As early as 753 BC, written law gave Roman men the right to physically "discipline" their wives for a variety of offenses. Women were considered possessions of their husbands or fathers and were treated as such.

With the rise of Christianity, several hundred years later, husbands were encouraged to use "moderation" in punishing their wives. These religious teachings were reflected in English Common Law such as the "Rule of Thumb" stating that a husband could only beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb. In Colonial New England, husbands were liable for their wives' behavior and were expected to beat them when they committed a sin, "not out of anger but out of concern and charity for her soul." Often a woman who refused her husband's wishes would be accused of witchcraft.

The Temperance Movement of the 1830's became the first American reform campaign to emphasize the brutality of domestic violence. Insisting that domestic violence was a direct consequence of alcohol, reformers argued that the survival of the alcoholic's wife depended upon her rights to control her own earnings, gain custody of her children, and to secure a divorce, none of which were an option for most women. By 1850, divorces were possible but most were granted for drunkenness rather than cruelty.

By the 1870's wife beating was illegal in most states. With the 1800's came a variety of legal sanctions for battering, although often these laws were not enforced. Nevada law held that a batterer convicted for the first time would be tied to a post erected in the county seat for two to ten hours. A Maryland law prescribed that 40 lashes or one year in prison for wife beaters. and several states decreed that battering be punished with up to 30 lashes at a whipping post.

By the early 1900's protective agencies were being created in various parts of the country whose duties were to provide legal aid to abuse victims and assist them to find housing and employment. Also came the development of Family Courts which had jurisdiction over all criminal matters associated with the family. The domestic violence movement slowed as the country faced two World Wars and the Depression. During the 1950's a rise in violent crime prompted a "rediscovery" of family violence which was also facilitated by the feminist movement of the 1960's.Prior to the 1970's there was little or no state or federal funding for domestic violence shelters.

In 1971 the first battered women's shelter was established in London, England. At the same time, shelters were being established in the United States.  In Yakima, the YWCA  opened a shelter and began support services for battered women and their children in 1978.  In 2003, the YWCA's Family Crisis Shelter housed 207 women and 209 children for a total of 4,981 bed nights.