The role of economic abuse in domestic violence

In the fifth piece for our 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence series, Alana Piper explores the history of financial abuse as a particular form of domestic violence, and how economics have historically acted to keep women in violent situations.

In April 1890, Michael Barry was tried at the Rockhampton sittings of the Queensland Supreme Court for the murder of his wife Mary. Barry’s lawyer called no witnesses in his client’s defense during the trial. The basic facts of the case were not in dispute.

Rockhampton Supreme Court, corner East and Fitzroy Streets, Rockhampton, c. 1890. Image via Queensland State Archive.
Rockhampton Supreme Court, c. 1890. Image via Queensland State Archive.

On 26 February Barry had committed a violent attack on his wife that had lasted several hours. At one point he had sent his son to fetch a stick with which to beat her. When that broke, he had started using an axe handle instead. All four of their children had witnessed the incident. The eldest, a girl of twelve, had tried to intervene and consequently was also assaulted by her father.

Neighbours heard Mary’s screams but had not interfered. Such disturbances were common in the Barry household. According to later newspaper reports, they were common in Rockhampton generally.

When Barry came out of the house later that day a neighbour did ask him why the children were crying. He told her, ‘They will have something more to cry for before long. I gave her a beating last night and kicked her, and she is dead.’ He then went to the police station and made a full confession of the events leading up to his wife’s death.

Despite the clear evidence in the case, the jury ended up taking seventeen hours to reach a verdict of guilty. This would have been an unusually long deliberation even in a more ambiguous case; at the time, most juries were discharged if they failed to agree on a verdict after six hours. In the end, the judge, Charles Stuart Mein, practically ordered the jury to find the defendant guilty of murder, declaring that any attempt to acquit, or find him guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, would be an infamous betrayal of their oaths as jurors.

What excuse for his violence had Barry offered to prolong the jury deliberations? He asserted that his wife had stolen his money-purse out of his pocket while he slept.

Domestic economic relations – historical and contemporary

Today, it is to be hoped that Barry’s allegation would be seen not as a justification for his crime, but as a potential sign of economic abuse and an example of the type of unequal power relations – especially in matters of finance – that often facilitate domestic violence.

In the last twenty years it has been increasingly recognised that financial abuse constitutes its own form of domestic violence, one that can occur alongside or in the absence of physical assaults. Economic abuse encompasses a variety of behaviours, including: preventing a partner’s access to shared financial resources; controlling their acquisition of independent resources; and refusing to contribute to household expenses or child-rearing costs. It undercuts victims’ security and independence, often with the intention of keeping them within the abusive relationship.

Fearful Quarrels, and Brutal Violence, Are the Natural Consequences of the Frequent Use of the Bottle, plate VI from The Bottle, George Cruickshank, 1847. Image via Online Archive of California.

Historically, economic abuse was built into household gender relations. Men, as the traditional breadwinners, were seen as entitled to direct the household finances as they wished. Under the legal principle of coverture, their control even extended to any property or earnings of their wife as well.

It was only at the very end of the nineteenth century that this condition was ameliorated to allow married women to own and control property in their own right. Queensland passed the Married Women’s Property Act in 1890, just months after Mary Barry’s murder. The other Australian colonies all passed similar legislation between 1884 and 1897.

Yet over a hundred years later – and despite Australian women’s workforce participation rate rising to just ten per cent less than that of men – for many women the lived experience of family power dynamics in money matters remains unchanged. A 2004 policy research paper on household monies and decision-making commissioned by the Australian government found that while women often had the management of household finances in terms of allocating available funds to daily needs, control of the finances in terms of access and major spending decisions still rested with the male partner in the majority of families. This situation pertained in both high- and low-income families, and irrespective of the female partner’s contributions to joint finances.

Of course, women’s individual experiences of financial agency do not necessarily present a uniform pattern across either historical or contemporary contexts. Nevertheless, it is easy to see how the traditional societal conception that women ought to defer to their husbands in financial matters might elide into subtle forms of economic abuse, or provide an ostensible excuse for physical assaults if women challenged male authority by subverting funds to their own purposes.

Rightful use of funds

Criterion Hotel, Rockhampton, c. 1873. Image via John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
Criterion Hotel, Rockhampton, c. 1873. Image via John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Michael Barry thus presumably believed that asserting his wife had tried to misappropriate his money would achieve him a degree of leniency, if not exoneration by the all-male jury.

The cause of the quarrel came out fully during Barry’s cross-examination of his daughter Johanna at the committal hearing proceedings. After telling the Police Magistrate that he hoped he would not take too much notice of anything his daughter had said during her questioning by the prosecution, Barry proceeded to interrogate his twelve-year-old daughter harshly as to what she had witnessed on the day of her mother’s death. In particular, he repeatedly tried to get her to admit that while he was asleep her mother had given her a shilling to buy some beer.

Barry’s implication that the money had been taken to spend on drink would have further strengthened perceptions that Mary Barry had to some degree provoked the beating that led to her death. Research by Ruth McConnell and Steve Mullins indicates that defences involving victim drunkenness were typically successful for both male and female defendants charged with intimate partner violence in colonial Rockhampton.

Accusations that wives had spent their husbands’ money on drink were also used to fend off women’s suits for separation or maintenance orders. Even women who spent money in other ways that could be constructed as frivolous – such as by visiting a fortune-teller – could find this being used against them by abusive husbands in court.

Drunk Father, George Bellows, 1923. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

However, according to Johanna Barry, her mother had not given her any money to go to the hotel. Rather, a female neighbour had given her own daughter some money to bring back some beer for herself and Mary, and some lemonade for the children. It had been Michael Barry who had given money to Johanna’s sister to fetch him liquor the night before the attack; this was after Johanna had to go with a male neighbour to drag her father back from where he was lying down drunk outside a hotel.

By the late nineteenth century, many in Australian society were highly condemnatory of working-class men expending their income on drink, particularly given its effects on their families. Organisations such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union were quick to point to drink as the primary cause of domestic violence. Yet a double standard persisted that meant that while men ultimately had the right to deploy the household income as they wished, women had only the most limited entitlements to claim a stake in these funds.

This was the most likely reason for the jury’s lengthy retirement. Under her father’s continued questioning, Johanna admitted that during the course of the beating her mother – after first saying Michael must have lost the purse – eventually confessed to taking it and putting it in the kitchen drawer. Yet Johanna remained adamant that her mother had not taken the purse, and that the ‘confession’ had simply been an attempt to get her husband to stop the assault and leave the room so she could escape. The day after the murder, a neighbour found the purse lying on the ground in the vicinity of the house.

Battles of control

Perhaps Michael Barry had simply lost his purse in the course of his drinking binge. If Mary Barry did take it from her husband’s pocket though, she was hardly alone in resorting to such tactics to deal with a physically or economically abusive husband. Joanna Bourke’s research of housewifery in late-nineteenth-century England revealed that lying about money or stealing from husbands was a common means of resistance. Some women married to drunken and violent husbands even gave sums of money to neighbours for safekeeping against future exigencies.

John Bartholomew Gough, Sunlight and Shadow: or, Gleanings From My Life Work, Temperance (1880). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
John Bartholomew Gough, Sunlight and Shadow: or, Gleanings From My Life Work, Temperance (1880). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Writing in the early 1900s, Australian working-class poet Janet Dibben described dealing with both physical and financial abuse as part of the everyday realities of life for women on the social and economic margins. In the poem ‘The Widow‘, for instance, Dibben described a woman rejoicing in her widowhood because it meant she had ‘no man to knock me about’ or expecting her ‘to keep him’. Men demanding access to their partner’s earnings, or trying to force them to take up prostitution to support the household, was another cause behind the instances of intimate partner violence regularly reported in nineteenth- and twentieth-century court records.

It is important to note too that while financial abuse and other forms of domestic violence might disproportionately affect women on the economic margins, the problem is not and has not been limited to poorer households. While sources on economic abuse of middle-class women can be harder to locate, they do exist. In the novel David Copperfield (1850), Charles Dickens provided a powerful portrayal of the type of financial abuse to which such women were vulnerable in his depiction of David’s mother’s remarriage to the domineering Edward Murdstone. Murdstone usurps control of the property his wife was left by her late husband and assigns authority over the household to his equally overbearing sister. He justifies this by undermining his wife’s capabilities: she is ‘too pretty and thoughtless’ to make decisions.

In her ground-breaking study of domestic violence in colonial Queensland, Kay Saunders uncovered various instances of economic abuse of middle-class women in petitions for divorce and judicial separation. Apart from men seizing and selling off their wives’ property, or abandoning them and their children to destitution, Saunders discovered attempts to use financial pressures to prevent women from escaping abusive marriages. For instance, when middle-class woman Mary Birmingham petitioned for divorce in 1864 after repeated violence from her husband, it was revealed that he had responded to her leaving him by placing newspaper advertisements warning employers not to hire his ‘absconding’ spouse.

A variety of behaviours historically used to control, exploit and demoralise women can thus today be understood as economic abuse. Some Australian jurisdictions even expressly include economic abuse as a specific form of violence in their legislation, although the high threshold for demonstrating a ‘coercive’ or ‘intimadatory’ intention behind such behaviours can make them difficult to prove in court. Of the many billions of dollars that domestic violence costs Australia annually, the greatest proportion is borne by victims.

Recognising the problem is only half the battle. As a recent state of knowledge paper by ANROWS asserted, there is a pressing need in Australia ‘to make economic issues primary components of domestic violence prevention and responses, and to ensure income support, employment, housing, financial, legal and other systems work more effectively together to prevent, identify and respond to the economic tactics and impacts of domestic violence.’

We know economic abuse destroys lives. Let’s not be the neighbours who ignore the screams.


Ruth’s Women Shelter Cairns is a feminist organisation that provides secure crisis accommodation, as well as other guidance and support, to women and children escaping family violence. In addition to accepting tax-deductible monetary donations, Ruth’s accepts both new and pre-loved household goods, clothing and toys to help women who have fled their homes to a new start. You can donate here.

AlanaPiperAlana Piper is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Griffith University, Brisbane. Her current research on the social and legal identities of thieves in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Australia is part of the ARC-Laureate Fellowship project, The Prosecution Project. Alana is broadly interested in the social and cultural history of gender, deviance and crime, and particularly interested in economically-motivated offences such as theft, fraud, prostitution and fortune-telling. 

Follow Alana on Twitter @alana_piper.

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