Personal Essay
It’s Her Fault; It’s Feminists’ Fault: The Tie Between Victim Blaming and Scapegoating Feminists

It’s Her Fault; It’s Feminists’ Fault: The Tie Between Victim Blaming and Scapegoating Feminists

Recently, Daniel Tosh told a woman- who had the audacity (gasp) to say during Tosh’s stand-up act “Rape jokes aren’t funny”- that it would be oh so amusing for her to be gang raped right then and there.  Some have come to his defense saying hecklers should expect retaliation from the comedian, that’s his persona and she should’ve expected it, she should have looked him up online before the show, etc.  Others have attacked feminists who defended the woman saying they have no sense of humor and took what was a joke too far.  Let’s take a moment to sit back and digest this: not only is the female audience member considered in the wrong by some for “heckling” but also women who demand equality are at fault for being “humorless.”  Somehow the problem is with them, not Tosh or a rape-joke culture.  As a feminist, I enjoy a good sense of humor (in fact it is one of the main reasons I married my spouse), but I fail to see the comedy in this situation.  The Tosh debacle, while a minor incident compared to actual acts of gender based violence, warrants our attention.  It points to a deeper and more pressing problem that has been ingrained in American society, and this link between victim blaming and feminism is, unfortunately, not new.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Suffrage Movement, Temperance Movement, Social Purity Movement, and Progressive Movement collectively brought improvement to gender based and family violence.  Changes in family life permitted a more direct link between individual and state.  This allowed intervention in family to a degree, and regulate the state did.   After the Civil War, laws relaxed to allow women living in violent homes to seek help through obtaining a separation or divorce.  But between 1889 and 1906, divorce statutes became stricter as people perceived a “family crisis” emerging.  Still, the number of divorces increased fifteen times showing social disapproval for (at least in severe cases of) wife beating (Mintz and Kellogg, 109).  Judges interpreted laws liberally to allow for women, in brutal marriages, to receive legal separation and financial support, as in Earle v. Earle (1889) and Cochran v. Cochran (1894) (Hartog, 9).  Child protection agencies, such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, also formed at this time to enable abused children and wives to seek help.  Family courts emerged to deal specifically with cases of abuse and neglect.  Briefly, whipping post legislation offered state-sanctioned whippings to wife beaters as a solution to intimate partner violence.  Even the 18th and 19th Amendments sought to address social problems, such as family violence, through prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol and giving women the right to vote.

The Whipping Post. (Wikimedia)

By the 1920s, however, politicians claimed much of gender-based violence had been eradicated, and not surprisingly, the 1920s also marked the emergence of the “New Woman.”  The encroachment of First Wave Feminism, female Progressive reform, and working-women’s leisure time on the male public sphere seemingly culminated in the 1920s.  More women entered the workforce, and by 1929, over a quarter of young women were working outside the home.  More women entered into college and taught in elementary schools.  More women travelled away from the watchful eyes of their families.  The proliferation of Model-T Ford cars enabled this movement and, perhaps more importantly, enabled modern dating and sexual experimentation.

Statistics affirmed the continued growth of female sexuality as 36 to 39 percent of females who came of age during the 1920s had sex before marriage and were twice as likely to experience an orgasm as women of the prior generation (Zeitz, 21). The proliferation and demand for birth control information, such as in The Woman Rebel by Margaret Sanger, illustrated the desire to avoid unwanted pregnancies and to experience liberating sex, even outside of marriage.  Sex, while important, remained one aspect of the “New Woman.”

The contemporary Dorothy Dunbar Bromely argued that the “Modern Woman” knew “it is her American, her twentieth-century birthright to emerge from a creature of instinct into a full-fledged individual who is capable of molding her own life,” which makes her “man’s equal” (Shindo, 54) Flappers, epitomized by actress Clara Bow and socialite Zelda Fitzgerald, denied the controlling fashion of the Victorian Age with its corsets and hobble skirts for an athletic figure and dress, designed by the European trendsetter Coco Chanel.  Flappers lit “torches of freedom” (cigarettes). They kept flasks of gin in their garters.  They wore make-up, including mascara and rouge, which had formerly been associated with prostitutes, danced risqué dances like the Charleston, and participated in heavy petting (make out) sessions.  They expected more from marriage, more often participated in the concept of trial or “companionate marriages,” and more frequently sought divorce when emotionally dissatisfied.

Coco Chanel LBD. (Sara Gambarelli | Flickr)

However, this “New Woman” did not go unchallenged.  Coupled with the new aggressive male and growing backlash and dissatisfaction with Progressivism as a whole and gender-based violence reform in particular, society reacted.  Whether the flapper considered herself a feminist or not, the culmination of female threats to male domination in public life led men to conflate the differences between feminists, Progressives, and flappers and to attack the new gender roles for women.  By the 1920s, British scientist Sir Almroth Wright’s The Unexpurgated Case against Women’s Suffrage was published and covered by the media in the United States.  In this book, Wright justified a husband being violent to his wife if his wife “became violent, unrefined, ungrateful, or ‘when she places a quite extravagantly high estimate upon her intellectual powers.’” Around the same time, American scientist Dr. William T. Sedgwick stated that the aggressive male possessed “brutal appetites,” and these “brutal appetites” would lead a man to commit violence against women if women persisted in public and political life (Bederman, 161). Essentially, Dr. Sedgewick warned women that male violence (physical and sexual) was the consequence of feminism.  In 1927, another American scientist Dr. Victor Cox Pedersen also blamed feminists.  He stated,

Nonreproductive females and nonreproductive males might be looked on as personified errors in specialization.  There is no doubt that one of the tendencies of the feministic movement—the tendency to disregard and to belittle reproductive specialization— is adding very rapidly to the problem of immorality….Sexual looseness, otherwise immorality, is the frequent outcome.

For Dr. Pedersen, sexual dysfunction in men resulted from women’s push for equality.  These doctors all held feminism responsible for social problems.  Their status as medical professionals lent all the more credibility to their beliefs.  This backlash against the women’s movement had far-reaching implications.  What little headway gender-based violence reform had made was obliterated.

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, various forms of gender violence were further decriminalized and jurisdiction given to psychiatrists and psychologists in family courts.  Social workers urged reconciliation and taught women to change in accordance with their husbands’ wishes, such as how to keep house, dress attractively, and be submissive.  As psychiatrists gained prestige and grew as a profession in the United States, gender-based violence became viewed as the consequence of mental illness, and Freudian psychoanalysis emerged as the primary way to solve it.

By this point, American publication of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology was created to transmit and discuss Sigmund Freud’s work.  Freud stressed intrapsychic conflict through repressed memories (usually sexual in nature) that must be resolved through hypnosis and/or psychoanalysis.  Psychoanalytic therapy led to the creation of family therapy, starting in 1909 in Chicago and marriage therapy, beginning in 1929 in New York City.  This policy deemphasized the violence and sought to make even the victim find how she could change to create a “functioning,” “healthy” relationship.  Psychoanalysis grew during the 1930s and reached its heyday during the 1950s.

Photographic portrait of Sigmund Freud, signed by the sitter (“Prof. Sigmund Freud”). (Wikimedia)

Even after the Women’s Movement in the 60s and 70s, victims of gender-based violence are thought by many in society to have some role in the abuse.  Gertrude Summers and Nina Feldman conducted a study in 1984 and “found that bystanders…blamed the woman” based on the closeness of the relationship.  “The more intimate the relationship, the more the woman was held responsible for the violence.”  With the Rise of the New Right, victim blaming was again tied to feminism. Conservatives tainted feminists and their achievements arguing they are responsible for so many problems, including intimate partner violence and sexual assault.  Some such as Phyllis Schlafly contend feminists “love divorce” and are out to destroy the family and its values.  History repeated itself.

Currently, gender-based violence and victim blaming is no closer to being eradicated.  Most of us probably remember the issue last year over Topeka and decriminalizing intimate partner violence.  Politicians such as Wisconsin’s Don Pridemore make ignorant statements saying abused women should avoid divorce and basically “remember the better times.”  This reaffirms the view that abused women are accountable for their partner’s violence, and it leads these women on a never-ending quest to change their personality and actions to (somehow magically) stop the abuse.

Despite the recent changes to a more inclusive FBI definition of rape, rape survivors undergo extensive “character checks” to prove/disprove their testimony.  As of 2011, the arrest rate for rape is incredibly low- 24%- and has remained stagnant since the 1970s.  Gender-based violence is not getting better nor is the allocation of blame.  Too many believe victims somehow brought a crime upon themselves.  This message is so internalized as evidenced when women say, “she shouldn’t have worn that,” “she shouldn’t have been out that late,” “she shouldn’t have argued with him.”  From this perspective, victim blaming and scapegoating feminism take on new meaning.  Tosh’s verbal attack has brought this issue and these links to the forefront again.  His comments illustrate a larger social issue with blaming women for violence against their person.  Hopefully, hopefully, hopefully, history won’t continue to repeat itself, and these discussions will stimulate new awareness about gender-based violence, stop victim blaming, and squelch stereotypes about feminists.

This picture is from a great Tumblr site “Who Needs Feminism?”

* Disclaimer- I do recognize not all victims of intimate partner violence or sexual assault are women or even heterosexual women.  Men can be victims too, and IPV does take place in same sex relationships.  These are undoubtably important issues.  But, since statistically the majority of IPV victims are in fact women and the focus of the article is on the tie between gender-based violence and feminism, I believe that male victims and IPV in same-sex partnerships are beyond the scope of this particular blog post.

Suggested Reading:

* Bederman, Gail. Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

* Gordon, Linda. Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence. New York: Viking, 1988.

* Hartog, Hendrik. Man and Wife in America: A History. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000.

* Mintz, Steven, and Susan Kellogg. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: Free Press, 1988.

* Pleck, Elizabeth H. Domestic Tyranny: The Making of Social Policy against Family Violence from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

* Shindo, Charles J. 1927 and the Rise of Modern America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010.

* Zeitz, Joshua. Flapper: The Notorious Life and Scandalous Times of the First Thoroughly Modern Woman. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006.

Featured image caption: Stop Blaming Victims. (Wolfram Burner/Flickr)

Ashley Baggett is a co-founder of Nursing Clio and is an assistant professor at North Dakota State University. She earned her PhD in history from Louisiana State University in 2014, and specializes in women’s history, gender studies, medical history, 19th-century United States, and southern history. She graduated with a BS in Secondary Education, Social Studies in 2003 and then taught middle and high school for five years before returning to grad school.