Reauthorizing VAWA: Now, Was That So Hard?
About damn time! Despite its bi-partisan support from its inception in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) lapsed in 2012. Republicans and Democrats engaged in an intense debate on the terms of the bill as did the rest of the country. But on February 28, 2013, the House of Representatives renewed it. Not the watered down one. They passed the all-inclusive VAWA that provides resources for Native American, immigrant, and LGBT victims. Now we can continue the fight against domestic violence without regressing decades in the larger campaign for women’s rights. While most agree much more has to be done to end the violence, governmental intervention through VAWA is crucial to solving the problem.
The male privilege of chastisement eroded in the late 1800s when society began frowning on what was then called wife beating. Vigilante groups attacked white and black abusers for cruelty towards their significant others. Women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton pushed for divorce reform, demanding an out for women trapped in abusive marriages. Lucy Stone began publishing The Woman’s Journal detailing crimes against women, including domestic violence, in an attempt to shock readers to action. Temperance and purity reformers tied vice with spousal abuse and domestic discord. In Chicago, the Protective Agency for Women and Children formed offering services and refuge for battered women. This widespread disapproval prompted politicians to act.
By the 1880s, some states passed laws criminalizing domestic violence. Others used common assault and battery statutes in the criminal code to prosecute abusive partners. Civil courts began counting mental and physical cruelty as cause enough for women to obtain a full divorce. Increasingly, women’s suits became successful. Delaware, Maryland, and Oregon went to far as to establish a whipping post for batterers stating that men convicted of wife beating could (and some did) face court ordered lashes. This legal intervention in the late 1800s provided part of the solution to domestic violence. Under these changes, men faced legal consequences for their crime. But by the early 1900s, interest waned, and domestic violence victims were left with little to no recourse.
Second Wave Feminism brought renewed attention to the social problem of domestic violence. These raised awareness, created battered women’s shelters, and pushed for the legal system to become involved in the solution. Through their efforts, the modern day fight against domestic violence really began.
In 1994, VAWA was created in part of the wave to “get tough on crime.” Its existence has been to the benefit of countless survivors of domestic violence, but the 2012 debate over VAWA’s reauthorization threatened to set us back yet again. The threat was real. Remember in 2011 when Topeka, Kansas sought to decriminalize domestic violence? Or how about last year when Wisconsin Rep. Don Pridemore said, “If they [abused women] can refind those reasons and get back to why they got married in the first place it might help”? Or what about reduced funding to battered women’s shelters, such as Louisiana Gov. Jindal’s recently proposed cuts to anti-domestic violence programs.
Republicans blamed Democrats for creating a bill unpalatable to them by including protections for Native Americans, immigrants, and same sex couples. I suppose they think those groups do not deserve legal protection. But are they not human beings with basic rights?!? Domestic violence exists in every socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender. How does holding a prejudice and denying coverage to some help solve the problem? As Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore said, “As I think about the L.G.B.T. victims who are not here, the native women who are not here, the immigrants who aren’t in this bill, I would say, as Sojourner Truth would say, ‘Ain’t they women?’” Others cried the bill oversimplified domestic violence by making it only a legal problem. They also argued against certain points of VAWA including mandatory arrest laws. Thankfully, the majority of the Senate and the House believed VAWA was good enough to approve. Even sixty Republicans in the House broke party lines and voted in the interests of solving the problem of domestic violence. Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, for instance, went on record stating, “The Senate [VAWA] bill is a good bill, and it protects battered women.”
Is VAWA the sole answer to domestic violence? No! Of course many other measures are needed, including addressing gender norms, structural inequalities, poverty, police procedures, etc. But, what history has shown us is that government intervention is necessary in the fight to end violence. Look at times when the government stepped virtually out of the picture. Look at Russia. Domestic violence is not even classified as a crime. Only one battered women’s shelter exists in the city of Moscow, and the burden of proof rests on the victim. Not surprisingly, domestic violence plagues the country. 40 Russian women die every day as a result of abuse from a significant other. See an article about the problem here. Clearly, government intervention in the large scale problem of domestic violence is critical.
In the United States, 2-4 million Americans are victims of domestic violence each year, of which 90% are women. Aside from the emotional and physical toll on the survivor, domestic violence costs $5.8 billion a year, and over 3.5 million children witness it. The numbers are too high and the consequences severe. (See here for a photoessay on domestic violence and its impact.) Thursday’s reauthorization of VAWA was indeed an important moment. Not only is it renewed but also more minorities are included in its protections. We will not go backwards. We will push forward and continue the fight to end the violence.
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.