The rule of thumb joins urban legends such as dog meat in Chinese food and razor blades in Halloween candy, the latter two also having never happened. It is more related to the dog legend as a slur against a social group.
The legend has it that English common law allowed a man to beat his wife so long as it was with an instrument no wider than his thumb. You hear variations, like, A law in Texas. I even saw it cited in a BBC documentary by a scholar who should know better. It became so commonly believed that the Journal of Legal Education published an article to debunk it. [Henry Ansgar Kelly, Rule of Thumb and the Folklaw of the Husbands Stick, September, 1994, Vol. 44, p 341.]
It didnt help. It had already assumed a life of its own. That is an indication that its what many want to be true, irrespective of whether it is.
Christine Hoff Sommers traced its origin to Del Martin who, in 1976, was a coordinator of the NOW Task Force on Battered Women. But she never coined rule of thumb to describe it. It also seems that Murray Straus, the otherwise responsible family violence researcher, contributed to her impression with a careless reference in his scholarly work, Violence in the Family. It has since been attributed to William Blackstones 1770s authoritative chronicle of English common law, Commentaries on the Laws of England, but no such assertion is there. Quite the opposite.
Like all such legends there is a grain of truth, but taken to remarkable extremes. Three isolated judges are believed to have allowed limited disciplining of a wife in one of each of their judgements. Two are recorded in the US South (1824 in Mississippi and 1868 in North Carolina), plus Francis Buller in England, circa 1782. We only know about Bullers ruling because the records from that time are of the public vilification of him for it. But a later biographer found no evidence he rendered such an opinion. (Biographical Dictionary of the Judges of England, 1870.)
Remember that, until the 1900s, if a women committed a tort, her husband was punished for it. Men were held to account for anything any member of their family did, so there are references to reasonable restraint, all heavily qualified and strictly confined to cases where a family member could be a danger, not just to the husband/father, but the family.
The problem with this lie is not just that any dictionary will tell you that rule of thumb means using ones own judgment instead of external ruler. (It is most commonly attributed to carpentry, where a master would use the length, not width, of his thumb for common measurements.) The problem is also not simply that it is false: that it has never been legal nor even acceptable for a man to beat his wife, as shown by the 1782 derision of such a suggestion even then.
What makes this a particularly malicious slur against all men and masculinity is that its opposite has always been true. The male code has always included, Never hit a women, and that is how men socialize men, and always have. Masculinity is explicitly about protection of women and children from this very kind of treatment, and men have always vigorously enforced it among themselves.
This myth is a gender hate crime.
Women have always been able to count on protection from men, and still do. Spinning and spreading such lies can only be to create fear and loathing, which is useful for political power.
©2007 KC Wilson
To nourish children and raise them against odds is in any time, any place, more valuable than to fix bolts in cars or design nuclear weapons. - Marilyn French