Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Janet Wilmoth


domestic violence, older women

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


Current estimates indicate that upwards of 3,000,000 women a year are physically abused by an intimate partner, however, it is important to note that serious limitations associated with these estimates exist. Despite media campaigns, educational efforts, community outreach, and legislation, the majority of intimate partner violence that occurs in the United States continues to go unreported. While there is a vast literature on domestic violence, the focus has been on the experiences and outcomes of younger women. Very few studies have investigated the experiences of older women as survivors of domestic violence who came of age in an era of traditional gender values when men had authority and dominion over women, and there was no public acknowledgement of domestic violence. Little is known about the meaning older women make of their experiences with and beyond domestic violence, or the lifetime effect domestic violence has on women as they age.

The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the ways in which older women make meaning of their experiences with domestic violence. The intent was to center on and illuminate the lives of older women survivors of domestic violence- the ways that they have come to understand and work through the complicated emotions and relationships in the wake of the abuse, and how they have constructed their identities around the experience. Additionally, I wanted to expose the institutional structures, forces, and "wordless authorities" that worked to subordinate these women and keep them silent.

Life history interviews of 15 older women survivors, aged 60 to 89, were collected and analyzed. Four of the women were Native American and eleven of the women were white. Findings highlight the link between family of origin and individual development, and the influence that the family of origin has on later life values and actions. Several major themes emerged from the interviews related to the development of self-esteem, the loss of innocence, timing & decision making, divorce stigma, support, intimacy, remorse, and resilience. Race and age-related differences indicated that the younger women were less effected by traditional family values and divorce stigma; women who left their abusers very early in the relationship generally had better physical, psychological, and social outcomes, as did their children; and Native women were quicker to act on the decision to leave, were more focused and successful at restoring balance to their lives, were more forgiving of their partner's, and dwelled less on feelings of remorse or regret. All of the women spoke of the gender restrictions they faced, usually reflecting on `a different time' to account for their subordination, but they didn't question their scripted roles or responsibilities as women, wives, and mothers. Some of the older women, despite their personal histories of violence and abuse at the hand of their husbands, continue to feel that men should have authority over women in marriage.


Open Access