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COLUMN LEFT / LINDA HIRSHMAN

Scholars in the Service of Politics : Those who would deny men's abuse of women twist statistics and skip the research.

July 31, 1994|LINDA HIRSHMAN | Linda Hirshman is a professor of law and director of the Women's Legal Studies Institute, Chicago Kent College of Law. and

The weeks since O. J. Simpson's arrest for murder have witnessed an explosion of debate about domestic violence. With a conference committee of Congress considering the Violence Against Women Act as part of the crime package, the subject commands unprecedented attention. Sadly, much of the debate has been sullied by the willingness of the political right to engage in wild misrepresentations. Some of the people engaged in this process also bring their credibility as teachers and scholars to the exchange. To find academics presenting skewed information to the public casts doubt on the whole enterprise of scholarship, a doubt that will last long after the current debate is over.

For instance, Simpson defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor, describes a recent Justice Department study of murder in families as concluding that "women kill almost as often as men do." The numbers in the study are: Women commit 41% of familial murders; men, 59%. There is no counting system in which 41% is "almost as" great as 59%. And these aren't the national statistics. The 1992 FBI numbers for murders of spouses show 70% are men killing their wives and 30% are women killing husbands.

Why the huge disparity between the real numbers and the Dershowitz numbers? The Justice Department study Dershowitz used looked only at the largest counties in the United States, which are substantially nonwhite, and African American wives kill their husbands at a higher percentage than white wives do (although the ratio is still not 50-50). And his figures count the deaths of children as well as spouses.

So, nationally, Dershowitz's almost half of family murders committed by women turns out to be less than one-third if you look at spousal murders alone. It didn't take a Harvard professor to figure this out. It came from the same report and the same human source at Justice that Dershowitz used. Defense lawyers don't usually get cross-examined about their statements, but if this is the way Dershowitz prepares his witnesses, Simpson had better stick with Shapiro for the courtroom work.

This misrepresentation of the numbers is just the most recent variation of the Big Lie technique much in vogue among the debunkers of gender violence. Christina Hoff Sommers, an associate professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, published a book, "Who Stole Feminism?" claiming that the common-law doctrine of the "rule of thumb," which allowed a man to beat his wife if he used moderation, as in a stick no thicker than a thumb, is a "feminist fiction." Conservative columnists John Leo and Mona Charen glommed onto this assertion and crowed about how newspapers and television stations had been taken in.

There's only one problem: It's Sommers who is wrong. There are at least three 19th-Century American cases referring explicitly to the "rule of thumb" that allows a man to beat his wife if he used moderate means (State vs. Olivor, State vs. Rhodes and Bradley vs. State). Sommers knew about the cases because she refers to the two that convicted the husband anyway. But she never mentions the case that let the husband off.

Sommers also didn't do her homework. The cases and the articles about the rule of thumb refer to the universally accepted authority on old English common law, William Blackstone. Sommers looked at Blackstone's Commentaries, she says, in which Blackstone found that the common law prohibited violence against wives. She even cites a volume in her footnotes. A real scholar would ask how all those 19th-Century U.S. state court judges who refer to Blackstone could have been so mistaken.

The answer is that Sommers must have been looking at some sort of condensed version of Blackstone that left off the Latin parts, perhaps for the benefit of the common modern reader. Her quotation stopped right in the middle of a sentence. In the real volumes of Blackstone, available in many libraries, a husband's right in the old common law to moderate chastisement of his wife is there in black and white. Violence is allowed, Blackstone says, if it "lawfully and reasonably belongs to the husband for the due government and correction of his wife." (Book 1, Chapter 15, pages 444-445) Blackstone even talks about the limits on the permission in civil law to use scourges (whips or straps) and sticks. Perhaps Charen and Leo also lack libraries.

So I just found two whoppers--Dershowitz's numbers and Sommers' "feminist fiction"--and the research didn't take me half an hour. Regardless of one's politics, we must ask ourselves whether the truth of gender relations is so terrible that it must be concealed with a curtain of lies.

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