'The Burning Bed,' 30 Years Later -- And Ray Rice, Now

On the evening of October 8, 1984, over one-third of all American television sets were turned to NBC for the premiere of The Burning Bed, starring Farrah Fawcett and Paul LeMat. Based on the true story of Francine Hughes, it brought the brutal reality of domestic violence out of the shadows and into our living rooms. We sat mesmerized as Mickey Hughes' need for control over his wife grew ever greater as he seemed to lose control over the rest of his life. Slaps became punches. Pushes became throws across a room, followed by violent beatings.

That was not normal television fare in those days. Violence against women had never accurately been shown, only suggested. It was called "domestic violence" because it existed in the home, behind closed doors, seen only by the aggressor, the victim, and any children. The Burning Bed (which was directed by Robert Greenwald, who currently runs Brave New Films) exposed a dark secret, and it was not pretty.

Before Francine Hughes doused her sleeping husband's bed in gasoline and lit it up, she tried to get help. She turned to her mother and was told, "If you make a hard bed you have to lie in it." She appealed to the police, only to learn that they had to witness the attack in order to arrest her husband, regardless of her bloody and bruised appearance. Social welfare agencies were of no help to a woman with three hungry children, unless she divorced her husband. But divorce was not enough to keep Mickey away. When she complained to the welfare agents of his return and continuing violence, she was told that she could be prosecuted for welfare fraud.

There was no safe place for her to run to. Nor had she a car in which to flee. There were only a handful of shelters in the entire country, none in her small town outside of Lansing, Michigan. There were no systems in place to help women in abusive relationships.

And while it may have all been new to this young wife and mother, beating up on women has a long history, as you will see beneath the fold.


From the History of Battered Women's Movement:

753 B.C.E. During the reign of Romulus in Rome, wife beating is accepted and condoned under The Laws of Chastisement. Under these laws, the husband has absolute rights to physically discipline his wife. Since by law, a husband is held liable for crimes committed by his wife, this law was designed to protect the husband from harm caused by the wife’s actions. These laws permit the husband to beat his wife with a rod or switch as long as its circumference is no greater than the girth of the base of the man’s right thumb, [...]. The tradition of these laws is perpetuated in English Common Law and throughout most of Europe.

Two thousand years later, in 1427, "Bernard of Siena suggests that his male parishioners 'exercise a little restraint and treat their wives with as much mercy as they would their hens and pigs.'"

The patriarchal society that developed in the West adopted much of its justification, unsurprisingly, from holy scriptures that had been written by men. Not only was it carried into the New World on the ships of the Puritans, where it flourished, it was unhesitatingly used to "civilize" other cultures:

The Treaty of 1868 is negotiated between General Sherman and the Navajos. General Sherman insists that the Navajos select male leaders, thereby stripping women of their ability to participate in decision making. The alien law destroys traditional relationships and concentrates power in the hands of male leaders. "Anglo" paternalism and patriarchy are introduced to Navajo men who learn several "traditions" including robbing women of economic and political power, and wife-beating.

It wasn't until 1882 that Maryland became the first state to outlaw wife-beating, only 13 years after the first animal anti-cruelty law was passed. Slowly other states started to restrict a husband's right to beat the crap out of his wife. By 1965, Congress had passed laws granting women protection from discrimination in the work place, but women still could not get credit cards, car loans, or mortgages without a husband or father to co-sign the papers. That privilege, which freed her from financial dependence, would not come for another 10 years.

Feminists led the fight for greater protection and assistance for battered women during the '70s and '80s. Public awareness was heightened by movies like The Burning Bed and The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker's multiple award-winning novel of a woman of color, and her lifelong battle against the physical and emotional violence of male oppression.

The pressure for change built during the '80s and early '90s and finally reached Washington, DC, where Joe Biden in the Senate, and Barbara Boxer in the House of Representatives, sponsored the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The bill, written by Biden's office with input from multiple grassroots and advocacy organizations, was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994, 20 years ago yesterday.

Next to the Nineteenth Amendment, VAWA may be the most significant piece of legislation ever passed as far as women's rights are concerned. It does no good to have equal opportunity in the workplace if you cannot be safe in your own home.

You cannot have a conversation about human rights and human dignity without talking about the right of every woman on this planet to be free from violence and free from fear.”

Vice President Joseph Biden, April 2, 2013

Among the objectives of the new law was to increase pubic awareness of domestic violence and to change attitudes about it, as well as to provide resources to the victims of such violence, and to improve the response of the criminal justice system to domestic violence.

Grants were distributed under VAWA by Department of Health and Human Services through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and by the Department of Justice, which established the Office on Violence against Women (OVW) in 1995. These grants have proved critical in addressing violence against women:

VAWA created a number of grant programs for a range of activities, including programs aimed at (1) preventing domestic violence and related crimes; (2) encouraging collaboration among law enforcement, judicial personnel, and public/private sector providers with respect to services for victims of domestic violence and related crimes; (3) investigating and prosecuting domestic violence and related crimes; and (4) addressing the needs of individuals in a special population group (e.g., elderly, disabled, children and youth, individuals of ethnic and racial communities, and nonimmigrant women).

Over the years of its existence, VAWA's mandate has broadened to include not just rape and domestic violence, but also stalking and dating violence. In 2013, protection was extended to the LGBT community and greater jurisdiction was granted to the Native American Tribal Courts. While the OVW has focused on the the criminal nature of the included offenses, the CDC has approached intimate partner violence (IPV) as a public health issue.

The CDC includes in its definition of IPV four types of abuse: physical violence, sexual violence, threats of physical or sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. The CDC collects data to determine the scope of the problem, analyze the precipitating factors, and test proposed solutions, which if successful, are broadly implemented.

The costs (time lost from work and medical) associated with IPV in 1995, were estimated at $5.8 billion or more than $9 billion in 2014 dollars.


The 2010, the CDC released its latest National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (pdf), which showed that one in three women and one in four men have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. One in four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner.

And while the name of the act is Violence Against Women and the focus appears to be on women, the actual wording of the provisions of the act has always been gender neutral, recognizing that men can also be victims of domestic violence. The 2005 renewal of the law codified that with these words:

(8) NONEXCLUSIVITY- Nothing in this title shall be construed to prohibit male victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking from receiving benefits and services under this title.

The CDC has developed a framework for prevention based on a social-ecological model, illustrated below.

The ultimate goal is to stop violence before it begins. Prevention requires understanding the factors that influence violence. CDC uses a four-level social-ecological model to better understand violence and the effect of potential prevention strategies (Dahlberg & Krug 2002). This model considers the complex interplay between individual, relationship, community, and societal factors. 

An example of a program specifically addressing the individual, relationship and community factors is Dating Matters®:

Dating Matters® is a comprehensive teen dating violence prevention initiative based on the current evidence about what works in prevention. The initiative focuses on 11- to 14-year-olds in high-risk, urban communities. It includes preventive strategies for individuals, peers, families, schools, and neighborhoods.

Fortunately, one of those programs is being implemented in Baltimore—home of the Baltimore Ravens football team, which until last week employed Ray Rice as a running back.

After 30 years, one would think that some things would change. And one would be right. For all of the work and money devoted to eliminating violence against women, we may never be completely rid of it, any more than we can rid ourselves of murder.

But the case of Ray Rice does illustrate some of the big changes that have happened over the last 30 years.

The NFL, according to news reports, knew about the violence and tried to hide it. Thirty years ago it would not have needed hiding. It never would have been reported by the media, and if word had ever leaked out it would have been in the form of jokes on late night television. They tried to hide it. We have succeeded in making it clear that domestic violence is wrong and that it is not a joking matter, regardless of the clowns on Fox morning shows (why are there so very many idiots on morning television?).

Once the video was released, Ray Rice was fired and suspended indefinitely from the NFL. Thirty years ago? Never. Would. Have. Happened. It would have been considered a private family matter and of no concern to Rice's employer.

Social media lit up Twitter with #whydidn'tsheleave and #whyIleft, spreading the word about IPV and its impact on all of us. Thirty years ago, Al Gore hadn't even invented the internet.

And finally, 30 years ago you would not have had a sports broadcaster go on the air and castigate those who would demean women on national television. Keith Olbermann, in his July 25 editorial, drew the straight line between the second-class status of women in sports and the physical violence of Ray Rice. Because that outermost oval up there in the social-ecological model, the one that is labeled Societal? That oval represents the social norms of the culture in which violence occurs. In a society in which women are less than, where their value is not as great as men's, they are more like to suffer physical violence.


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