From social control to coercive control: A reflection on 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women and Girls

In August of this year, the multi-agency partnership, Empowered, in East Dunbartonshire, approached the Centre for Gender History to take part in the council’s events to mark 16 Days of Activism, an international campaign against gender-based violence. Rose Elliot from the Working-Class Marriage in Scotland project team, and Hannah Telling, a PhD student in the Centre for Gender History at the University of Glasgow, worked with the Empowered partnership to contribute to the launch of the campaign at a local school, Bearsden Academy, on 25 November, and run a workshop on masculinity and crime in Victorian Britain on 5th December with learners in HMP Low Moss, part of the New College Lanarkshire Learning Centre.


The 16 Days of Activism campaign dates from 1991 when it was started by the Women’s Global Leadership Institute coordinated by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership; it runs annually from November 25 (International Day Against Violence Against Women) until December 10th (International Human Rights Day).[1] The start and end dates symbolise the point that violence against women is a violation of human rights, and is made possible by structural as well as personal inequalities. We did a presentation in Bearsden Academy to an S3 Assembly and a more informal workshop with self-selected male learners at HMP Low Moss. The events were structured differently for each audience, but our central argument was the same: there is a continuum in the perpetration of domestic abuse across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the exact manifestation reflecting gendered norms and the rights which women have at any given point.

If one surveys the progress of women’s rights from the nineteenth century to today, the story would appear to be a positive one, and in many ways, for the young women in the audience we spoke to at Bearsden Academy, it is. Men and women, on paper, have equal rights in law, and equal opportunities in education, employment and parenting. And yet, statistics suggest that, in Britain, women in full-time work are paid on average 13.9% less than men[2]; that women still do the lion’s share of child-rearing and domestic work; and still face life-threatening violence within their intimate relationships. Crown Prosecution Service statistics on Violence Against Women and Girls demonstrate that, on average, two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week; the police receive an emergency call relating to domestic abuse every 30 seconds; domestic abuse cases accounted for 14.1% of all court prosecutions, and 92.1% of defendants were male and 7.9% were women.[3] Further, as Evan Stark has argued, where physical violence exists, it is more often than not part of a larger framework of gender-based control including psychological, sexual and financial abuse, often over a long period of time and shaped at an individual level by knowledge that the perpetrator has gained about the victim’s weaknesses.[4] The UK government recognised in December 2015 that coercive control is a crime.

For historians, these developments are notable. Much of the way domestic violence is rendered today involves the dominant partner, usually the man, controlling things in the private sphere which were previously governed through a range of legal, cultural and political processes and legitimated gender-based inequality. Thus, in the nineteenth century, women were restricted in what they could wear, where they could go, who they could consort with and what kind of behaviour they could indulge in and still be considered respectable. In 1911, Glasgow Parish Council, in common with many others, believed that ‘every girl born into the world is endowed by nature with an instinct for virtue. Women’s highest asset is an unsullied character’.[5] This ideal of virtue and the default positioning of women in the domestic sphere for biological reasons underpinned the sexual double-standard and women’s economic and legal inequality, inequality which was only slowly chipped away at over the twentieth century. Whereas social purity reformers in the nineteenth century sought a higher moral standard for men, by the twenty-first century, women’s sexual liberation is routinely commodified for male consumption. At the Bearsden Event, another speaker showed a series of adverts which sexually objectified women and the latent sexism in society became overt. The gendered standards which women were held to in the nineteenth century have morphed into a different set of gender-based, equally damaging, expectations, despite advances towards legal equality.


In both the event at Bearsden Academy and at HMP Low Moss, we used a range of historical images, prescriptive literature, court cases and newspaper articles. At HMP Low Moss, we were particularly keen to get participants’ impressions of nineteenth-century masculinity and the links with domestic violence, rather than convey our own analysis. This approach was fruitful: within the first quarter of an hour, participants had discussed elite masculinities in the practice of duelling, the notion of the ‘rule of thumb’ (the idea that men could legitimately beat their wives with something no wider than their thumb), the context and location of violence in history and the way in which it could be normalised. Using the source materials, we broadened out to discuss the ways in which social and gender norms were constructed in the media historically and perpetrators and victims could be presented to uphold these norms.

Where domestic violence occurred in the nineteenth century, men were often excused on the grounds of provocation and the misdemeanours of their wives. In this court testimony from 1882, for example, Thomas Kinnear justified his violence to his wife by linking it to her failure to keep a nice house and budget for the family, minimising his harm to her:

‘I did not live very happily with my wife. She obtained drink with the money I gave her for housekeeping. She neglected the children and used very coarse language. I have given her a push when the house was dirty, telling her to go away and clean it up … but never a push that could have hurt her’.

Thomas Kinnear, 1882[6]

In middle and upper class households, educated men distinguished themselves socially by refraining from leaving bruises and broken bones on their wives. Edward Reid refused to allow his wife into the kitchen, locked her in the attic and chained her bed to the fireplace so that she could not light a fire. The court testimony states that ‘[H]e not only withheld from her the comforts and conveniences entitled to their social position, but refused to supply her with the bare necessities of life’. He defended his actions on the basis that his wife had ‘drunken habits’; she was the one transgressing respectability in his eyes, justifying his treatment of her (provocation in different words).[7]

But for most ‘respectable’ people, Victorian social norms worked to keep a wife in check for fear of loss of status and reputational damage, rather than through fear of chastisement from her husband. It is therefore striking that, decades after women’s emancipation, the Crown Prosecution Service guidance on Coercive control covers many things which women have historically fought against: preventing someone from working, attending school or college; controlling their access to money; being the one to define all roles; making all the big decisions; treating someone like a servant; taking control of what they can eat, wear and when they sleep; controlling what someone does, who they talk to, what they read, limiting outside involvement, controlling movement; putting someone down, name-calling, humiliation, reputational damage – among other things.[8] In today’s society where men and women have equal rights, on paper at least, coercive control moves the power hierarchies into the private sphere in multiple and complex, subtle and more overt, ways.

The manifestation of some aspects, such as buying clothes as gifts (which the recipient then has to wear, regardless of her own tastes), accompanying one’s partner out (all the time and/or regardless of whether they wish this), talking to one’s partner (when they are trying to study, watch TV or sleep) and checking they are safe (tracking them via their phone or texts or phone calls) are recognised culturally to be an expression of love and/or protection (if one ignores the bracketed subtext). Context is everything. The very invisibility of techniques of interpersonal governance makes them all the more insidious. The discussion at HMP Low Moss covered the visibility of violence in nineteenth-century working-class tenement homes and close-knit communities, among other things, and the availability of support networks for women to seek refuge, at least temporarily. Tellingly, one participant noted that ‘today, they would just turn up the radio [at the sound of domestic violence]’. But if the violence is silent, there is nothing to hear.

We are grateful to the Empowered partnership and to the New College Lanarkshire Learning Centre at HMP Low Moss for inviting us to be part of 16 Days of Activism in East Dunbartonshire. No-one, least of all us, has the answer to the issues raised here, except to continue to raise awareness and break the silence.

[1] Accessed 13 December 2016.

[2] Accessed 13 December 2016. This does not take into account that many women are in part-time work and may take time out of the workplace for childcare reasons.

[3] Crown Prosecution Service, Violence Against Women and Girls Crime Report, 2016 Accessed 13 December 2016. These figures do not include a range of other gender-based offences such as rape and sexual assault, forced marriage and female genital mutilation, as well as stalking and harassment aimed at women.

[4] Evan Stark, Coercive Control: how men entrap women in personal life. Interpersonal violence stories (2007)

[5] ‘A Great Social Evil in Glasgow by authority of the Parish of Glasgow’, 1911

[6] National Records of Scotland (NRS), CS46/1883/49/2.

[7] NRS CS46/1883/63/2

[8] Accessed 13 December 2016.