women sought medical treatment for injuries resulting from domestic violence than for any other cause." … Later "studies continued to document substantially the same or higher figures than we uncovered" (Sage Publications Page xvii).

The N.Y. State Senate report mentioned above cites the American Medical Association's "Diagnostic and Treatment Guidelines," which note that battered women account for 19 percent to 30 percent of injured women seen in emergency departments.

Similarly, the study cited above backed by the March of Dimes contains the following statement: "The magnitude of the problem is shown in a Yale University study in which 21 percent of the 2,676 women treated in the emergency department were battered." (See "Wife Abuse in the Medical Setting," by Stark and Flitcraft et al., in Domestic Violence Monograph Series No. 7, 1981.)

Sommers seems to have a history of making inaccurate assertions. Ironically, one of the articles she cited in her e-mail message to me in support of her assertions regarding the origin of the rule of thumb was the Kelly piece. In fact, rather than supporting Sommers, Kelly disagrees with her, stating: "The explanation she gives from a Women's Studies Network communication by a folklorist, Philip Hiscock, that [the term "rule of thumb"] comes from woodworking … is supported by no evidence."

Kelly is not the only researcher or scholar to find Sommers's scholarship in error. In Women at Risk, Stark and Flitcraft note that their research findings regarding the high numbers of battered women in emergency departments were challenged in 1994 by none other than Christina Hoff Sommers, even though she is a philosopher, not a medical researcher, and thus had no basis for disputing their findings.

Sommers seems to have made a career out of attacking other academics and researchers and disagreeing with their findings, citing the same assertions repeatedly over at least the last 15 years, even in the face of evidence contradicting her claims. It seems I have the honor of being her most recent target.

I have been teaching law students for 22 years and am the author of one of the leading textbooks on domestic violence. It is important for students to receive accurate information; good scholarship requires nothing less.