Margo Mahan

Race, Masculinity, and the Development of Wife-Beating Laws in the U.S.

My dissertation investigates the role of race and masculinity in the development of wife-beating laws in the U.S. Because the two periods in which anti-wife-beating laws proliferated – 1870-1900 & 1970-2000 – coincide with first and second wave feminism, scholarship assumes that feminist activism brought about these laws, which legislatures therefore enacted in order to protect women. However, the first state to criminalize wife-beating was Alabama in 1871. Although Massachusetts followed suit months later, much of the legal shifts toward criminalizing wife-beating occured in Southern states where there was neither a feminist movement, nor female collective action against wife-beating. The questions that guide my research are therefore: What were the social conditions in which anti-wife-beating laws emerged in the U.S.? What do these conditions reveal about the primary functions of these laws? Using historical comparative analysis of the late 19th-century South and North, my preliminary findings suggest that anti-wife-beating laws were merely one tool of many that functioned to control the labor and degrade the social status of black men in the South, and European immigrants in the North. My research therefore reveals how racial and nativist projects to maintain racial domination motivated the emergence of the “feminist” laws that scholarship and social policy continues to conceptualize as apart from race, ethnicity, class, and masculinity.