Feminist Legal Scholar Cites Historical Origins of the "Rule of Thumb"

Glenn Ricketts

Last week my colleague Ashley Thorne noted the recent exchange in the Chronicle of Higher Education between Christina Hoff Sommers, NAS board member and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Nancy K. D. Lemon, lecturer in domestic violence law at the University of California, Berkeley. The debate was precipitated by an essay Sommers had published in the Chronicle in June, where she criticized feminist scholarship as intellectually shoddy, error-laden and often driven by political advocacy rather than the search for truth. Even worse, Sommers argued, was the fact that feminist authors refuse to acknowledge and correct their errors, which continue to appear without alteration through multiple editions of several widely used textbooks.  

As a prime example, Sommers cited Domestic Violence Law, edited by Lemon, where one of the authors, Cheryl Ward Smith, asserts that the formal, legal sanction of domestic violence was first established in the year 753. BC, under Romulus the first king of Rome: “The laws permitted a man to beat his wife with a rod or switch so long as its circumference was no greater than the girth of the base of a man’s right thumb. The law became commonly known as the ‘Rule of Thumb.’” Wait a minute, said Sommers. That’s not even a stretch:  Romulus was a mythical figure, not a historical one. Yet the essay in which this glaring mistake appears is included unchanged in the current edition of Lemon’s book. In the recent exchange between the two, Lemon stands by her book:

In regard to the rule of thumb, for example, [Sommers] asserted that Romulus of Rome, who is credited in my book with being involved with the first antidomestic violence legislation, could not have this as he was merely a legendary, fictional character, who along with his brother Remus was suckled by a wolf. In fact, Plutarch and Livy each state that Romulus was the first king of Rome. He reigned from 753-717 BC, and created both the Roman Legions and the Roman Senate. He is also credited with adding large amounts of territory and people to the dominion of Rome, including the Sabine women.

Here at NAS we appreciate Lemon’s respect for classic sources. We look forward to a future edition of Domestic Violence Law where perhaps she can include Ovid’s account of domestic violence resulting in Philomel’s growing wings and flying away as a nightingale. 

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