Domestic abuse, culture and Scottish history

It takes a whole society and its culture to create a domestic abuse perpetrator. A critical look at our history can help us understand why.

‘a thousand words’ commissioned by Scottish Womens Aid and Zero Tolerance. Copyright Laura Dodsworth

The annual 16 days of international activism against gender-based violence ended yesterday. During this year’s campaign a report by ‘Counting dead women’ on the UK National Femicide Census made harrowing reading and showed that statistically, one woman or girl is murdered every three days.  In 2019, 115 women were killed by men (or where men were the principal suspect).  Writing in the Scotsman recently, Gina Davidson describes the ‘epidemic of violence against women in the UK’.  She highlighted the stories of the Scottish women who have died at the hands of their partners/ex partners and the stubbornly high rates of domestic abuse in Scotland, which have further spiked during lockdown. Twitter responses to Davidson’s  article, reveal a curiosity about the cultural underpinnings of domestic abuse and calls for more research.

My research has uncovered some of the historical and cultural roots of an issue which shows few signs of disappearing. I carried out an in-depth analysis of interviews with a group of women survivors and criminal justice professionals born between 1945 and 1966 about their memories of domestic abuse in post-war Scotland. Some of these are quoted below.

Becoming a girl or a boy

According to Engels, ‘the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male in monogamous marriage’.  Biology determined and differentiated female and male gender roles.  Historically, these roles became embedded in patriarchal marriage, societies, customs and culture.

Scotland remained a deeply patriarchal society in the second half of the 20th century.  At home, girls and boys learned different ways of behaving and playing, who earned and managed family money, who had the last word, who did the housework, who got privileges.

My childhood was very traditional – I was the oldest girl, I was expected to be the carer, the babysitter, helping Mum while my two older brothers went out to play on their bikes with their mates and stuff. (b. 1957)

Children learned to be seen and not heard, many lived with violence and knew not to tell anyone about it. Family matters were private. Gender socialisation continued at school in strict regimes ruled by ‘the belt’ preparing girls and boys for different futures of gender segregated jobs and unequal pay differentials.

In the late twentieth century, Scotland was still glorying in a very male cultural history of violence, hard man tropes and the romanticising of warriors, adventurers and political heroes.  Children soaked all this up as they approached adolescence.

Dating and marriage

Popular culture guided teenagers’ dating. From the 1960s – 1980s  there was remarkable consistency in the way young men began practicing male entitlement and satisfying their emergent sexual appetites.

All men were interested in in the sixties was sex and at that point I was terrified you know, I’d never met anybody that liked just me so I was a bit confused. (b. 1947)

I think that once we’d had sex he thought he had some sort of ownership over me. (b. 1966)

Even during the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ in Scotland, young men were bearing gifts and promises,  showing off their potential as future husbands and overcoming girls’ faint hearts by re-enacting the aged-old tropes of romantic literature and popular song in chivalrous displays.

A pearl ring for my birthday – an opal and diamonds for my engagement – I did marry him, rose coloured, tinted glasses and you think you’re in love and all the rest of it. (b. 1948)

The boundaries between sex and sexual violence became blurred.  Relationships too quickly featured violence as young men flexed their new patriarchal muscles and girls faced pressures to marry:

If you werenae married before you were twenty you were on the shelf.  All my pals were married and had babies – sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. That was the expectation, so here was I trying to get away from this man who was declaring undying love to me. (b 1957)

The classic patriarchal family with its clearly gendered hierarchies soon became established. During the swinging 60s and 70s, ardent young suitors quickly became Victorian patriarchs expecting sex on demand, dinner on the table, using violence and enforcing silence.  The age-old mantra women had absorbed since childhood continually played out in their heads: “You’ve made your bed…” – many told no one.

Policing domestic abuse

Police forces in Scotland turn a blind eye to wife beating. Police attitudes to domestic violence were very unfortunate, both from the point of view of the women involved and for society as a whole. It seemed that Scots lived in a society which accepted the use of violence by a husband against his wife. – Dr Rebecca Dobash quoted in The Scotsman 6/11/77.

The criminal  justice system minimised its interventions in ‘domestics’ focussing instead on stopping couples fighting, drinking and separating.

“See before we go in here son? This is between a man and a woman and we’re no’ getting involved in this.”  And that was actually before we arrived at the front door and… Aye keep it in your own house, keep it private, this is what you do (Police officer A 1980s).

Only cases of ‘severe’ violence, murder or where children were being harmed were investigated.

In the eighties, we were chasing drug dealers and guns and robbers and Starsky and Hutch an’ a’ that stuff…  I was in the CID pretty young…I didnae want tae go tae domestics.  (Police officer B 1980s).

Reporting to the police was a waste of time and could lead to violent reprisals by aggrieved husbands. The Scots legal requirement for corroboration made prosecution difficult while successful convictions, fines and imprisonment left women financially disadvantaged and stigmatised.

The police and criminal justice system remained male-dominated professions until the later decades of the 20th century. Sexism permeated highly macho workplaces, trivialised male violence against women and ignored domestic abuse perpetrated by their own staff.

Some of these women might well deserve the batterings they get from their husbands – Nicholas Fairbairn Scotland’s Solicitor General 1979-1982

These organisations were working patriarchies keeping patriarchal marriages together while violent men escaped sanction. Women rarely told the police. Family and friends were reluctant to interfere in couples’ private business, often turning a blind eye to threats and violence going on in plain sight.

Why women didn’t leave

Women found separation almost impossible in the face of social stigma and shame about being a ‘battered wife’ or a ‘single mother’ and the dismal prospect of poverty, isolation and homelessness.

We were buying a house.  All the money went into one joint pot.  I couldn’t work out how to extricate myself safely. Where would I go, what would I do?  I can remember thinking ‘do I want to go to a refuge?’ and thinking ‘no’.

Eventually the women I interviewed faced down the stigma and prejudice and the hostile misogynist culture. They separated with the help of a few trusted friends and encouraged by the faint glimmers of equality for women in late 20th century Scotland.

Getting off Scot free

For the women I interviewed, their violent husbands were never charged, held accountable or challenged by friends, family or the authorities for their violence and abuse – some went on to form new relationships and carried on abusing.  For abusers, silence is golden. The cultural transmitters of domestic abuse and violence against women will remain hard wired from the cradle to the grave unless a cultural circuit breaker comes along.  Until then history will keep repeating.

This post first appeared as a guest blog on Scottish Women’s Aid website on 6 December 2020 during 16 Days of Activism 2020. View the original article here


Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline is available 24/7 for anyone who wants to talk about their experience of domestic abuse – whether it’s happening currently or if it happened in the past. You can call on 0800 027 1234 or email and web chat from The Helpline is free and completely confidential. We are here for you. 

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