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Throughout history, regardless of a woman’s culture or background they have been subjected to all sorts of unjust offenses.  While men have suffered their own assaults women, historically have had to bear the brunt of all manner of abuse.  From early childhood, they were raised without rights, some barely treated better than slaves, while others may have had the appearance of freedom they were often kept under the control of a male family member. The violence they have endured over the years has gradually receded and over time the passage of laws has made life a little more humane.  Here is a brief history of how those laws have impacted crime against women in the United States over the past 200+ years.

1800-1900 - Its not really a Crime... is it?

At the beginning of the 19th century a woman’s legal status in life was directly connected to her husband, brother, or father.  By law she could only expect to be subservient and dependent on these close family members.  European settlers who believed that husbands had the God given right to correct their wives through the use of physical punishment in various forms of domestic violence influenced the culture of the time.  The laws offered little to no protection from crime against women.  Wife abuse or other forms of family violence was often supported and encouraged by societal expectations and religious morals.

The case of Calvin Bradley vs. the State of Mississippi in 1824 was the first of many major cases of domestic abuse was decided in the state Supreme Court.  The ruling that the husband had gone to excessive lengths to “chastise” his wife set a precedent for the establishment of new laws favoring women to be put into place.  By the mid 1800s wife assault had become illegal in several states across the country.

1900 - 1950 - Women Take on New Roles

By the time the 19th century arrived the United States had changed its image completely.  Instead of a strong agricultural community the nation had entered into an age of industry.  Along with the new face of the nation, a new family image was also evolving.  Men were no longer working at home but were seeking outside sources of income leaving women behind to take care of the home and children.  Education was not an option for many leaving them again with a lower status of unintelligent, weak and of little consequence with few options for change.  Family matters were considered private and intimate affairs that should be resolved behind closed doors.  Because of this, even with the new laws protecting wives from abuse these types of incidents were often unreported.

Women were still not allowed to have their own property or vote in most states.  It isn’t until 1920 that the Nineteenth Amendment is passed, guaranteeing women the right to vote.  Equal rights were not given to women until 1923.

With the rise of the Feminist Movement, gradually more laws began to emerge that slowly worked to overturn strongly entrenched thinking among many in society.  With the passage of the right to vote in 1920 women were gradually being allowed to enter public office, which lead to more laws giving women additional protection than ever before.

1950 – 2000 - Harassment and Crime Against Women Get Recognized

By 1986 the United States Supreme Court decides on the case of Meritor Savings Bank vs. Vinson – determining “that sexual harassment creating a hostile or abusive work environment, even without economic loss for the person being harassed, is in violation of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

While crimes against women may have begun to decline the statistics show that offenses were still very high.  In the 1980s, these issues were now being addressed in Congress.  In 1984 the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act was passed in an effort to prevent more incidents of family violence and to provide shelter to those victimized and in 1994, Congress passed a major crime bill, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.  This bill was known for creating a never before seen number of programs focused on assisting law enforcement to fight violent crimes predominantly committed against women.  The scope of the law was now reaching far beyond those of family abuse and extending to cover other acts of violence against women.

The 21st Century - Expanded Laws to Stop Crime Against Women

Today, the VAWA is the latest legal win in fighting crime against women.  Through this law a number of grant programs and funding for violence prevention, investigations and prosecutions, and victims services have been implemented.  Whether the crimes are domestic in nature or a stranger assault the evolution of laws protecting women have moved from those in the private family circle to protect all women regardless of social status, sexual orientation, or relationship to the assailant.

The law was reauthorized in 2000 and again in 2005 where its protection was extended to battered and trafficked immigrants with enhanced penalties for repeat stalking offenders.  It also added programs for American Indian victims, sexual assault victims and programs to improve the public’s response to domestic violence.  

While the occurrence of crime against women continues to be a problem in our society today, the hope is that with the continuous passage of laws expanding protection of women’s rights there will be a marked decline eventually leading to eliminating the problem all together

(image courtesy of Cornell Kheel Center - Six women including Mary Dreier, Ida Rauh, Helen Marot, Rena Borky, Yetta Raff, and Mary Effers linked arm in arm in their march to City Hall during the shirtwaist strike to demand an end to abuse by police . Other shirtwaist strikers follow behind carrying a union banner, Dec. 3, 1909)