It took more than a century for activists to get American society to care about domestic violence. The issue was brought to light by early advocates of women’s rights, but it was largely ignored until the mid-1970s.
Then, nurses realized they were uniquely positioned to help. They pushed for the medical profession to be more aware of the problem and advocated for research about domestic violence and its long-term effects.
At the time, medical providers didn’t have a formal way to identify or treat women who had been abused. The effects of that violence — including mental-health issues, traumatic brain injuries, broken bones and bruises — were often dismissed, ignored or treated without acknowledging the underlying cause.
Slowly, nurses effected change, from the first-ever protocol to identify and treat abused women (developed by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 1977) to the first-ever definition of “battered woman,” which was outlined in a 1989 bulletin of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
The exhibition is now at Oakland University near Detroit, and it’s making its way around the country. If you can’t catch it in person, you can learn more online: The “Confronting Violence” website has pictures, lesson plans and more information about the nurses and their advocacy.
Nurses’ work to treat and prevent domestic violence continues. A 2015 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced stalking, rape or another form of violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime.
The medical profession can’t solve the bigger social problem, but it can treat, care and educate — and help prevent domestic violence from fading back into the woodwork.