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"The Rule of Thumb"

from Who Stole Feminism? - Christina Hoff
Sommers, (Simon & Schuster, New York 1994) (Excerpted from Ch 9 "Noble Lies" pp.203-208)

The "Rule of Thumb" Has Nothing to do with "Wife Beating"


Because many feminist activists and researchers have so great a stake in exaggerating the problem and so little compunction in doing so, objective information on battery is very hard to come by. The Super Bowl story was a bald untruth from the start. The "rule of thumb" story is an example of revisionist history that feminists happily fell into believing. It reinforces their perspective on society, and they tell it as a way of winning converts to their angry creed.

As it is told in the opening essay in one of the most popular textbooks in women's studies, Women: A Feminist Perspective, "The popular expression 'rule of thumb' originated from English common law, which allowed a husband to beat his wife with a whip or stick no bigger in diameter than his thumb. The husband's prerogative was incorporated into American law. Several states had statutes that essentially allowed a man to beat his wife without interference from the courts."[49]

The story is supposed to bring home to students the realisation that they have been born into a system that tolerates violence against women. Sheila Kuehl, the feminist legal activist who had played a central role in launching the "Abuse Bowl" hoax, appeared on CNN's "Sonya Live" four months after the incident, holding forth on the supposed history of the rule and acclaiming the New Feminists for finally striking back: "I think we're undoing thousands and thousands of years of human history. You know the phrase 'rule of thumb' that everybody thinks is the standard measure of everything? It was a law in England that said you could beat your wife with a stick as long as it was no thicker ... than your thumb." [50]

Columnists and journalists writing about domestic violence were quick to pick up on the anecdote.

The colloquial phrase "rule of thumb" is supposedly derived from the ancient right of a husband to discipline his wife with a rod "no thicker than his thumb." (Time magazine, September 5, 1983)

A husband's right to beat his wife is included in Blackstone's 1768 codification of the common law. Husbands had the right to "physically chastise" an errant wife so long as the stick was no bigger than their thumb - the so-called "rule of thumb." (Washington Post, January 3, 1989)

Violence against women does not have to be the rule of thumb - an idiom from an old English law that said a man could beat his wife if the stick was no thicker than his thumb. (Atlanta Constitution, April 22, 1993)

The "rule of thumb," however, turns out to be an excellent example of what may be called a feminist fiction. [51] It is not to be found in William Blackstone's treatise on English common law. On the contrary, British law since the 1700s and our American laws predating the Revolution prohibit wife beating, though there have been periods and places in which the prohibition was only indifferently enforced.

That the phrase did not even originate in legal practice could have been ascertained by any fact-checker who took the trouble to look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, which notes that the term has been used metaphorically for at least three hundred years to refer to any method of measurement or technique of estimation derived from experience rather than science.

According to Canadian folklorist Philip Hiscock, "The real explanation of 'rule of thumb' is that it derives from wood workers ... who knew their trade so well they rarely or never fell back on the use of such things as rulers. Instead, they would measure things by, for example, the length of their thumbs."

Hiscock adds that the phrase came into metaphorical use by the late seventeenth century. [52]

Hiscock could not track the source of the idea that the term derives from a principle governing wife beating, but he believes it is an example of "modern folklore" and compares it to other "back-formed explanations," such as the claim that asparagus comes from "sparrow-grass" or that "ring around the rosy" is about the bubonic plague.

We shall see that Hiscock's hunch was correct, but we must begin by exonerating William Blackstone (1723-80), the Englishman who codified centuries of disparate and inchoate legal customs and practices into the elegant and clearly organised tome known as Commentaries on the Laws of England. The Commentaries, universally regarded as a classic of legal literature, became the basis for the development of American law. The so-called rule of thumb as a guideline for wife beating does not occur in Blackstone's compendium, although he does refer to an ancient law that permitted "domestic chastisement":

The husband ... by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction. For, as he is to answer for her misbehaviour, the law thought it reasonable to intrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children.... But this power of correction was confined within reasonable bounds and the husband was prohibited from using any violence to his wife.... But with us, in the politer reign of Charles the Second, this power of correction began to be doubted; and a wife may now have security of the peace against her husband.... Yet [among] the lower rank of people ... the courts of law will still permit a husband to restrain a wife of her liberty in case of any gross misbehaviour [emphasis added]. [53]

Blackstone plainly says that common law prohibited violence against wives, although the prohibitions went largely unenforced, especially where the "lower rank of people" were concerned.


In America, there have been laws against wife beating since before the Revolution. By 1870, it was illegal in almost every state; but even before then, wife-beaters were arrested and punished for assault and battery [54] The historian and feminist Elizabeth Pleck observes in a scholarly article entitled "Wife-Battering in Nineteenth-Century America":

It has often been claimed that wife-beating in nineteenth-century America was legal.... Actually, though, several states passed statutes legally prohibiting wife-beating-, and at least one statute even predates the American Revolution. The Massachusetts Bay Colony prohibited wife-beating as early as 1655. The edict states: "No man shall strike his wife nor any woman her husband on penalty of such fine not exceeding ten pounds for one offense, or such corporal punishment as the County shall determine." [55]

She points out that punishments for wife-beaters could be severe: according to an 1882 Maryland statute, the culprit could receive forty lashes at the whipping post; in Delaware, the number was thirty. In New Mexico, fines ranging from $255 to $1,000 were levied, or sentences of one to five years in prison imposed. [56] For most of our history, in fact, wife beating has been considered a sin comparable to thievery or adultery. Religious groups - especially Protestant groups such as Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists - punished, shunned, and excommunicated wife-beaters. Husbands, brothers, and neighbours often took vengeance against the batterer. Vigilante parties sometimes abducted wife-beaters and whipped them. [57]

Just how did the false account originate, and how did it achieve authority and currency? As with many myths, there is a small core of fact surrounded by an accretion of error. In the course of rendering rulings on cases before them, two Southern judges had alluded to an "ancient law" according to which a man could beat his wife as long as the implement was not wider than his thumb. The judges, one from North Carolina and one from Mississippi, did not accept the authority of the "ancient law." The North Carolina judge referred to it as "barbarism," and both judges found the husband in the case in question guilty of wife abuse. [58] Nevertheless, their rulings seemed to tolerate the notion that men had a measure of latitude in physically chastising their wives. Fortunately, as Pleck takes pains to remind us, they were not representative of judicial opinion in the rest of the country. [59]

In 1976, Del Martin, a coordinator of the NOW Task Force on Battered Women, came across a reference to the two judges and their remarks. [60] Neither judge had used the phrase "rule of thumb," but a thumb had been mentioned, and Ms. Martin took note of it:

Our law, based upon the old English common-law doctrines, explicitly permitted wife-beating for correctional purposes. However, certain restrictions did exist.... For instance, the common-law doctrine had been modified to allow the husband "the right to whip his wife, provided that he used a switch no bigger than his thumb" - a rule of thumb, so to speak. [61]

Ms. Martin had not claimed that the term "rule of thumb" originated from common law. Before long, however, the "ancient law" alluded to by two obscure Southern judges was being treated as an unchallenged principle of both British and American law, and journalists and academics alike were bandying the notion about. Feminist Terry Davidson, in an article entitled "Wife Beating: A Recurring Phenomenon Throughout History," claims that "one of the reasons nineteenth century British wives were dealt with so harshly by their husbands and by their legal system was the 'rule of thumb' " [62] and castigates Blackstone himself. "Blackstone saw nothing unreasonable about the wife-beating law. In fact, he believed it to be quite moderate." [63]

These interpretive errors were given added authority by a group of scholars and lawyers who, in 1982, prepared a report on wife abuse for the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Under the Rule of Thumb: Battered Women and the Administration of Justice - A Report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. On the second page, they note: "American law is built upon the British common law that condoned wife beating and even prescribed the weapon to be used. This 'rule of thumb' stipulated that a man could only beat his wife with a 'rod not thicker than his thumb.' " [64]

It went on to speak of Blackstone as the jurist who "greatly influenced the making of the law in the American colonies [and who] commented on the 'rule of thumb,+ "justifying the rule by noting that "the law thought it reasonable to intrust [the husband] with this power of ... chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children." [65]

The publication of the report established the feminist fable about the origins of the term in popular lore, and the misogyny of Blackstone and "our law" as "fact." Misstatements about the "rule of thumb" still appear in the popular press.

The same 1993 Time magazine article that popularised the nonexistent March of Dimes study on domestic violence and birth defects and reported that "between 22 percent and 35 percent of all visits by females to emergency rooms are for injuries from domestic assaults" also cited New York University law professor Holly Maguigan: "We talk about the notion of the rule of thumb, forgetting that it had to do with the restriction on a man's right to use a weapon against his wife: he couldn't use a rod that was larger than his thumb. [66] Professor Maguigan's law students would do well to check their Blackstone.

We react to batterers with revulsion - first, because of what they do, which is ugly and cruel; and second, because of what they are, which is cowardly and often sadistic. As those working in the social services and the shelters well know, helping battered women is as difficult as it is exigent. Resources are limited, and strategies for help are often controversial. On a wider canvas, we need good legislation and good public policy as well as funds earmarked toward the problem. But sound public policy on battery cannot be made without credible and trustworthy information. In promulgating sensational untruths, the gender feminists systematically diminish public trust. Experts concerned about battery and devoted to alleviating it are worried. As Michael Lindsey said to Ken Ringle, "When people make crazy statements like this, the credibility of the whole cause can go right out the window."



Notes: 49. Carole Sheffield, "Sexual Terrorism," in Jo Freeman, ed., Women: A Feminist Perspective (Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing, 1989), p. 7.
50. "Sonya Live," CNN, May 26, 1993.
51. Other references to the rule of thumb include: Until the 19th Century, there was a charming little rule of thumb that applied to family life. A man was allowed to beat his wife as long as the stick he used was no wider than a thumb. (Ellen Goodman, Washington Post, April 19, 1983)
English Common Law, from which our own laws are derived, allowed a man to beat his "wayward" wife as long as the switch he used was not thicker than the size of his thumb. A female caseworker in Cleveland says she never uses the term "rule of thumb" because of what it traditionally implies. (UPS, November 9, 1986)
Today's cultures have strong historical, religious, and legal legacies that reinforce the legitimacy of wife-beating. Under English common law, for example, a husband had the legal right to discipline his wife - subject to a "rule of thumb" that barred him from using a stick broader than his thumb. Judicial decisions in England and the United States upheld this right until well into the 19th century. (Washington Post, April 9, 1989)
In English common law, a man was considered to have a right to "physically chastise an errant wife." What passed for restraint was the notorious "rule of thumb" which stated that the stick he beat her with could not exceed the width of the thumb. (Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1989, p. 1)
Patricia Ireland said she learned the rule of thumb which, under English common law, allowed a man to beat his wife as long as he used a stick no thicker than his thumb. (Orlando Sentinel, December, 1991)
In state courts across the country, wife beating was legal until 1890. There was a -rule of thumb," by which courts had stated a man might beat his wife with a switch no thicker than his thumb. (Chicago Tribune, March 18, 1990)
52. Women's Studies Network (Internet: LISTSERV@UMDD.UMD.EDU), May 11, 1993. Many women's studies scholars know very well that the "rule of thumb" story is a myth. They talk about it freely on their network; but you will never see them correcting the textbooks or the news stories.
53. Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (New York: W. E. Dean, 1836), vol. 1, p. 36.
54. Elizabeth Pleck, "Wife Beating in Nineteenth-Century America," Victimology: An International Journal 4 (1979): 71.
55. Ibid., pp. 60-61.
56. Ibid.


--------- 57. Elizabeth Pleck, Domestic Tyranny (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p.110. Pleck makes the interesting point that modern attitudes to wife battering are not that different from those in the nineteenth century - wife beaters are despised, and the public feels vindictive toward them. What has changed is that in the nineteenth century the punishment was more informal. The batterers were beaten up, whipped, and publicly shamed. Today, it is a matter for the courts: the punishment is often a restraining order, counseling, a suspended sentence, or a severe lecture from a disapproving judge or police officer. One advantage of the old system is that the batterer's punishment did not depend on the victim turning him in. As Pleck says, "Third parties were watching a husband's behavior and reporting his misdeed to a policing group." The sanctions such as whipping, shunning, and public shaming may have been the more powerful deterrents. See Pleck, "Wife Beating in Nineteenth Century America," p. 71.
58. Bradley v. State, Walker 156, Miss. 1824; State v. Oliver, 70 N.C. 61, 1874.
59. See Pleck, "Wife Beating in Nineteenth-Century America," p. 63.
60. In 1974 an article by sociologist Robert Calvert made reference to the North Carolina and Mississippi judges. It was published in an important anthology on domestic battery edited by Murray Straus and Suzanne Steinmetz, Violence in the Family (Toronto: Dodd, Mead, 1975), p. 88. Martin may have learned about the two judges there.
61. Del Martin, Battered Wives (Volcano, Calif.: Volcano Press, 1976), p. 31.
62. Terry Davidson, "Wife Beating: A Recurring Phenomenon Throughout History," in Maria Roy, ed., Battered Women (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977), p. 18.
63. Ibid., p. 19.
64. "Under the Rule of Thumb: Battered Women and the Administration of Justice: A Report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights," January 1982, p. 2.
65. Ibid.
66. Time, January 18, 1993, p. 41.


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