Still flogging the idea that you can give a good beating?

June 30, 2006

Our monthly guide to some of the conferences taking place around the world

In the past 200 years not everyone's attitude to domestic violence has evolved, discovers Harriet Swain

What are your views on smacking? On what should happen to husbands who beat their wives? On who should look after old people? On how to treat the babysitter?

These questions will be discussed at The Politics of Domestic Authority in Britain, a conference hosted by Cambridge University next month. The speakers are mostly historians and their papers focus on the period between 1800 and 2000.

Clearly, these issues are as relevant today as they were 200 years ago, something the conference organisers are well aware of. In fact, contemporary relevance will be an explicit part of the two-day event. The intention is to produce a publication for History and Policy , a web-based journal that aims to provide a historical perspective for policymakers and thinkers.

"The hook for the conference is my sense that the Government is very interested at the moment in renegotiating the boundaries of domestic space and coming up with new ways of intervening in domestic relationships, or authorising different kinds of people to intervene," says Lucy Delap, a research fellow at King's College, Cambridge, and the conference organiser.

But she adds that the Government seems to have an ambivalent approach to some of the groups involved, such as parents. On the one hand it wants more intervention by schools and other agencies, but on the other hand it emphasises parents' rights.

The conference will concentrate on three themes: marriage and the relationship between husbands and wives; relationships between the generations; and the relationship between those working in the domestic environment, such as cleaners and childcarers, and their employers.

"One of the things we are trying to do is make working in the home more of a headline debate," Delap says. While domestic service was much debated in the 1960s, it seems to have slipped from the political agenda. "We need to raise the servant question again," she says.

It will be a small event - about 60 people - but the aim is to encourage human geographers, anthropologists, historians and sociologists to talk across their disciplines about the meaning of domestic space and the power relations within it.

Papers range from Leonore Davidoff's discussion of the role of siblings, aunts and uncles in domestic life to Rob Boddice's on 19th-century boarding schools; from Hera Cook's take on highly sexually active men and male lechers to Valerie Sanders's look at godfathering.

One of the major themes is violence. Deborah Thom, who is working on a book on corporal punishment, will look at how such punishment began to be seen as unacceptable and whether this shift happened, as is thought, in the 1960s. She argues that attitudes had begun to change much earlier, as progressive magistrates began to suggest that floggings were ineffective and as parents became more prepared to look outside tradition and listen to experts. But she also shows the strength of resistance to the idea that beating children doesn't work - resistance that persists to the present day.

In 1936, a commission of inquiry recommended that flogging young men who had committed crimes should stop, but that change did not occur until the late 1940s. Similarly, flogging at school continued into the late 1960s, in spite of evidence that, taking all other factors into account, schools that used corporal punishment had worse discipline than those that did not.

She suggests that it could be to do with the idea that children's bodies are malleable, that if you control them you can control a child's soul.

But, she says, "I still don't have an answer to why people go on believing in it. There is something very deep-seated about the enthusiasm for corporal punishment."

Nevertheless, the idea that beating children - or indeed wives - is wrong seems self-evident to most of us in the 21st century. But beware of making assumptions, warns Ben Griffin, lecturer and director of studies in history at Girton College, Cambridge. He says that in the past 100 years there has been a complete shift in thinking about child custody, for example. In the middle of the 19th century, married women had no right of custody over their children. It was considered common sense that custody should go to the husband. Similarly, it was assumed that husbands had complete rights of ownership over their wives' bodies. Marital rape became illegal in this country only in 1994.

"We need to be aware of the ebb and flow of these things," Griffin says.

"There have been dramatic changes in the ways issues have been conceptualised in the past 200 years. We need to be aware that what appears common sense to us is actually recent historical formation."

He says this is something that historians need to point out to anyone wrestling with questions of domestic authority, be they family politicians or real ones.

The Politics of Domestic Authority in Britain takes place at King's College, Cambridge, July 26-.

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