Study Suggests White, Working-Class Women's Lives "Saturated" With Domestic Violence

Release Date: January 22, 1997 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A new study of white, working-class women in relatively stable families has revealed what the researchers call a horrific picture "of lives saturated with serious domestic violence."

The findings are part of a larger study funded by a $500,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation that will be published by Beacon next year. The study was conducted by Lois Weis, Ph.D., professor of education at the University at Buffalo, and Michelle Fine, Ph.D., professor of social psychology in the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

The researchers defined "serious domestic violence" as battering intended to cause serious physical injury. Ninety-two percent of white female respondents said that such domestic violence was directed against them, their mothers and/or sisters, either in their birth households or in later relationships. By comparison, 62 percent of black female subjects reported similar levels of violence in their lives.

Weis called the results "extremely disturbing."

"This does not mean that 92 percent of all white, working-class women are or have been victims of serious domestic violence," she said. "It does, however, suggest a far more serious problem in this population than has otherwise been acknowledged."

The Weis-Fine study was designed as a major qualitative analysis documenting the lives of white, black and Latino poor and working-class families during the Bush and Reagan administrations (1980-99), a period of significant changes in government social policies affecting this population group.

It involved in-depth interviews with 154 men and women from Buffalo and Jersey City, N.J. Each respondent was interviewed in-depth for three to five hours. Weis said she hopes the study will lead to further research and perhaps to policy changes.

"Domestic violence is not a phenomenon found only in poor and working-class homes," she added. "It's found widely in very privileged homes as well.

"We know from the past 15 years of research in this field that when an individual has been the victim of family abuse in childhood, the chance of her being abused in another relationship -- even of repeating the experience over and over again with boyfriends, husbands and lovers -- is very high.

"In this case, we uncovered evidence of deep generational domestic abuse in fairly stable white families," she noted.

Weis said that "when asked about their lives in general, the vast majority of white respondents poured out stories of lives saturated with serious domestic violence. We weren't looking for it. It was not a major part of our study. We certainly did not expect as pervasive a problem as was reported.

"Some women said they grew up in homes in which serious abuse was part of the fabric of their daily lives," she noted. "They described regular beatings of themselves, their mothers and sisters by other family members. Some spoke of being seriously abused in adult male-female relationships. Others described the violent, abusive relationships of one or more sisters."

Despite their histories, Weis said not one of the respondents reported any violence in her current relationship. She cautioned, however, that this does not mean that the women are now established in placid households.

"Some women choose not to talk about domestic abuse until they've left the environment," said Weis. "For others, the very powerful unconscious defense mechanism of denial is operating. Denial is frequent and strong in most domestic abuse cases.

"When in denial, the woman, perhaps to protect some belief about herself, her man, her relationship or family, quite literally does not grasp what's going on, even if others can see it quite clearly." she added. "Denial is frequent and strong in most domestic abuse cases."

Weis said the results were especially surprising because the subjects in the study were not selected because the researchers believed them to be the worst off in their communities.

"As a matter of fact," she said, "we didn't want to skew this study of changing social conditions by including the most marginalized families -- those that were the most poor, the most dysfunctional.

"The principal variables we controlled for were economic class and, because this was a qualitative study, a willingness to talk," Weis said. "So subjects were selected through the use of gatekeepers -- persons from school, church and community groups who referred its to people they thought might talk to us.

"The result was that the subjects were all members of relatively stable families and were involved in church, school or community organizations and activities. Some subjects were social services recipients, but most were not," she said.

She said that they found that the 31 black women respondents were much more open about the violence they saw and experienced than were the white women.

Weis added, "The black women we interviewed were not secretive about their experiences and freely discussed them, not only in private interviews, but in the focus groups. They didn't express the level of shame or self-blame that the white women did.

"The black respondents seemed to have far less vested in privacy in this regard than did the white women," she noted. "Perhaps because they don't feel compelled to protect the culturally constructed idea of an ideal, perfectly happy family.

"The white women in the study, on the other hand," she said, "were very secretive. Although they all introduced the subject of domestic violence and freely discussed it in the private interviews, they never even mentioned the subject in the focus groups where others would hear about it."

Weis speculated that such secretiveness serves to protect the popular image of family life in the white community.

"One way in which white women maintain their racial difference, or 'construct their whiteness'?" she said, "is to cultivate the popular cultural image of the perfectly functioning nuclear family."

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