TW: Domestic Violence

On 14 August 2016, 29-year-old Alex Nicholson bundled his wife (her name is not given) into the boot of his car and drove out into the countryside, where he abandoned her. Mrs Nicholson had apparently stayed out all of the previous night, and on her return home had admitted to “wrongdoing” that the court did not admit into evidence. Nicholson received a suspended prison sentence and lost his driving licence for a year.


The Daily Mail article on the story received a number of comments, some of which were supportive of Mrs Nicholson and critical of what the commentators saw as too-lenient sentencing. A number criticised Mrs Nicholson and extended sympathy to her husband. The comment from Gae46 – at the bottom of the image above – particularly struck me, as it reminded me of a court case from many years ago: 620, in fact.

In 1396, Margery Nesfeld was seeking legal separation from her husband Thomas on the grounds of cruelty. A witness, Joan White, reported that:

she saw the said Thomas throw Margery, his wife to the ground with a club and beat her severely with the same and afterwards he drew his baslard and gravely wounded her in the arm and broke the bone of that arm, commonly called ‘le Spelbon’ and he would then have killed her that night if he had not been prevented by this witness, the said Margery, her fellow witness, and John Semer, then servant of the same Thomas.

Her account was corroborated by Margery Speight. John Semer then appeared in court as a witness for the defence, who said:

Margery left her home in the parish of Bishophill and went to a house, the which this witness does not remember, in the city of York without and contrary to the said Thomas, her husband’s mandate and precept, and stayed there from noon of that day until the darkness of night. When she returned to the house shared by the said Thomas and the said Margery his wife, Thomas asked why she had left her home against his will and precept. She replied that she wished to go where she would against the will of the same Thomas her husband, and then Thomas, seeing Margery’s rebellion, struck her with his fist in order to chastise her.

Margery was not granted the separation. Unfortunately we have no account of the judicial decision-making process, knowing only that the court rejected the petition. In 1396, a married man and householder was responsible for the moral as well as the physical health of his household. Women were not meant to go out wandering on their own, especially not after dark. The fifteenth-century poem Why I Can’t Be a Nun blames Dinah for her rape because ‘for sche bode not stylle, / But went owte to see thynges in veyne’.  In effect, to use a more modern term, Dinah was ‘asking for it’. The implication that harm, both physical and spiritual, will come to women who leave their proper sphere is found in Caxton’s The Knight of the Tower, a 1483 translation of the fourteenth-century Livre pour l’enseignement de ses filles du Chevalier de La Tour Landry. In one of the knight’s stories, a woman goes out at night to see her lover, and ‘she felle in to a pyte whiche was twenty fadom depe’. She is miraculously saved after praying and repenting. She seems to be guilty of both the sexual misconduct of having a lover and social misconduct: that is, leaving her home at night. It is easy to blur the line between these so that the act of leaving the appropriate feminine space of the house for the physically dangerous outside world becomes associated with falling into a ‘pyte’ of sexual misbehaviour. If a woman goes ‘as it were a gase / Fro house to house to seke the mase [diversion]’ (How the Goodwife Taught her Daughter), she will reap the consequences.  In the court’s eyes, as well as her local community’s, Thomas was undoubtedly seen as justified in punishing his wife for spending hours away from home. He was not entitled to punish her so severely that she broke her arm: yet despite the fact Margery had two witnesses, the court clearly preferred John Semer’s account of the night, where instead of beating his wife with a club he gave her a single blow with his fist.

In this case, Margery had two women as allies. It would not surprise me if her local community of women were not necessarily so supportive, though, just as I was unsurprised to see that many of the comments on the Mail article that sympathised with Alex Nicholson were written by women (or at least commentators using female names). This week there has been a lot of discussion about why the majority of white women who voted in the US presidential election voted for Donald Trump, when he has repeatedly demonstrated contempt for women’s agency as well as their bodies. As many writers have pointed out, a lot of it is to do with racism. White women historically have tended to side with white men over women of colour, and it is women of colour who are most threatened by a Republican presidency. But enmeshed in that white supremacy is also misogyny – a misogyny that many women have internalised.

White women who voted for Trump are more likely to be conservative, evangelical, over 45, and lacking a college degree. It’s not that the Democratic Party hasn’t served the needs of these women; it’s that patriarchal authority is an evangelical norm and a conservative value, and many women adhere to it, too. Women are vastly outnumbered in leadership roles in evangelical institutions. And women without college degrees, who voted for Trump in large numbers, are also more likely to be stay-at-home moms, dependent on a husband’s income.  The conservative evangelical vision of America, so mainstreamed into the Republican Party, sees white women as delicate, maternal, and dependent, not authoritative and powerful. Trump knows this, and he plays on this racialized gender anxiety…. Claiming black and brown men pose a threat to the safety and sexual purity of innocent white women is a very old trick, one used to justify slavery and segregation. To white men, Trump promises the restoration of diminishing supremacy over both women and people of color. To white women, he promises a return to a simpler time, when their race alone made them exceptional and worthy of special protection.

Jill Filopovic’s insightful article (my emphases, above) makes a very clear case that women who voted for Trump are used to deferring to male authority, and to see that not only as natural but also as desirable. The things that threaten their white male protectors thus are also seen to threaten them, and white patriarchy is very afraid of men of colour. Patriarchy cannot function as an operational system if it expects men to carry out all its work, however; it relies on multiple groups “punching down”. White women’s racism. One racial minority discriminating against another, even more marginalised minority. Sexism within minority groups. Ableism.

Surviving patriarchy is a hard task, and many women unsurprisingly make the (often unconscious) decision that it is better to be a collaborator than a victim. When someone is in direct danger of real harm, I certainly would not blame them for this. Mrs Nicholson has apparently sought reconciliation with her husband. We don’t know the full situation, of course: but I hope for her sake this is a genuine opportunity to rebuild a trusting, equal relationship, not a return to a site of domestic abuse because she sees no better options, as many women have sadly had to choose. I can, however, blame the women who were not threatened by Mr Nicholson, or even know him in real life, but who were instinctively drawn to defend him, assuming the worst about his wife. Throwing off the social conditioning of patriarchy is hard, painful work: but that is no excuse not to do it, even if rather than a fast discard it is a slow slough, inch by inch. As the political climate darkens, we owe it to our communities to be Margery Speights and Joan Whites. They may not have saved Margery Nesfeld from her marriage: but at least they tried, and let her know they saw her, that she was not alone.