A 19th Century Suffragette View of Domestic Discipline

In this second article in our series on domestic discipline, we will be looking at the 19th century suffragette (feminist) view of domestic discipline.  To do this we will look at two primary sources.  The first is the Declaration of Sentiments which was issued from the first woman’s rights conference in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. 

The second source we will be looking at is a book entitled “History of Woman Suffrage: 1848-1861”, written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, ‎Susan Brownell Anthony and ‎Matilda Joslyn Gage in 1881.  This book is also a valuable resource in understanding the historical view of domestic discipline.   Less than 20 years before this book was published, state courts in America were still upholding a man’s right to use corporal punishment with his wife.  It was only in the 1870s that courts began striking down this common law right and later states would begin enacting laws against it.

The Declaration of Sentiments

The Declaration of Independence was America declaring its independence from England and the Declaration of Sentiments was women declaring their independence from men.    Below is a portion of the Declaration of Sentiments issued from the first woman’s rights conference in 1848:

“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has made her, morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes, with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master – the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.

As Bible believing Christians, we can and should recognize the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments for what it was and still is today.  A declaration of war on God’s institution of patriarchy.   And the sad truth is, that more than 170 years later that war has been mostly won by feminists. Those who still hold to God’s design of patriarchy have been forced into hiding, with their only option to fight a spiritual guerrilla warfare against those who seek to eradicate the last pockets of resistance to the reigning humanist regimes.

“In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband”

The common laws of the land in this case were strongly aligned with the Word of God as seen in Titus 2:4-5:

“That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, OBEDIENT to their own HUSBANDS, that the word of God be not blasphemed.”

In fact, we can rightly say that the Declaration of Sentiments complaint against women being compelled by common law to be obedient to their husbands was blasphemy against the Word of God.

The Husband is “to all intents and purposes, her master”

Again, the Scriptures are crystal clear on this point calling women to regard their husband’s as their earthly lords (their masters) in 1 Peter 3:5-6:

“For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.”

The Greek word used in 1 Peter 3:6 is “kurios” which means master.  It is used in reference to kings, governors, slave masters, husbands and to God himself in the Bible.  All of these masters were authorities instituted by God over different spheres, but God is the LORD and master of all.  The Hebrew equivalent of the Greek kurios is “baal” which means “owner, lord, master”. 

In Deuteronomy 22:22 we see the following example showing the husband’s ownership over his wife:

“If a man be found lying with a woman married [‘baal’ used as verb] to an husband [‘baal’ used as noun] , then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel.”

The passage above demonstrates that under God’s law a married woman is an owned woman, and her owner is her husband.

The Husbands power “to administer chastisement”

The power to chastise is a critical element of authority. If a person can tell others what to do, but they have no means of enforcing what they have commanded then they really are not an authority.  And this is why the early woman’s rights movement targeted the common law recognition of the husband’s right to chastise his wife.  If they could remove his power to chastise her, they knew they were effectively removing his authority over her.

History of Woman Suffrage: 1848-1861

The women who wrote “History of Woman Suffrage: 1848-1861” lived in the era when wife spanking was still widely practiced and culturally accepted so their perspective is valuable in the historical sense, even with their moral position on the rights of women and husbands chastising their wives being completely unbiblical and wrong.

In pages 88-89 the History of Woman Suffrage: 1848-1861 states:

“In those early days a husband’s supremacy was often enforced in the rural districts by corporeal chastisement, and it was considered by most people as quite right and proper – as much so as the correction of refractory children in like manner…The laws made it his privilege – and the Bible, as interpreted, made it is his duty.”

If you go to the average Christian today in the average Christian church, even most conservative evangelical churches, and you started talking about domestic discipline they would have no clue what you are talking about.  I know if you would have mentioned it to me 7 or 8 years ago, I would have been one of those people with a blank look. And if you mentioned “wife spanking” they would look at you like you are crazy.   I know I would have. 

But I am happy to have been challenged on this subject.  Because it caused me to really have to research this out.  I already showed in my first article in this series on domestic discipline, “The Biblical Case for Domestic Discipline”, that the Bible fully supports two important concepts. 

First it supports the concept of corporal punishment for both children and adults.  Secondly, it supports husband’s chastening their wives as we see God chastening his wife Israel in the Old Testament and Christ chastening his wife, the church, in the New Testament.

But then we come to the historical side of this.  Before the 20th century, most Christians believed according the Bible that husbands had a right and duty to chasten their wives using corporal punishment.  The common laws of the land supported this right. And except for the left-wing feminists of the 19th century, Christian women fully accepted this too.

Chastisement Was Seen as Good for A Wife’s Moral Development

On page 599 the History of Woman Suffrage: 1848-1861 states:

“By the common law of England, the spirit of which has been but too faithfully incorporated into our statute law, a husband has a right to whip his wife with a rod not larger than his thumb, to shut her up in a room, and administer whatever moderate chastisement he may deem necessary to insure obedience to his wishes, and for her healthful moral development! He can forbid all persons harboring or trusting her on his account.  He can deprive her of all social intercourse with her nearest and dearest friends.  If by great economy she accumulates a small sum, which for future need she deposit, little by little, in a savings bank, the husband has a right to draw it out, at his option, to use it as he may see fit.”

A husband chastising his wife was seen as a healthy and moral thing for a marriage.  But his powers of chastisement were not limited just to corporal punishment.  But he could also literally ground his wife as a parent grounds their child and send her to her room.  This was the normal accepted practice under common law.

Domestic Discipline Outlawed in the Late 19th Century

On page 792 the History of Woman Suffrage: 1848-1861 states:

“Wife-beating is still so common, even in America, that a number of States have of late introduced bills especially directed to the punishment of the wife-beater. Great surprise is frequently shown by these men when arrested. “Is she not my wife” is cried in tones proving the brutal husband had been trained to consider this relationship a sufficient justification for any abuse.”

“Chastisement” did not have enough sting to it.  In fact, even in the late 19th century, the word “chastisement” in America was seen as a positive word.  So then feminists went from speaking about husbands chastising their wives to calling men “wife-beaters”.  That had a much better ring to it.  And they declared that a husband chastising his wife in any form was “abuse”.   

Now to be sure, there were some men who took their right to chastise their wives too far causing serious or permanent injuries to their wives.  And this of course was the case throughout the history of mankind and was by no means unique to America.   But the exact same thing could also be said for parents, whether they were fathers or mothers who chastised their children, that some abused their God given authority to administer corporal chastisement.

But that fact that some husbands abused their power to exercise corporal chastisement did not give civil governments the right to remove this God given power from husbands.   What they should have done was deal with those extreme cases on a case by case basis.


In this second article we have shown that the early feminists declared war on Biblical patriarchy from the very beginning of their movement in 1848.   They utterly rejected God’s design of male headship over women. 

These early feminists or “suffragettes”, knew they had to play on the emotions of the American people to win their cause.  And they did exactly that.  They found the most extreme and outlandish cases of abuse they could find to bring before courts and state legislators to prove that all men were potential abusers or “wife-beaters” and the only way to protect women from the abuses of men was to completely strip men of their power of corporal chastisement over their wives.

But we also learned something else in this article.  Something that husbands and wives of today needed to see.  This idea of a husband using corporal punishment to chastise his wife is not some recently invented behavior by some far-right Christians.  It is not just some kinky BDSM thing.  But rather, before the late 19th century it was the protected law of the land and Christians believed husbands had a Biblical right and duty to exercise corporal chastisement on their wives for the good of their wife’s moral development and the health of their marriages.

5 thoughts on “A 19th Century Suffragette View of Domestic Discipline

  1. While I have absolutely no problem with Domestic Discipline, I think very few men are capable of it. If your wife is rude and disrespectful, corporal punishment should not be your first reaction, it should be your last. I do not think DD is abuse, or will lead to it, but it is much easier to spank your wife than explain to her what she did wrong and wash her in the Word. I believe the majority of men will see DD as an opportunity to spank their wife into submission. It won’t work. A man may spank his wife into *obedience*, but that is not true submission and submission cannot be forced. No-one knows what is in your obedient wife’s heart but herself and God.

  2. Michaela,

    I disagree that corporal punishment of wives should be a last resort for husbands with their wives. But rather, I would argue that it should be a normal and regular part of marriage. I believe this based on my experiences working with several couples who mentor young married couples in applying the principles of Biblical headship and discipline in marriage.

    Now I just used the word “experience” and I want to be clear what I am saying and what I am not saying. I do not think like our Christian humanist and liberal friends that experience alone is enough make something moral or right. But when we first establish that God views corporal punishment for both children and adults as a good and effective tool for bringing about behavioral changes, and we exercise it within the bounds of his law – not causing any permanent or serious harm to the one we are chastising, we as the ones exercising corporal punishment can then look to our own experiences and that of other believers as how to most effectively apply these Biblical principles in marriage. And I will fully admit that how one husband applies this principle of discipline with his wife and how another does will not always match. And that is OK – each husband is responsible before God for how he applies the principles and commands God gives him toward his wife.

    Having said all that what I have learned from my experiences interacting with couples who do mentoring in Biblical headship and domestic discipline is that if domestic discipline is only seen as a last resort, and not a normal routine part of the marriage, it will not work. And what we really need to understand is that, just as pointed out in this article, and I will point out again in the next article, domestic discipline includes spanking but that is not all that it is. Sometimes it is literally a man sending his wife to her room. It might be him canceling her appointments with her lady friends. But yes, the most controversial (and effective I might add) part of domestic discipline is the spanking of the wife.

    I strongly teach Ephesians 5:25-27’s command to husbands for them to wash their wife’s spiritual spots and wrinkles with the Word of God as Christ does his church. Amen and amen. But it is not an “either/or” proposition. It is both. Husbands are commanded to “wash” their wives their wives with the Word of God (Ephesians 5:25-27) as well as “rebuke and chasten” (Revelations 3:19) them following the example of Christ with his churches.

    So what that means is when man’s wife displays rude, disrespectful or rebellious behavior toward him he washes with the Word of God, reminding her from the Scriptures that she is to reverence him and obey him as her early lord, and then applies applies chastening to her through corporal punishment or other means he deems appropriate at the time.

    Now do I think men should show their wives mercy at times? Of course I do. And in these mentoring programs young husbands are reminded of Psalm 145:8 which says “The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy”. Husbands in the same way need to show compassion and mercy toward their wives. And it is up to each husband to find that balance.

    I agree a husband can’t just spank his wife into submission, not if he want’s submission both in actions and from the heart. It must be a multi-pronged approach. The heart must be changed with the washing of the Word as well. But one of the most beautiful things I have seen in these mentoring programs is after the women come to fully accept corporal punishment, that these same women will sometimes actually ask their husbands to spank them, to help them get over some willful thoughts or disagreements they have with their husbands. And it truly does help to restore the woman’s unity with her husband. People think that is weird, but it is not.

  3. BGR, I completely agree with this:

    “But one of the most beautiful things I have seen in these mentoring programs is after the women come to fully accept corporal punishment, that these same women will sometimes actually ask their husbands to spank them, to help them get over some willful thoughts or disagreements they have with their husbands. And it truly does help to restore the woman’s unity with her husband. People think that is weird, but it is not.”

    Corporal punishment has the added benefit of making a wife feel safe, loved and cherished. I think the difficulty I am having with your post is that my husband thinks that there is much more to Domestic Discipline than just corporal punishment. To him, it is a last resort when all other methods have failed. Perhaps you are defining the term differently than he does.

  4. Michaela,

    I apologize for the confusion my last comment caused. While I may often use the term “domestic discipline” synonymously with wife-spanking, I do believe domestic discipline of a husband toward his wife does include more than corporal punishment. In other words, corporal punishment is just one form of domestic discipline, or one tool in a husband’s domestic discipline tool box.

    A husband can use non-physical forms of discipline as well, such as sending his wife to her room, canceling dates, taking away spending money and such. He can deprive her of his free time for a period as form of domestic discipline. The point is though, that domestic discipline involves two things – rebuke and correction (washing with the Word) to let the wife know what she has done wrong and why it is wrong according to God’s Word, and then the punishment for that infraction. Again, at times the husband may only do the first part, rebuke and correct, and then show mercy regarding the punishment.

    My point is I would absolutely agree with your husband that domestic discipline of a wife by her husband involves much more than just corporal punishment. I think where we would disagree is that Corporal punishment, one tool in the domestic discipline box, should only be used as a last resort. I believe it should be used as first resort, and a regular resort based on the experiences I seen with many other couples. But that is my application and advice on it and I am not your husband. He has every right before God as your husband to use it only as a last resort with you, or to not use it at all and use only non-physical means of domestic discipline.

    Does that clarify my position better for you?

  5. BGR, thank you for your comment, it does clarify your position for me.

    For my husband, corporal punishment is for when he thinks I am in such a state of mind that I am beyond listening. It is when he needs me to be back in a place where I can really hear him and understand what he is trying to tell me. As such, it is very rare (perhaps once or twice a year), but I realize that every marriage is different and, for some, perhaps corporal discipline is the best way to go as a first reprimand.

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