On October 8, 1984, “The Burning Bed” premiered on NBC. The TV-movie – starring Farrah Fawcett and based on Faith McNulty’s 1980 book – portrayed the true story of domestic violence survivor, Francine Hughes. Watching her harrowing plight, the public perspective of domestic violence was forever altered. “The Burning Bed” ignited a nationwide movement to pass legislation to save victims of intimate partner violence.
After enduring years of brutal violence throughout the 1970s, Hughes feared that the next attack would result in her demise. Before resorting to murder, the housewife had unsuccessfully tried to get help from the authorities in her hometown of Lansing, MI. At the time, police could only help her if they witnessed an attack firsthand (despite the fact that she was covered in cuts and bruises) and social welfare was only available to Hughes and her three young children if she was divorced. Additionally, there were very few shelters in America for domestic abuse victims. Ultimately, Hughes killed her husband by dousing him in gasoline while he was sleeping and set him on fire.
Audiences were also horrified to learn that, although Hughes acted in self-defense, her lawyer feared that the only way to get her acquitted was by invoking a “not guilty by reason of temporary insanity” plea. The jury of 10 women and two men found her not guilty on November 3, 1977. When asked after her trial if she felt like a liberated woman, Hughes responded, “I don’t think I’ve ever been liberated, but I’d like to be.”
By revealing the once hidden secrets of domestic violence, “The Burning Bed” led to legislative changes that liberated many women from the dark abyss of abuse. Starting in 1987, October was officially named Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Ten years after “The Burning Bed” premiered on TV, President Bill Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act into law on September 13, 1994. As a result, the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) was created to assist victims of domestic violence, as well as stalking and dating violence.
Despite these much-needed measures, over half the killings of American women today are connected to intimate partner violence. The Center for Disease Control recommends better screening in doctor’s offices, better bystander training and limiting gun access for people under domestic violence restraining orders. However, the country has come a long way since the 1984 premiere of “The Burning Bed.” Public awareness and stronger laws related to abusive relationships have made it easier for women to get help.