Invited address presented at Prospect 2000: A Conference on the Future, arranged by the Western Australian Division of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, Perth, May 1979, and published in S.T. Waddell (ed.), Prospect 2000, ANZAAS W.A. Division, Perth, 1979, pp. 24-39.
At the beginning of May 1979, four women appeared in a magistrate's court in Sydney, charged with having shot and killed a man. One of the women, aged fortynine, was the man's wife. The other three, aged variously nineteen, seventeen and sixteen, were his daughters.
Neighbours gave evidence at the hearing: one said that she had seen the man beating his wife, sometimes as often as three times in one day; another said that he had seen the man knock his wife down and kick her. He had been present once, said this witness, when the man told his family, ‘If I killed you all I would only have to go to jail once’. A detective told the court of the women's attempt to escape the repeated assaults by fleeing to a country town: the man followed them, armed with a rifle, and forced them to return home. He kept a loaded rifle in the bedroom, iron bars behind doors throughout the house, and threatened that he would be the first to sleep with his daughters.
The women did not complain to the police because they feared that any investigation would bring immediate retribution at home. Instead, one evening in January, when the man had beaten one of his daughters and thrown a glass at her, the wife mixed two crushed sleeping tablets into his food. Then, when he was snoring in front of the television, the four women resolved to kill him. The sixteen-year-old fired the shot. Afterwards, one of the daughters put her arm around her mother and said: 'It's all right, mum, we don't have to get belted any more'.
Such violence was not unique to that family. The defence cited as a precedent the decision made about a similar case in Victoria in the previous year. And information about a variety of forms of brutality, in the most private of our social institutions — the family — is beginning to weigh upon the shelves of public libraries, upon the desks of public servants, and upon the minds of public welfare workers.