Yesterday, the country was rattled as we saw reports flash across the screens of a shooting in a school in San Bernardino. Many minds immediately turned to other school shootings, and to the 2015 shooting attack at a Christmas party in the same town. Then reports started to emerge that the intended victim was a teacher who had been shot by her estranged husband in a murder-suicide.
And then the tone changed, and the conversation changed. An eight year old boy was killed and another child injured as well, but attention had already turned. A parent of a child in the school summed it up this way:
Muschell said she isn’t worried about sending her child back to the school, explaining her two older children also attended North Park Elementary.
“Yes it is a tragic event but I believe it is an isolated incident,” she said. “The intentions were more for the teacher. Yes, children were involved and it’s sad. I don’t agree with what transpired but the school is very safe.”
School shootings often lead to discussions of gun safety and regulation. There’s often a lot of jockeying about whether mental illness is an appropriate context. People talk about school security, as they have in this case. But whatever the outcome of the conversations, there’s little question that they should be put into broader, longer contexts.
Why was this incident so easy for many, especially the media, to write off as an isolated incident? Instead of being an issue of public concern, it was dismissed as isolated, as a private matter between two people.
But calling intimate partner violence a private issue has a long history in the U.S. Calling it private has long been part of justifying its continuation.
As Ruth Bloch argues, under the English system in North America, violence towards one’s spouse constituted a breach of the King’s peace. It was inherently a public crime, and therefore punishable as such. She argues that emerging ideas of privacy in the early years of the United States, ideas that were part and parcel of American democracy, reframed violence in the home as a private matter. Now, we associate the right to privacy with issues like birth control and abortion, but we must remember it also justified a man’s right to control what went on in his home.*
More broadly, it’s important to keep in mind that the British and subsequent American legal and social system did not recognize any unrestricted right to women’s property ownership or ownership of one’s own wages or body, particularly for married women.
The system of coverture, in which women were legally covered by their husbands, is still visible to us today in the tradition of women changing their last names. New York first passed a law to guarantee married women’s right to property in 1848, and other states followed, but before these guarantees, the only way to protect a married woman’s property from her husband was to put it in trust, i.e., to give control over it to another man. Women fought deep into the 20th century to win the rights to open bank accounts without the consent of their fathers or husbands, to get mortgages as single women, and to get passports as married women who hadn’t changed their last names.
Coverture was about more than a woman’s material wealth, however. Her husband didn’t just cover her legally, he was to be the shield, the intermediary, and the wall between her and the world, whether she liked it or not. What happened behind that wall was the business of the head of state of the household – the patriarch.
As such, women’s bodies were not their own. They had no right to refuse their spouse’s sexual overtures, because their wedding vows were understood to have given their perpetual consent. Marital rape, like spousal abuse, was not a crime – it could not be, in this framework – but rather a private matter. This exemption was written into law, and was only removed from state statues across the last quarter of the 20th century.
The bodies of black women held in chattel slavery were legally property in a deeper way, their bodies even less their own than those of free women. The children they bore, whether in consensual relationships or as a result of rape, did not belong to them either. The legal code was rewritten to end chattel slavery, but black women’s bodies continued to be inscribed as “public property,” denying them the few protections women received from this framework of privacy.
All of this is to say that framing what happened yesterday as an “isolated incident” isn’t just callous. Historically, framing violence among couples as a private matter is part of enabling its continuation, especially for married couples. Putting what happened yesterday in context requires us to think about why it should be put into context and why so many resist its contextualization.
Many of us can quote the late 1960s women’s liberation slogan “The personal is political,” but another variation also circulated that makes the point more clearly: “The private is political.” Looking at the news, it’s clear that the message hasn’t sunk in. Even when the violence was horrifically public – a woman shot in front of her students by the man she was in the process of leaving – it was all too easy to say “Well, it’s awful, but it’s a private matter.”
* Bloch, Ruth H. “The American Revolution, wife beating, and the emergent value of privacy.” Early American Studies (2007): 223-251.