The Chronicle Review

Myths or Facts in Feminist Scholarship?

An exchange between Nancy K.D. Lemon and Christina Hoff Sommers

August 10, 2009

Christina Hoff Sommers, in her essay "Persistent Myths in Feminist Scholarship" (The Chronicle Review, online edition, June 29), criticized Nancy K.D. Lemon, a lecturer in domestic-violence law at the University of California at Berkeley's School of Law, for publishing errors in the popular textbook she edits, Domestic Violence Law, and for not taking seriously her continuing criticisms of the book. "One reason that feminist scholarship contains hard-to-kill falsehoods is that reasonable, evidence-backed criticism is regarded as a personal attack," Sommers charged. Following is Lemon's response to those criticisms and Sommers's rebuttal. Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Nancy K.D. Lemon: Christina Hoff Sommers accused me of being a "scholarly merchant of hype" for material in my popular textbook, Domestic Violence Law. In fact, she is the one whose assertions are untrue and who is impervious to correction.

I have worked in the domestic-violence field as an attorney since 1981, and pioneered teaching domestic-violence law. When I started teaching this course in 1988 at the University of California at Berkeley's School of Law, it was the first such course anywhere. I created a reader, which was in such demand by other law teachers that I contacted a publisher, and the book Domestic Violence Law was first published in 1996. The third edition by Thomson/West has just come out, along with an updated teacher's manual.

Sommers first contacted me by e-mail on February 21, 2009, and told me she had been traveling around the United States criticizing me and my textbook. The timing of her e-mail message was fortuitous, as I was working on the final edits of the most recent edition. I double-checked the specific points she expressed concern about and read the sources she cited in her e-mail message. In my response to her, I stated that while I had found some minor inaccuracies in the piece about the origin of the "rule of thumb" and had corrected those, I had confirmed the sources of the other supposed inaccuracies she challenged.

In spite of my response, she wrote in The Chronicle Review that she is "open to correction," yet she ignored my response to her and continued to complain of the same purported inaccuracies.

In regard to the rule of thumb, for example, she asserted that Romulus of Rome, who is credited in my book with being involved with the first antidomestic-violence legislation, could not have done this as he was merely a legendary, fictional character, who along with his brother Remus was suckled by a wolf.

In fact, Plutarch and Livy each state that Romulus was the first king of Rome. He reigned from 753-717 BC, and created both the Roman Legions and the Roman Senate. He is also credited with adding large amounts of territory and people to the dominion of Rome, including the Sabine women. The modern scholar Andrea Carandini has written about the historic reign of Romulus, based in part on the 1988 discovery of the Murus Romuli on the north slope of the Palatine Hill in Rome.

R. Emerson Dobash and Russell P. Dobash, pioneers and well-respected leaders in the field of domestic-violence research, discuss Romulus in their 1979 book, Violence Against Wives. They state that the marriage laws passed in 753 BC, under Romulus of Rome, allowed men to beat their wives, and that this rule continued into England and the United States in the 1700s and 1800s. Dobash and Dobash refer to a "rod drawn through the wedding ring" in describing the size of the stick husbands were allowed to use for this purpose, the same guideline referred to as the rule of thumb.

Professor Henry Ansgar Kelly has also researched the history of the term "rule of thumb," along with the historic right of husbands to chastise their wives. In his article, "Rule of Thumb and the Folklaw of the Husband's Stick," in the September 1994 issue of the Journal of Legal Education, he cites Matthew Bacon, an 18th-century jurist, who published a legal treatise in the United States and England in 1736 containing the comment that husbands had a legal right to beat their wives. Similarly, Kelly cites Sir Francis Buller, an English judge, who said in 1778 that it was acceptable for husbands to beat their wives with a stick the size of their own thumb, though Kelly notes that others disagreed with Butler that this was permissible. Kelly also says that while canon law did not condone husbands beating their wives, the ordinary gloss to civil law did allow this. The history he reviews finds early jurists and legal treatises on both sides of condoning actual wife-beating. However, Kelly cites numerous early sources showing the right of husbands to "moderately chastise" their wives.

There are several 19th-century American cases in which judges referred to the rule of thumb, if not by name, then by reference to sticks or switches and their relationship to the sizes of the husbands' fingers or thumbs. These cases include Bradley v. State (Mississippi, 1824), State v. Rhodes (North Carolina, 1867), Fulgham v. State (Alabama, 1871), and State v. Oliver (North Carolina, 1874).

According to John K. Wilson in the fall 1994 issue of Democratic Culture, Elizabeth Cady Stanton also stated in her 1854 address to the New York legislature, "By the common law of England, the spirit of which has been but too faithfully incorporated into our statute law, a husband has a right to whip his wife with a rod not larger than his thumb, to shut her up in a room, and administer whatever moderate chastisement he may deem necessary to insure obedience to his wishes, and for her healthful moral development!" (quoting Stanton et al., History of Woman Suffrage, 1881).

Sommers has also stated that my textbook includes an article by Joan Zorza referencing a March of Dimes study on domestic violence that never took place. Sommers states that she contacted the director of science education for the March of Dimes, and he denied that there was any such study. Rather than asking me for a citation, she announced in her lectures that the study did not exist and that my book was full of made-up truths. Even when I told her I had seen a copy of the study as provided by Zorza, Sommers went on to make the same assertion in her piece in The Chronicle.

Apparently the March of Dimes employee was unaware of the research this agency financed. The study Zorza sent me, "Battering During Pregnancy: Intervention Strategies," by Anne Stewart Helton and Frances Gobble Snodgrass, appears in the September 1987 issue of the journal Birth. The article states at the bottom of the first page: "This work was supported by a March of Dimes grant for the prevention of battering during pregnancy." The study states that battered women had twice the number of miscarriages than did nonbattered women.

Zorza also sent me a scanned copy of "Domestic Violence, a Women's Health Issue," a 1994 report of the N.Y. State Senate Democratic Task Force on Women's Issues, chaired by Senator Suzi Oppenheimer. That report included a reference to the March of Dimes Protocol of Care for Battered Women, which noted that battered women are twice as likely to miscarry, four times as likely to have low-birth-weight babies, and 40 times as likely to have infants who die within the first year, compared with nonbattered women.

Sommers also challenged a statement by Zorza in my textbook regarding the high incidence of battered women in emergency rooms. Sommers says she received a message from a statistician at the Centers for Disease Control who stated that the incidence of females in emergency departments because of domestic violence was 0.01 percent in 2005 and 0.02 percent in 2003.

Apparently that statistician has not read the Centers for Disease Control Web site, which stated, when I checked it on July 15, 2009: "IPV," or intimate-partner violence, "is a major cause of violence-related injuries. Intimate partners were identified as the perpetrators in 36 percent of all emergency department visits by women who suffered from one or more violent injuries."

Similarly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice has reported that 37 percent of all women who sought care in hospital emergency rooms for violence-related injuries were injured by a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend (Michael R. Rand, "Violence-Related Injuries Treated in Hospital Emergency Departments," 1997).

We also find similarly high figures published in medical journals, hardly bastions of radical feminism. D.C. Berios and D. Grady, in their article "Domestic Violence: Risk Factors and Outcome," in the August 1991 issue of Western Journal of Medicine, found that among 218 women presenting in a metropolitan emergency department with injuries due to violence, 28 percent required hospital admission and 13 percent required major medical treatment.

Doctors Evan Stark and Anne Flitcraft, prominent researchers in this field, announced similar findings in their 1996 book Women at Risk: Domestic Violence and Women's Health: "The initial conclusion of our research was that more women sought medical treatment for injuries resulting from domestic violence than for any other cause." … Later "studies continued to document substantially the same or higher figures than we uncovered" (Sage Publications Page xvii).

The N.Y. State Senate report mentioned above cites the American Medical Association's "Diagnostic and Treatment Guidelines on Domestic Violence," which note that battered women account for 19 percent to 30 percent of injured women seen in emergency departments.

Similarly, the study cited above backed by the March of Dimes contains the following statement: "The magnitude of the problem is shown in a Yale University study in which 21 percent of the 2,676 women treated in the emergency department were battered." (See "Wife Abuse in the Medical Setting," by Stark and Flitcraft et al., in Domestic Violence Monograph Series No. 7, 1981.)

Sommers seems to have a history of making inaccurate assertions. Ironically, one of the articles she cited in her e-mail message to me in support of her assertions regarding the origin of the rule of thumb was the Kelly piece. In fact, rather than supporting Sommers, Kelly disagrees with her, stating: "The explanation she gives from a Women's Studies Network communication by a folklorist, Philip Hiscock, that [the term "rule of thumb"] comes from woodworking … is supported by no evidence."

Kelly is not the only researcher or scholar to find Sommers's scholarship in error. In Women at Risk, Stark and Flitcraft note that their research findings regarding the high numbers of battered women in emergency departments were challenged in 1994 by none other than Christina Hoff Sommers, even though she is a philosopher, not a medical researcher, and thus had no basis for disputing their findings.

Sommers seems to have made a career out of attacking other academics and researchers and disagreeing with their findings, citing the same assertions repeatedly over at least the last 15 years, even in the face of evidence contradicting her claims. It seems I have the honor of being her most recent target.

I have been teaching law students for 22 years and am the author of one of the leading textbooks on domestic violence. It is important for students to receive accurate information; good scholarship requires nothing less.

Christina Hoff Sommers: Essentially everything in Professor Lemon's response is wrong.

She confidently informs us that Romulus actually existed and ruled Rome from 753-717 BC. That is preposterous. She cites Livy and Plutarch as sources. These first-century writers did not claim to be offering historically accurate accounts of events that took place some 700 years before their time, but openly professed to be summarizing beliefs, myths, and legends that had come down through the ages. She also cites the contemporary Roman archaeologist Andrea Carandini—a maverick figure who discovered what he claims might have been a wall of a palace that could have belonged to Romulus. As the July/August 2007 issue of Archaeology politely notes, his suggestion "represents a sharp break with two millennia of scholarship."

Lemon's textbook teaches that King Romulus had a code of laws in which wife beating was "accepted and condoned." That claim goes beyond anything ever suggested by Livy, Plutarch, or Professor Carandini. Where are her sources for these real-world enactments of a magistrate whom nearly everyone regards as fictitious? She credits a 1979 book by Rebecca and Russell Dobash, assuring us that they are "well-respected leaders in the field of domestic-violence research." Which they may well be—but if they had evidence that Romulus existed and information about his code of laws, they would also be among the most renowned classical historians of our time, which they are not. Why has this honor eluded them? In their book on domestic violence, Dobash and Dobash write, "Men who assault their wives are actually living up to cultural prescriptions that are cherished in Western society." Perhaps it is their political pronouncements that have rendered Lemon blind to their scholarly limitations on matters historical.

According to Lemon's text, William Blackstone and other British common-law jurists promulgated the "rule of thumb" law that gave a husband the right to "beat his wife with a rod no thicker than his thumb." False. Scholars have searched for this precedent in English law but without success. Though a few 19th-century American southern judges allude to it, no one has ever been able to find the actual law—neither in Blackstone nor in any other source.

Lemon, in her response to my piece, cites the example of the 18th-century British judge Francis Buller, who allegedly deployed the rule of thumb in his courtroom. But UCLA scholar Henry Ansgar Kelly, who has written the decisive exposé of the rule-of-thumb ruse, points out that Buller did not refer to the law in any official ruling, but mentioned it in an off-the-record remark. Buller was then mercilessly pilloried in the London press and caricatured in cartoons as "Judge Thumb." One Buller biographer denies that the judge ever made any such remark, and no one can find any official record of his words or of any case adjudicated by Buller that could have given rise to his comment.

But no matter, a legal legend was born. In Lemon's hands, the phantom rule of thumb is presented as a fundamental precept in European and American jurisprudence. Lemon has read Kelly's exposé. That the faux law—complete with attributions to William Blackstone—is blandly included in the latest edition of her textbook borders on academic malfeasance.

Lemon stands by the claim in her book that "the March of Dimes found that women battered during pregnancy have more than twice the rate of miscarriages and give birth to more babies with more defects than women who may suffer from any immunizable illness or disease." When I read that passage to Richard P. Leavitt, director of science information at the March of Dimes, he said, "That is a total error. There is no such study." Now Lemon faults him for not being aware of a study carried out by his own organization. How could its director of science have been unaware of so important and dramatic a finding? Here is how:

The March of Dimes never did any such study, nor did it commission any such research. The source Lemon cites is a 1987 article in the nursing journal Birth by two authors who were awarded a grant by the March of Dimes to do a small study of battery during pregnancy and to summarize strategies for prevention. In their introductory remarks describing the scope of the problem, the authors refer to a 1981 monograph by Evan Stark, Anne Flitcraft, et al., titled Domestic Violence. It makes claims about the links between battery and miscarriages, and it was not connected with the March of Dimes in any way. When students are told in Lemon's book that "the March of Dimes found …," they are led to believe that this reputable organization carried out the major study with the advertised finding. They do not assume that the finding was by a third party, which was then referred to by someone who received a grant from the March of Dimes to do a small study on a different topic.

A few final words about Lemon's defense of the emergency-room factoid. According to her textbook, "Between 20 and 35 percent of women seeking medical care in emergency rooms in America are there because of domestic violence." The number of women who annually seek emergency-room care is approximately 40 million, so Lemon is saying that between 8 million and 14 million women are there because they suffered from beatings by intimates. That is not even remotely true. The Centers for Disease Control and Justice Department statistics she cites to demonstrate her book's accuracy are not about the 40 million women who visit emergency rooms, but rather about the approximately 550,000 women who come to emergency rooms "for violence-related injuries." Of that group, approximately 35 percent were attacked by intimates. Far less than 1 percent of the women seeking medical care in emergency rooms are there because of domestic violence.

Lemon has just published the third edition of her celebrated, error-ridden casebook. This time, as her response to my Review piece proudly proclaims, she was well aware of my criticisms and brushed them aside with disdain. Law students will now be treated to another round of Elvis sightings parading as scholarship. As I said in my article, my complaint with feminist research is not that authors make mistakes but that the mistakes are impervious to reasoned criticism. They do not get corrected, and the critic's motives are impugned. Nancy Lemon's response to my article illustrates the problem perfectly.