Review: The Battered Woman

by Lenore E. Walker
(New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1979)
reviewed by Robert Sheaffer
January 1, 1996

Few books of modern times have had as great an impact in law, in popular culture and in understanding, as has this one. We have all heard of the "Battered Woman Syndrome," which originated with this book. Later feminist writings on the subject credit Prof. Walker for establishing the contemporary feminist theory and jurisprudence on "Domestic Violence," which they invariably depict as violence by a man against a woman. Every woman who has obtained mitigation in punishment for an act of violence against her mate by pleading the "battered woman syndrome" is a direct beneficiary of Dr. Walker's feminist advocacy and research.

Unfortunately, no one seems to have ever performed any critical analysis of this work, at least in public. Seldom in modern times has any work had such great impact, yet received so little scrutiny. This is (or should be) astonishing, although it is not difficult to discern the reason why. Given the pressure to conform to "political correctness" at most colleges and universities, any serious objection raised to such a cornerstone of feminist research would unquestionably be career-limiting, if not grounds for actual dismissal. Neither in psychology, nor in law, has any significant questioning of Walker's research occurred. It is doubly difficult to question a work on this subject without seeming to be "unconcerned about violence" or "hostile to women," even if the work is found to contain major errors and misrepresentations. Despite all protestations to the contrary such accusations will inevitably be made. Nonetheless, given the political significance of the issue, and the degree of emotion and animosity being generated by the debate, a critical examination of The Battered Woman is long overdue.

Where did Prof. Walker obtain the sample of women she uses for her study of "battered women"? Did she perform some careful selection to obtain a representative sample? Indeed not. She simply interviewed those women who contacted her in the course of her giving speeches, radio and TV interviews, and appearing in news stories, on the subject of her research into "battered women." She is aware that this represents a problem: "This is a self-volunteered sample. These women were not randomly selected, and they cannot be considered a legitimate data base from which to make specific generalizations" [introduction, p. xiii]. Having noted this purely for the record, she then proceeds to utterly disregard her own caveat, and develops a long list of generalizations derived from this so-called "research." She presents us with a list of "myths" about "battered women," all of them drawn from the self-volunteered sample above. Some of the supposed "myths" will be discussed in detail below. Now, they may indeed be "myths," or they may on the other hand be true - but the point is one cannot conclude one way or the other, working only from a self-volunteered sample. And it is on this exceptionally shaky foundation that the entire feminist edifice of "Domestic Violence" advocacy is based, Walker's list of supposed "myths" and other claimed "findings" having taken on the status of unquestioned truth.

Prof. Walker makes mention five times of the largest-scale study of domestic violence yet undertaken, the National Institute of Mental Health-financed survey of Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz, later published as a book [Straus et. al., 1980]. She cites Straus et. al. approvingly as "the first epidemiological study of battered women undertaken in this country" (p. 20). This is a serious misrepresentation: it was a detailed study of "violence in the American family", not of "battered women". She uses findings from this study when it suits her purpose. However, nowhere does Prof. Walker see fit to tell her readers what the final conclusion of that study is: that women initiate violence in intimate relationships at least as often as men do [Straus et. al. 1980, pp. 36-40]. In fact, the study found that "The number of wives who threw things at their husbands is almost twice as large as the number of husbands who threw things at their wives. The rate for kicking and hitting with an object is also higher for wives than for husbands." Overall, however, the researchers found that "there is little difference between the husbands and wives in this study."

So the conclusions reached by the study that Prof. Walker mischaracterizes as "the first epidemiological study of battered women" are dramatically different from what she wants us to believe. Scholars do not consider it ethical when citing authorities to selectively refer only to those portions of a work that confirm your position, while concealing from your readers the fact that the authority you are citing reaches a conclusion in substantial disagreement with yours. The accepted scholarly practice would be for Prof. Walker, having invoked the authority of Straus et. al. to bolster certain of her arguments, to note that those authors have reached a conclusion substantially different from hers, and then to explain why she believes her conclusion is correct and theirs is not.

It is not difficult to see why she failed to do this: she has no credible statistical data whatsoever. Indeed, you will not find the title or complete description of Straus et. al. anywhere within Walker's book, nor that of any other paper or book mentioned in the text. The lack of footnotes, a bibliography, or indeed any scholarly references make it difficult, if not impossible, for Walker's readers to ascertain the accuracy of her use of her sources, or to learn more about the subject from independent sources. An optimist might conclude that such unscholarly omissions were unintentional.

Prof. Walker, of course, will not deal with any complicating factors such as women battering men: in her book the "battered" are always women, and "batterers" are always men. In fact, she states explicitly: "I am aware that this book is written from a feminist vision. It is a picture of what happens in a domestic violent act from the perspective of only one of the two parties. The men do not have equal rebuttal time" [introduction, p. xvii]. As such, this work is explicitly unsuited to be used as a guide for the formulation of law, which must be impartial to all parties, and must give equal consideration to the rights and interests of each. Indeed, Prof. Walker's own admission cited above provides more than ample justification for the courts to strike down all "battered woman" statutes, not merely because they represent "junk science" in the courtroom resting on invalid data, but because they are explicitly biased, a violation of the "equal protection" clause.

To be sure, the women here interviewed tell harrowing tales of physical and psychological abuse. But nowhere does Prof. Walker address the question of whether or not the accounts as presented are objectively true. They represent, as she has noted, the woman's side of a possibly violent altercation. We do not know whether these events actually occurred as described, nor do we know what the man would have said were he given the opportunity to tell his story. Perhaps he would say that the woman was exaggerating or even inventing the incidents, or perhaps he would say that the woman initiated the violence. But verification of abuse has never been a concern of Prof. Walker. Indeed, she employs a very simple criterion: "Early on I decided that a woman's story was to be accepted if she felt she was being psychologically and/or physically battered by her man ... Battered women themselves are the best judges of whether or not they are being battered. I soon learned that if a woman has reason to suspect she is battered, she probably is" [introduction, p. xiv].

This raises an immediate problem in terms of methodology, as serious scholars do not accept the results of studies based upon self-reported effects or results, in the absence of independent corroboration. If people tell a medical researcher that taking laetrile cured their cancer, the research is worthless unless it is established with reasonable certainty that they did indeed once have cancer, and that it has in fact been cured. Imagine the reviewers' comments on a doctor's paper which stated "I decided that my patients were the best judges of whether or not they had been healed of cancer, so if they felt they had been healed by laetrile, I accepted their account." Yet this is exactly the methodology that Prof. Walker expects us to accept. (What is remarkable is that until now she has not been disappointed, a truly astonishing avoidance of critical thinking by scholars and jurists alike). This problem of non-verification compounds Walker's first problem of the self-selected sample, taking a sample that starts off being unreliable, then by accepting anecdotal accounts raising it to the quantity unreliability squared. This latter problem would, once again, taken by itself, completely suffice to exclude Prof. Walker's study from serious scholarly consideration.

One should not assume that "battering" is necessarily a violent physical act. In fact, Walker admits to constructing "an expanded definition of battering behavior as both physical and psychological" [introduction, p. xv]. She explains that "Most of the women in this project describe incidents involving psychological humiliation and verbal harassment as their worst battering experiences, whether or not they had been physically abused." While it is surely to be conceded that psychological abuse can indeed be harrowing, it is vastly more subjective than physical abuse, and its presence can be much more a matter of dispute. It is also absurd to depict this as something that men exclusively do to women. Surely almost all of us can claim to have been "psychologically battered" by a partner at one time or another. It is also well-known everywhere, except perhaps in feminist circles, that throughout recorded history men have frequently complained of being "henpecked", "nagged", "berated," "scolded," "criticized," "carped," "castrated," or "caviled" by their wives (to use but a few terms in widespread use).

There would thus seem to be at least as much evidence of "psychological battering" of men by their wives, as of the reverse. Yet Walker, steeped in her feminist advocacy, seems not to even realize that by expanding the definition of "battering" so dramatically she has opened the door to many questions that could ultimately undermine her position. If one depicts "verbal harassment" as "battering" in this age of feminism, then it would seem to follow that when a woman preaches feminist doctrine to her husband, she is "battering" him. But Prof. Walker is never troubled by complications: for her, men batter, and women are battered - it is as simple as that.

Another novel form of "battering" Prof. Walker discovers is "working late." She describes the case of a woman who admits physically attacking her husband: "there is no doubt that she began to assault Paul physically, before he assaulted her. However, it is also clear from the rest of her story that Paul had been battering her by ignoring her and by working late, in order to move up the corporate ladder, for the entire five years of their marriage" [p.98]. Using this logic, she transforms a violent woman who admittedly hit her husband in the head with a glass when he came home late from work, then rammed a chair into his leg, to become a victim of his "battering." Surely this represents an example of logic stood on its head. If this type of argument is accepted, then a man who physically abuses his wife could defend his actions on the grounds that she was "ignoring him and working late", and failed to make him his dinner.

Like many feminists, Walker seems not to be trying to improve marriage, but rather to destroy it. The principal fault she finds with the psychiatric treatment of battered women thus far is that "Psychotherapy has generally emphasized the value of keeping families intact whenever possible. In working with battered women, however, psychotherapists must encourage breaking the family apart" (p.230). Remember, of course, that she has expanded the definition of "battering" so dramatically as to include virtually every woman as "battered". After visiting one of the early shelters for battered women, she writes "I was struck by what a beneficial alternative to the nuclear family this arrangement [communal housing and child raising] was for these women and children" (p.195). Reading Walker's constant put- downs against the family, one is struck with the impression that her advocacy of the use of shelters as a tool for breaking up families is not accidental. Marriage seems to be the target, and the accusation of "battering" her tool of choice for dismantling it.

Prof. Walker promulgates the old, shopworn rule of thumb hoax, here stated as the supposedly "century-old right of a husband to beat his wife with a stick "no thicker than his thumb"" [p. 12]. Exactly where in the law this alleged "right" is supposed to exist, she does not tell us, nor are we told the source of the quote she gives us. This supposed 'rule of thumb law,' while cited widely in the feminist literature, is nonetheless entirely bogus. For years, feminists have been cribbing from each others' writings concerning this supposed wife-beating "law," nobody apparently bothering to check whether or not the claim has any foundation in reality. [For a detailed refutation of the "rule of thumb" hoax, see Sommers 1994, p. 203- 7.] Remarkably, Walker further informs us that "In some states, the "stick rule" remained on the books until quite recently" [p. 12], which raises an extremely interesting question: given that there never were any "stick rules" in the first place, where did Prof. Walker get the factoid that some states had only recently repealed them? This claim has the appearance of having been simply made up. Given the central role Prof. Walker later played in promulgating the now-infamous "Superbowl battering" hoax [Sommers, 1994, p. 189], unsupported statements in her writings must be viewed with extreme suspicion.

It is quite apparent that one of Walker's principal objectives in writing this book was to overthrow the psychological theory of "feminine masochism" as an explanation for why women remain in violent relationships. The theory of "feminine masochism" has a long history in psychology, being discussed in the writings of Freud, Karen Horney, H. Deutsch, S. Rado, and many others [Horney, 1935]. The problem is, however, that Prof. Walker does not argue against or refute that theory, but merely proclaims it to have been disproven. This is her "Myth No. 2: Battered Women are Masochistic" (p.20). Unfortunately, nowhere in her proclamation of its myth-dom does she cite any evidence establishing its falsehood. She simply replaces the previously accepted explanation with her own explanation that women are victims of "learned helplessness," a theory that would seem to run entirely counter to the general thrust of feminist claims of womens' inherent strength. If Walker's theory of "learned helplessness" is correct, it would seem that all hopes for eventual sexual equality would be impossible; given how easily even an intelligent woman can be dominated and taught to be helpless, one would logically expect this submissive tendency toward helplessness to carry through into the business and social world as well. Walker does not attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction.

Prof. Walker's explanation of her "learned helplessness" theory sounds rather confusing: "For example, when a woman begins to nag at a man after she knows he has had a hard day at work, she can justify her belief that she really deserved the battering she anticipated all along because she started it. Although she appears to be masochistically setting up her own victimization, such behavior may well be a desperate attempt to exercise some control over her life" (p.50). So, what appears to be masochistic behavior - provoking an angry man until he beats her - is according to Prof. Walker actually a form of empowerment. Why a non-masochistic "battered woman" does not instead prefer to exercise control over her life by leaving the dangerously agitated man alone, she does not explain. Nor does Prof. Walker think that a woman who "nags" her husband is anything but a victim, while a man who employs "psychological humiliation and verbal harassment" against his wife is supposedly "battering" her (introduction, p. xv). A woman can be only a victim, while a man can be only a villain, no matter what each may actually do.

Nowhere does Prof. Walker attempt explain how the predictions of the theory of "feminine masochism" are different from those of her theory of "learned helplessness," or discuss which facts are supposedly better explained by her theory than by the older one, although even if she did the argument would be inconclusive, given the invalidity of her sample. Nonetheless, she should have tried. By contrast, Dr. Karen Horney's discussion of what she terms "The Problem of Feminine Masochism" [Horney, 1935] is overwhelmingly more scholarly than Prof. Walker's mere dismissal. Dr. Horney describes each of the major formulations of the theory of "feminine masochism" in the psychiatric literature, giving full references. She discusses the merits and weaknesses of each, weighs nature/nurture arguments, and concludes that insufficient information exists to come to any definitive conclusions on the subject.

Prof. Walker, on the other hand, seems never to have encountered the problem of inadequate information, nor to have been troubled by doubt over the possible inaccuracy of any of her conclusions. Perhaps the most striking feature of The Battered Woman is its overwhelming certitude, in the face of its highly questionable underlying data. The theory of "feminine masochism" may perhaps be false, but its falsehood is not established by anything in this book. Walker merely proclaims that theory, long a thorn in the feminists' side, to have been refuted, and one feminist author after another has pointed back to Walker's triumphant refutation of the theories of Freud et. al concerning "feminine masochism." None of them seems to have noticed that Prof. Walker's supposed refutation is entirely without substance. They would leave us puzzling the unsolved mystery of why substantial numbers of women - including even very many who espouse feminist principles - quite actively seek out relationships with highly-dominant and sometimes abusive men, scorning the hordes of mild-mannered "nice guys" who proclaim their acceptance of feminist doctrines. At least the old theory of "female masochism" gives us some insights into this otherwise-inexplicable phenomenon.

Another of Walker's supposed "myths" is "Myth No. 4: Middle- Class Women Do Not Get Battered as Often or as Violently as do Poorer Women" (p.21). This is related to "Myth No. 5: Minority Group Women are Battered More Frequently than Anglos" (p.22). As with the other supposed "myths," we are not shown exactly how and why they are "mythical": we are simply informed that they are. At the very least it would be necessary to present some sort of statistical analysis to substantiate claims such as these. Of course, no statistics are presented, and even if they had been they would be inconclusive owing to the invalidity of Prof. Walker's sample. She simply informs us that she saw examples of battering all across the social spectrum, then leaps to the unwarranted conclusion that there is no relationship between socioeconomic status and battering. This is as illogical as if one were to observe that Cadillac ownership has been seen in all socioeconomic groups, including the very lowest, therefore there is no relationship between wealth and Cadillac ownership.

There is good reason to believe that these two "myths" really are true, but Prof. Walker sees no need to make make a serious attempt to deal with any objections. For example, Richard J. Gelles, drawing from the NIMH study of which he is co-author, writes that "families living in large urban areas, minority racial groups, individuals with no religious affiliation, people with some high school education, families with low incomes, blue- collar workers, people under 30, and families where the husband was unemployed had the highest rate of marital violence" [Gelles, 1979, p. 141]. Gelles and his co-authors offer statistics to back up this statement, while Prof. Walker, disputing them, offers none; we are simply instructed to believe her. Nonetheless, Walker's Proof by Fiat clearly meets all required standards of feminist scholarship, because the "mythical" nature of these statements has become an unquestioned fact within the Canon of subsequent feminist literature.

One might rightly harbor the suspicion that these "myths" are proclaimed as "myths" out of ideological necessity rather than solid evidence. Feminist ideology has, after all, strong links to egalitarian socialism, and often proclaims itself quite explicitly to be anti-hierarchal. In fact, Walker even states that feminist principles "mandate that no one person take a leadership role but that leadership be shared among numerous women" (p.197). Therefore any perception that domestic violence is more prevalent among those of low education and socioeconomic status runs counter to what the "correct" conclusion is supposed to be; affluent and respected white males are regarded as the principal source of evil in society. In fact, several of the incidents Walker describes portray high-income, high-status husbands and fathers in a Jekyll-and-Hyde pose: highly respected by society, at home they are secretly abusive and vindictive. A "corporate executive's wife" claimed "my husband was more powerful than the court"; according to another her brutal husband "was on the medical school faculty" (p. 175); a third claims that her politician husband "pushes himself day and night to get his [social] programs through... but shut off the TV cameras and he's mean and nasty" (p.165).

While such individuals may well exist, statistics indicate that domestic violence is at its absolute lowest in this high-income, high-status group. During the 1980s, such Jekyll-and-Hyde depictions of successful white males who led hidden lives as secret abusers would be invoked frequently by "recovered memory therapists" to justify belief in their otherwise-unbelievable "recovered memories of abuse" by seemingly respectable and loving fathers [for example, Bass and Davis, 1988].

These supposedly "recovered memories" are actually confabulations ("false memories") suggested by therapists and feminists, which has led to recriminations, family breakups, and even incarceration for thousands of innocent persons [Ofshe and Watters, 1994] . Were it not for the widespread acceptance within certain circles of the Jekyll-and-Hyde depiction of affluent and respected husbands - a depiction that runs counter to the data presented by Gelles - these so-called "recovered memories" would never have achieved their widespread acceptance, thereby sparing thousands of individuals and families a great deal of anguish, suffering, and loss. Bass and Davis [1988, p. 476] favorably cite The Battered Woman, p. 476], calling it "a major contribution," and recommending it for its "practical recommendations for "the way out" " (i.e., family dissolution). Whether Prof. Walker's Jekyll-and-Hyde stories have any more objective validity than the "rule of thumb" deception or the "Superbowl battering" hoax is impossible to say, but it seems unlikely. Considering how neatly they confirm Walker's political bias, one would be wise to view these depictions with maximum suspicion.

An interesting paradox is raised by Prof. Walker's insistence that battered and sexually abused women have "lucid recall of the details of acute battering incidents. Battered women were always able to recall the details of such violent incidents. They remembered every word spoken and every blow delivered" (p.74). At about the same time that this was being written, other feminist authors were developing theories that claim exactly the opposite. Supposedly, horrid memories of being physically and sexually abused get completely "repressed," to be uncorked later and brought to the surface [for example, Bass and Davis, 1988]. This allows the supposed perpetrator to be prosecuted and/or sued. Now, both of these theories cannot be true: memories of violent victimization either are always subject to "lucid recall", or else they can be "repressed" until it is convenient to remember them.

One would expect that such a conflict in theories would make for a lively debate, with different feminists taking sides and vigorously defending one theory or the other. However, this seems to not be taking place. In fact, I am not aware of a single feminist writer or theorist who has even pointed out this fundamental contradiction in contemporary feminist teachings, let alone try to resolve it. Perhaps it is in the "noncompetitive" nature of feminism to avoid head-on clashes like those that occur in the "linear thinking" that we find in "male-dominated" subjects such as mathematics, science, and philosophy. If so, feminists are doomed to preach nonsense forever, as they have no method for separating correct theories from erroneous ones.

The Battered Woman is unsatisfactory as a serious work, and completely unacceptable as a foundation for family law. First, it is profoundly unscholarly. Without objective verification of the incidents herein described, they are nothing more than hearsay. Second, the book does not even pretend to be objective: the woman's side, and only the woman's side, is presented, when it is undeniable that in a large percentage of cases, the woman initiates violence against the man. Third, Prof. Walker's expanded definition of "battering" that includes verbal abuse does not even address the issue of female verbal abuse of men. Fourth, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Prof. Walker's sample of "battered women" is in any way a representative sample, and even if it were, she presents no statistics to support her conclusions. In fact, most of her conclusions are utterly unsupported by any kind of data, and are simply pronounced ex cathedra.

One is not "in favor of violence" for insisting that statements being made on the subject of domestic violence in academic circles must conform to reality, and it will not in any way assist the victims of violence to have the facts of their situation misrepresented. Not only are male victims of domestic violence currently being virtually ignored, but the single greatest category of domestic violence is also being all but ignored: that between siblings [Straus et. al., p. 83]. The current absurd overemphasis on adult female victims not only ignores men, but seriously distracts from efforts that might prevent or assist victims of the most frequent type of domestic violence, sibling violence. Indeed, these misrepresentations will backfire, as is already happening in the wake of the "Superbowl battering" hoax that Prof. Walker was largely responsible for starting, resulting in future female victims confronting ever- increasing degrees of disinterest and disbelief. The best way to solve any problem is to understand it as accurately as possible, and the best way to help victims of domestic violence is to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about their situation.

All research citing Walker uncritically is tainted and must be disregarded in toto. All so-called "legislative reforms" based upon Walker are unacceptably biased, factually unsound, and violate the requirement for equal protection of the male sex. Any man who is insulted by misleading and inaccurate wholesale accusations against his sex, as well as any woman who possesses a sense of fairness toward the opposite sex, must view a work like this with a sense of revulsion.

Similarly, any female academic who would profess to be a good scholar must absolutely reject Prof. Walker's work on grounds of methodology alone. The time is right for a new, and this time objective, analysis of the serious problem of domestic violence, one free of ideological bias, and firmly grounded in sound scholarship. To draw up new legislation and social policies solidly grounded in objective facts would be the very best thing that could happen to help solve the serious problem of domestic violence.


Bass, Ellen and Davis, Laura: The Courage to Heal (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

Horney, Dr. Karen, M.D.: "The Problem of Feminine Masochism", in Feminine Psychology (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1967, p. 214). First published 1935.

Gelles, Richard J: Family Violence (Beverly Hills, Sage Publications, 1979).

Ofshe, Richard and Watters, Ethan: Making Monsters False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria (New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1994).

Sommers, Christina Hoff: Who Stole Feminism? (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).

Straus, Murray A.; Gelles, Richard J.; and Steinmetz, Suzanne K. Behind Closed Doors Violence in the American Family. (New York: Anchor Doubleday Books, 1980.)

PS: I find it amazing that within a week or two from the time that Walker outraged her feminist colleagues by agreeing to testify for the O.J. Simpson defense, she found her license to practice psychology in serious jeopardy. Whatever shortcomings she may or may not have had in her private practice seemed not to be an issue until that time. This would seem to testify to the astonishing degree of power wielded by the feminist orthodoxy within political circles today.

Return to the Domain of Patriarchy