Hirshman’s Statistics

It is Linda Hirshman, not I, who in her article, “Scholars in the Service of Politics” (Column Left, July 31), distorts data in the service of her own agenda. Let the facts speak for themselves. Hirshman claims that I “describe(s) a recent Justice Department study of murder in families as concluding that ‘women kill almost as often as men do’ ” (emphasis added). She then tries to rebut that characterization by pointing to a sub-category of family killing--namely spousal killing--in which husbands kill wives somewhat more often (59%) than wives kill husbands (41%). My point was that even those numbers are quite surprising, since they show far more killings done by wives than media reports and feminist rhetoric suggest.

In my article (Commentary, July 21), I specifically cited the report’s conclusion that “for all spousal murders, women accounted for more than 40% of defendants,” despite Hirshman’s implication that I try to hide this information. I also cite data--not referred to by Hirshman--showing that for all family crimes “female defendants were more likely than male defendants to have murdered a person of the opposite sex,” that 55% of all family crime victims were males and 45% were females, and that female defendants are treated far more leniently than male defendants in family killings.

Because Hirshman cannot rebut the specific data I cite--since I quote them precisely from the report--she quibbles over my characterization of the data. But that characterization is supported by the data for all family killings, as well as by the comparative data for other acts of homicide, in which women account for only 10% of all killings. The truth of gender violence is very much a two-way street--a fact which Hirshman is seeking to veil with her own curtain of selective misinformation.



Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law

Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Mass.


Hirshman says she discovered “two whoppers--Dershowitz’s numbers and Sommers’ ‘feminist fiction'--and my research didn’t take me half an hour.” She should have taken more time.


The conventional feminist belief, which I reject as “fiction” but which Hirshman defends is given in the opening essay of a popular college textbook in women’s studies, “Women: A Feminist Perspective”:

“The popular expression ‘rule of thumb’ originated from English common law, which allowed a husband to beat his wife with a whip or stick no bigger in diameter than his thumb. The husband’s prerogative was incorporated into American law. Several states had statutes that essentially allowed a man to beat his wife without the interference from the courts.”

Weighing in for the feminists, Hirshman says that my book “Who Stole Feminism?” used “the Big Lie technique,” when, in the middle of quoting Blackstone, it omitted a bit of Latin that talked of the old law that allowed a husband to “lawfully and reasonably” use force in “correcting” his wife. I omitted that because its content had already been paraphrased in the preceding language which I did quote: “The husband by the old law might give his wife moderate chastisement.” Hirshman commits an interpretive whopper since she evidently reads the omitted Latin as giving Blackstone’s opinion. Not so: Blackstone mentions the “old law” only to point out that it had been superseded in his own “politer” day (1768): “A wife may now have security against her husband.” That is Blackstone’s view.

So my three major points remain: 1) Blackstone’s opinion is that violence against wives is no longer legal; 2) the phrase “rule of thumb” nowhere appears in Blackstone’s discussion of wife beating, and 3) the phrase did not originate in wife beating. (Authorities have traced its origin to 17th-Century English woodworkers who expertly used their thumbs for quick rough measurements.)

Finally, I challenge Hirshman to cite the statutes in American law justifying the feminist claim that our laws (not one or two sexist judges) sanctioned wife beating by a stick no bigger than the husband’s thumb. There is no such body of actual law.

Historically, the American legal system--albeit imperfect and imperfectly enforced--offers women the best protections of liberty and person to date. Feminist revisionist legal history--not my rejection of it--is the Big Lie.


Brookline, Mass.