Date of Award

Fall 1980

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


The relationship between status of women and wife-beating has been the subject of some debate. It has been argued that sexual inequality is one of the central causes of wife abuse (Dobash and Dobash, 1980; Martin, 1976). On the other hand, some claim that the charges being brought about by the Women's Movement are resulting in an increase in wife-beating. Researchers in the field of family violence have speculated on the connection between the two phenomena (Whitehurst, 1974; Straus, 1976; Dobash and Dobash, 1977). To date, the relationship between the status of women on the societal level and wife-beating has not been investigated empirically.

This study, which addresses this issue, is composed of three major parts. The first is a systems theoretical analysis of the status of women based on a "meta-power" model and historical and cross-cultural evidence. This analysis provides a foundation for the general understanding of sexual stratification and women's current status.

The second part of the study deals specifically with the concept of the status of women, the development of an index of women's status, and the ranking of U.S. states according to that index. The status of women is defined as the position of women as a group relative to the position of men as a group in the different spheres of society (Hommes, 1978). The Status of Women Index is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, statistical almanacs, and national surveys. It is composed of economic, educational, political, and legal items, such as the ratio of male to female income for full-time workers. The index allows for a comparison of American states on individual items, the four dimensions just mentioned, and on the overall index. Two important functions are served by the Status of Women Index. First, it is a valuable social indicator and can be used to describe and monitor the changing status of women in the U.S. Second, it provides an empirical measure for a concept of theoretical importance for feminist social science research.

The third part of the study builds upon the theoretical examination of the status of women elaborated in the first part, and utilizes the empirical measurement of that status, which was the focus of the second part. Specifically, the impact of the status of women in American states on the levels of wife-beating in those states is taken into consideration. The additional data for this portion of the research come from the Violence in American Families Survey, in which a nationally representative sample of 2143 husbands and wives were interviewed regarding their family life in general and domestic violence in particular.

The major finding of the research is that there is evidence of a curvilinear relationship between the status of women and violence against wives. Wives are most likely to be physically assaulted by their husbands in those states where the status of women is lowest. Violence then decreases as women's status increases--to a point. In those states where the status of women is highest, the level of violence against wives is also quite high. It was suggested that the high level of violence in low status states might be due to the need to use greater amounts of physical force to keep women "in their place". In addition, the more limited options to violent marriages in these states may serve to keep battered women in their marriages. The high level of violence in high status states, in contrast, is likely to be the result of other factors. Where the general status of women is high, husbands may feel threatened by the rapid social change and the break-down of traditional husband-wife roles. Increased domestic conflict and violence may be a short-term consequence of women's move toward equality.