The battered body : a feminist legal history

Publication Type:
Thesis
Issue Date:
1998
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This thesis investigates a current debate within feminist theory, and specifically within feminist legal theory, about how to challenge the liberal construction of women's subjectivity. It contends that positioning women as either equal to or different from the universalised liberal subject (based on male experience) fails to recognise women's experience as diverse, and differentiated. This thesis explores this issue through the empirical area of the treatment in the public sphere (constituted by the state and the law) of domestic violence, and of domestic violence survivors who kill their abusive spouses. It argues that the current feminist jurisprudential responses to the battered woman who kills, articulated through criticisms of the Battered Woman Syndrome, identify the need to challenge the binary oppositional framework in which these cases are decided and discussed by liberal legalism. However, it suggests that these responses do not ground their discussion in the historical preconditions which gave rise to the debate and the feminist framework in which that debate is conducted. This thesis argues that an historical re-examination of the ways in which women's experience of domestic violence, as well as the law's reading of it, was constructed is an important contribution to feminist legal theory. It undertakes this historical re-examination by situating the Battered Woman Syndrome and domestic violence within the struggles and campaigns of feminism in the past, especially feminism as it developed through the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970s. It argues that the understanding of women and women's experience as diversely constituted through this period is essential for an understanding of current debates. This thesis represents an interdisciplinary feminist legal history. It uses both the method and evidence of history to challenge the legal understandings of battered women who kill. It posits that an interdisciplinary engagement between postmodern legal and historical theories, which contest objective assessments of subjects' experience, allows for a more complex and comprehensive assessment of how to approach, and critique, the Battered Woman Syndrome. It suggests that this can be accomplished by applying the techniques of narrative developed in historical theory to feminist legal theory. It therefore posits that a postmodern methodological approach, realised through a genealogical investigation of the subjectivity of battered women, is of value in the current debate about how to deal with the paradox presented by feminism's engagement with liberalism, and evidenced through the law's assessment of the battered woman who kills.
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