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Rule of Thumb and Wife-Beating - Mostly a Myth

Another Myth of Women's History

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"Rule of thumb" is a rude reference to an old law permitting men to beat their wives with a stick no thicker than a thumb, right? Wrong! Well, except that it may still be rude to use a phrase that you know will upset people. It may also be rude to assume that people who use the phrase are being rude. (Isn't etiquette wonderful?)

According to many attempts to research this history, the phrase "rule of thumb" predates by a couple of centuries the first known reference that connects it to a supposed law or custom about wife-beating.

A reference to this connection is found in 1881, in a book by Harriet H. Robinson: Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement. She says there, "By the English common law, her husband was her lord and master. He had the custody of her person, and of her minor children. He could 'punish her with a stick no bigger than his thumb,' and she could not complain against him."

Most of her statement is undoubtedly true: married women had little recourse if a husband treated her or her children badly, including many acts of battery.

There was an 1868 case, State v. Rhodes, where a husband was found innocent because, the judge said, "the defendant had a right to whip his wife with a switch no larger than his thumb," and in another case in 1874, State v. Oliver, the judge cited the "old doctrine, that a husband had a right to whip his wife, provided he used a switch no longer than his thumb" but continued on that this was "not law in North Carolina. Indeed, the Courts have advanced from that barbarism...."

No one has yet found, though, any written reference to such a rule in English common law, and if you read Robinson's paragraph carefully, she only ascribes that "her husband was lord and master" to English common law. The rest can be read as examples. It sounds as though she's quoting something or somebody, but that reference hasn't been found. Perhaps it was just common knowledge of her time, and she assumed her readers would recognize it. Whether the rule about "a stick no bigger than his thumb" was a common saying of the time, or something she invented, we don't know, but it sounds like it probably was.

But these references don't connect the actual phrase, "rule of thumb," to the "old doctrine" that was appalling to most of those who cited it.

"Rule of thumb" as a phrase predates all such known references, in any case. The "rule of thumb" was used for measurements in many different fields, from brewing to money-changing to art.

Yet ... there can be no doubt that wife-beating was once common and, in most legal circles, acceptable if it didn't "go too far." The origin of "rule of thumb" may not be accurate, but the culture that it calls to mind was real. Debunking the myth of the origin of "rule of thumb" may be fun, but that doesn't make domestic violence, past and present, mythical. Nor is it a myth that culture has tolerated such violence. Domestic violence was, and is, very real. That women had little recourse was very real. Debunking the myth of the origin of "rule of thumb" cannot be used to debunk the reality of domestic violence or the role that cultural acceptance plays in keeping domestic violence a reality in too many lives.

In her debunking of the connection of wife-beating to the phrase "rule of thumb," writer Rosalie Maggio suggests that people avoid the phrase anyway. Whether it was originally intended to refer to wife-beating, it has become associated with wife-beating over more than a century, and is undoubtedly likely to distract many a reader from your main point if you use the phrase. Certainly if the phrase is used in the context of feminism, women's lives or domestic violence, it would be in poor taste to use it. If it's used in other fields -- especially the context of art, or brewing, or money-changing where it was used long before the association with wife-beating was made? Perhaps there are better ways to work against violence than pursuing a false etymology.

In the words of another author (Jennifer Freyd at the University of Oregon), "We caution readers to use restraint in judging others harshly for either their use of the phrase 'rule of thumb' or for their pain in hearing the phrase used and believing it refers to domestic violence."

References: see web sites listed on this page under "Elsewhere on the Web." Also:

  • Kelly, Henry Ansgar. "Rule of Thumb and the Folklaw of the Husband's Stick." Journal of Legal Education. September 1994.
  • Maggio, Rosalie. Talking About People: A Guide to Fair and Accurate Language. 1997.

More About Myths of Women's History:

© Jone Johnson Lewis .

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