Homefront hostilities: the first world war and domestic violence in Victoria
School of Historical and Philosophical Studies
Document TypePhD thesis
CitationsNelson, E. (2004). Homefront hostilities: the first world war and domestic violence in Victoria. PhD thesis, History Department, The University of Melbourne.
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© 2004 Dr. Elizabeth Nelson
This thesis examines the influence of the First World War on domestic violence in Victoria, Australia. A reading of court cases, newspaper reports, official records and oral testimonies reveals a connection between the war and individuals' violent behaviour within marriage, apparent during the war and in the decade following the cessation of hostilities. This connection explains what appears to be an increased incidence of domestic violence in the immediate aftermath of the war. A link between veterans' war trauma and domestic violence - frequently assumed in the historiography - existed, but this was just one aspect of the war's impact on domestic violence and did not account for all cases of returned-soldier wife abuse. The war contributed to both veterans' and civilian men's wife abuse by idealising male aggression and by provoking a range of experiences that personally disempowered men. Against the masculine ideal of the fearless Anzac, many men's self-esteem diminished. Failure to enlist, failure to fight, and failure to cope with horrifying memories of battle were some of the ways in which men fell short of their own and society's expectations of manliness. Male insecurity was further exacerbated by women's increased self-assertions. The war afforded many women greater social and economic autonomy, a situation which made wives' separation from violent husbands more viable. The war was influential, too, in shaping social responses to domestic violence. The new masculine hierarchy of wartime affected judicial determination of who was, and who was not, accountable for acts of violence. Official leniency towards returned-soldier perpetrators was noticeable both during and after the war, and in the post-war years such leniency also extended to civilian defendants. While the outbreak of war sparked renewed enthusiasm for male chivalry towards women, this ideal disappeared rapidly after 1918. ln a context of male antagonism towards women's apparent advancement, a new male ambivalence towards wife abuse emerged within the public realm. The notion of men as victims, rather than as brutal tyrants, informed much official reaction to actual cases of domestic violence. Greater official indifference to men's violence against their wives after the First World War was the result not only of men's fears of female encroachment on male privilege, but of a changing interpretation of the causes of domestic violence. The widespread phenomenon of shell shock in soldiers served to further the currency of psychological theories of human behaviour. In the post-war decade, the stereotype of the disturbed violent veteran both emerged from, and influenced, the proceedings of cases of domestic violence in Victorian courts. The idea that returned-soldier violence was a product of battle nerves weighed on cases of wife abuse, regardless of whether the facts of individual cases evinced such a connection. The violence of civilian men also increasingly came to be understood in a psychological framework during the 1920s. As the community's awareness of psychological factors burgeoned, the belief that domestic violence was an outcome of extraordinary stresses on ordinary men's minds began to prevail in the public sphere. Such an understanding helped to dismantle the dominant pre-war stereotype of the working-class 'wife-beater'.
Keywordsfamily violence; Victoria; women; war; families; World War; 1914-1918
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