Francine Hughes stood outside her Michigan home, watching it burn. Inside was her abusive husband, Mickey. Earlier that night, he had beaten and raped her for the last time. She stood watching the fire, then turned and entered the car where three of her children cowered in fear. Then she drove herself to authorities and turned herself in.
Her ordeal had begun 13 years before, when she married James “Mickey” Hughes. After a hellish marriage marked by physical, verbal and emotional abuse, they had divorced. But the abuse continued, and the night of the murder in 1977, Mickey had beaten Francine in front of their children, ripped up textbooks from her secretarial courses, and then forced her to have sex with him, threatening to kill her.
Francine did not know it, but she was about to become a central figure in what is now known as the battered women’s movement, which worked to draw attention to the plight of women who were brutalized by their husbands—but were rarely taken seriously by America's justice system. By turning the national attention received by tragic cases like Francine's into ways to help women like her, the movement created a system of life-saving shelters, laying the foundation for a modern awareness of domestic violence.
Francine Hughes’ life story reads like a nightmare, and the book based on her ordeal, Faith McNulty’s The Burning Bed, is as much horror story as true crime reportage. As a child, Francine Moran watched her alcoholic father abuse her mother, and when she dropped out of high school to marry, she quickly became a spousal abuse victim, too.
Mickey began to abuse her shortly after the marriage, Hughes told People. “I bought some new clothes and he ripped them off me,” she recalled. “I don’t know whether I looked too pretty or what, but he didn’t want me to look that way.” But though Mickey seemed remorseful at first, his abuse became a pattern.
Soon, Francine had four children and a husband who spent much of their money on alcohol. In 1971, she spoke with a local social worker and decided to divorce Mickey. But he ignored the divorce decree, coming and going at will and beating her. When Mickey was in a serious car crash a few weeks later, Francine took him back and nursed him to health. But the abuse got worse.
Then, on March 9, 1977, Mickey lashed out on Francine, who had attempted to enroll in secretarial school with her mother’s assistance. He forced her to burn her books, demanded she drop out, and threatened to destroy her vehicle. Terrified, Francine called the cops, but they refused to arrest Mickey since they had not witnessed the abuse themselves—even though he threatened them and told her “it was all over” since she had called for help. When they left, he continued beating her and raped her. Afterward, he fell asleep.
“I was thinking about all the things that had happened to me…all the times he had hurt me…how he had hurt the kids,” Francine told People. “I stood still for a moment, hesitating, and a voice urged me on. It whispered, ‘Do it! Do it! Do it!’”
Francine acted swiftly, putting her kids in the car, then pouring gasoline around Mickey’s bed and lighting a match. As the house went up in flames, she drove to the Ingham County Jail to turn herself in. By the time firefighters reached the house, her husband was dead of smoke inhalation. Francine was arrested and charged with murder.
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Francine Hughes’ case was all too familiar to a group of feminist activists who had been trying to call attention to domestic violence for years. Ever since the fight for women’s suffrage, women had been trying to turn the tide on spousal abuse. One of the earliest political movements supported by the movement, temperance, was closely tied to domestic violence. Anti-alcohol advocates claimed that drunken men were more likely to beat and harm their wives and children, and used images and stories of women who had been attacked by their drunken husbands to gain support for their cause.
At the same time, women crusaded against the widely accepted policy of “chastisement,” which held that men had the right to physically punish their legally subordinate wives. “As master of the household, a husband could command his wife's obedience, and subject her to corporal punishment or "chastisement" if she defied his authority,” writes legal historian Reva B. Siegel. But as ideas of discipline shifted after the public became more aware of the abuse of slaves in the antebellum south, chastisement gained critics. Starting in the 1870s, chastisement became socially stigmatized.
That didn’t mean that domestic abuse stopped, though. Even in the 1970s, police and courts turned a blind eye to men who beat and raped their wives. In 1976, the New York Times covered a case in which a bleeding, bruised woman went to a police department in the hopes of getting protection from her violent husband, only to be told, “It’s not a Police Department thing” and referred to family court. Judges and juries routinely downplayed spousal abuse, too. By 1977, the same year that Francine Hughes killed her husband, the FBI had reported that spousal abuse was the United States’ most underreported crime.
Faced with a justice system reluctant to help abused women, grassroots organizers began to raise awareness and create small-scale protections for women in danger beginning in the 1970s. In 1972, the first rape crisis line was established. In 1971, the world’s first safe house for domestic violence victims was opened in Chiswick, London. A group of American activists visited the refuge and began a network of their own shelters in the United States.
Soon, activists began targeting the legal system itself. It was an uphill battle: legislators, police, judges and the public was slow to understand why it was necessary to provide specific legal protections for the victims of intimate partner abuse. “Do we break up a marriage simply because a man beats his wife?” asked New York City Councilman Leon A. Katz in a typical exchange with a group of advocates that testified in front of the city’s public safety committee in 1976.
Cases like Francine Hughes’s helped draw awareness to the issue. After she was acquitted due to temporary insanity, “burning bed syndrome” became something studied by academics and used as a defense in other cases of women killing their abusers. By the time Farrah Fawcett starred in a made-for-TV movie based on The Burning Bed in 1984, there was a National Domestic Violence Awareness Week, and the movement had made huge gains.
A decade later, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, which established a national domestic violence hotline, forced all states and jurisdictions to recognize and enforce victim protection orders, and provided funding for domestic violence training for law enforcement officers, among other provisions.
By the time Francine Hughes died in 2017, domestic violence had been recognized as a major national issue. But that doesn’t mean it’s been resolved. Even today, 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner, and one in four women and one in nine men will be victims of severe physical abuse by an intimate partner during their lifetime.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or chat with a worker at https://www.thehotline.org/.