I’m teaching a course on privacy and surveillance this fall, and one of the things I’ve been doing is reading up on aspects of privacy theory that I didn’t know much about, such as the feminist critique of privacy. The basic feminist argument is that “family privacy” has been historically used as a cover to shield domestic abuse from legal scrutiny (and not only against women – see this disturbing Supreme Court case about a stepfather who beat a four year old into serious and permanent cognitive disability; the Rhenquist Court argues that state social services had no enforceable obligation to intervene because of family privacy). It is in this context that I ran across Reva Siegel’s (Law, Yale) fantastic article on the way that claims of domestic privacy emerged out of the collapse of a husband’s legal right to “chastise” (beat) his wife. Siegel’s larger purpose is to study the ways that legal reforms can serve to “modernize” status regimes, a process in which old hierarchies are given new justifications and (perhaps) weakened, but not eliminated. It’s not that the legal reforms don’t achieve anything – it’s that it’s very, very difficult to dismantle regimes of social privilege, and that (as Foucault noted), power always entails resistance.
Here, I want to focus briefly on the move from chastisement to privacy, because I think it suggests something important for our understanding of biopolitics. As Siegel outlines it, the basic story is that, over the course of the nineteenth century, a couple of groups made substantial inroads into the old common law right of chastisement: temperance groups used stories of horrific abuse of women by drunk husbands to advocate banning alcohol, and feminist groups use the same stories to advocate for the banning of wife-beating. The feminists eventually won, and a pair of state supreme court cases around 1870 (one in Alabama and one in North Carolina) emphatically – perhaps a little too emphatically – pronounced wife beating to be the unwelcome vestige of a primitive, bygone era.