Putting the Liberation
Back in the Women's Liberation Movement
With the Violence
Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA), domestic violence and sexual
assault centers, police and district attorneys have experienced
a huge infusion of federal monies intended to combat domestic
violence - more than $100 million a year. In California and most
other states, this windfall is controlled by the Office of Criminal
Justice Planning (OCJP), a department of the State Attorney General's
Office - that is, law enforcement.
One of VAWA's novel
(and naive) ideas was to make the money for domestic violence
and sexual assault centers contingent on their forming partnerships
with law enforcement. In our county, in order to get the OCJP
funding - by far the majority of the centers' income - their grant
proposals must be approved by every police chief in the county
and the district attorney.
Think about that: the
cops now have total veto power over the money these centers depend
on to survive. This has played out with predictable results.
While the stated reasoning
behind this was that cops would learn from advocates and become
more sympathetic to DV and rape victims, that reasoning ignored
the power imbalance inherent in these "partnerships."
Rather than create kinder, gentler police forces who've been "educated"
into enforcing the laws protecting victims, the result has been
the complete evisceration of criminal justice advocacy for victims.
What had once been
grassroots, feminist institutions and activists fighting for women's
right to be protected from male violence have become instead (willingly
or unwillingly) well-paid handmaidens to the cops, doling out
referrals and pats on the head at $150 a day. Criminal justice
legal advocacy - getting cops, courts and district attorneys to
enforce the law - has been almost universally abandoned. The effect
on victims has been crushing.
A case in point: when
Purple Berets first formed in California in 1991, we did a lot
of work in coalition with Sonoma County Women Against Rape, our
local rape crisis center. WAR's victim advocate fought hard to
get rape cases prosecuted and to make systemic change in police
and DA practices and policies.
Then in 1996, María
Teresa Macias was murdered by her husband after being ignored
by sheriff's deputies more than 25 times. It was Purple Berets
and WAR working in tandem who investigated the case, organized
and focused the public outrage, and ultimately won the landmark
civil rights lawsuit holding the Sheriff's Department accountable
for their utter refusal to protect Teresa.
Targeted for Repression
Faced with a $15 million lawsuit and national exposure of their
virulent discrimination against women victims, county law enforcement
officials were mad as hornets, swarming the media with lies and
orchestrating attacks on the advocates who "did this to them."
For Purple Berets,
because we receive no government funding, their attacks were damaging
but ultimately toothless. They simply didn't have the leverage
to shut us up.
But for Women Against
Rape, they had all the leverage they needed - the purse strings.
Over the next year or so, the WAR advocate who'd worked Macias
was forced out, and WAR's county funding was ripped away.
The battle then turned
to their state OCJP funding. After more than a year of threats
and finally putting the rape crisis center out for bid, an accommodation
was made. What was left of Women Against Rape was forced to 1)
change their name, removing the words "women" and "rape"
from their handle; 2) agree not to take cases to the media; and
3) agree never, never, never to associate with the Purple Berets,
among other things.
This went so far as
to have board members and volunteers sign a document swearing
never to contact us - or even have coffee with us!
The net effect: the
institution (now named United Against Sexual Assault, or UASA)
was saved, but victims lost everything. Not surprisingly, we haven't
heard a peep of criticism of the police or DA out of them since.
In fact, at their recent
fundraising event, keynote speaker Sheriff Bill Cogbill's entire
speech was devoted to recounting how they'd gotten rid of Women
Against Rape. Far from hiding their naked manipulation of a once-feminist
agency, the Sheriff's Department is bragging about it.
Cogbill was followed
by executive director Gloria Young, who also spoke about how much
better things are now that they've destroyed Women Against Rape.
It was shocking.
Pay-Off or Pay-Back
So the UASA budget just keeps growing . . . along with the number
Not surprisingly, this
became an object lesson for other rape crisis centers around the
state. The resulting self-censorship and self-limitation has been
At the same time, all
around California, rape crisis centers (historically by far the
more feminist and radical wing of the violence against women movement)
began to be swallowed up by the more pliant domestic violence
All in all, on a national
scale, VAWA's $1 billion has bought silence with jobs. What were
once firebrand activists are now police advocates pulling down
$40,000 salaries, often making decisions based on job safety rather
than victim safety.
This is just wrong.
As feminist lawyer
Christine Pfau Laney said recently, "I just wonder what would
have happened to the civil rights movement if, in 1959, the federal
government had flooded their organizations with $1 billion. Do
you really think desegregation would ever have happened?"
The Voice in the
For years, ours has been one of the only voices decrying this
gutting of the violence against women movement, and whenever we've
pointed it out, the attacks on us have come fast and furious.
So it was gratifying
this spring to sit in a workshop at the National Coalition Against
Domestic Violence conference called "The Problem with Programs:
the Depoliticization of the Domestic Violence Movement."
The room was filled to overflowing with activists and advocates,
social workers and bureaucrats, all deeply disturbed by the constraints
imposed on them by their budgets and boards. These were women
who started out trying to change the world, only to find themselves
expected to collaborate in women's victimization instead.
One by one, they spoke
of the effect of the "professionalization" of the movement,
the removal of even the word "feminist" from their mission
statements, and of being changed from "social warriors"
to "social workers" in order to keep their jobs.
Gone from their rhetoric
was the language of patriarchy, of the institutionalized subjugation
of women, of sexism, replaced by words like "syndrome"
and "case management plan."
These women were hungry
for a movement; for women taking power, not bowing to it. They
wanted to work for women's rights, not women's further oppression.
Some Modest Proposals
It's a good sign - or at least a good start. We need to be having
these conversations both inside and outside of rape crisis and
domestic violence centers around the country, and to spark a fierce
determination to take our movement back. But the road back to
feminist activism won't be easy. Comfort is seductive, and won't
be given up without a fight.
Clearly, though, there
are a few steps that need to be taken now if the victims of rape
and domestic violence are to have any hope for justice.
Time to Get Off
As long as the cops control our budgets, they're going to control
our work. Turning that around won't be easy. A huge domestic violence
industry has grown up over the last years and it won't willingly
lay down all that power. And the truth is, good work costs money.
Much of that law enforcement money will have to be replaced by
But it won't take as
much as you may think. The time spent writing those government
grant proposals and the bean-counting and reporting required to
keep them take a big bite out of the grants themselves. At the
same time, centers are mandated by the grants to offer a lot of
"feel-good" programs that could easily be eliminated
without much effect on victims.
Take the Cops Out
of the Funding Loop
The pain of the transition might be eased by removing the VAWA
money from the control of the criminal justice agencies and locating
it elsewhere. In some states VAWA funds are administered by public
health or other public agencies.
But there's a downside
to that: whatever agency controls the funding, the movement will
be warped to fit that agency's agenda. In those states where public
health controls the funding, domestic violence suddenly becomes
a "public health problem" rather than a hate crime.
So even if we're successful
in changing the face of "daddy" from cop to shrink,
we need to see this as only a way station on the road to complete
Should the Shelter
Model Be Abandoned?
Battered women's shelters are extremely expensive programs, and
are much of what has led to the "professionalization"
of the movement. Undoubtedly in the 1970s, shelters were an innovative,
feminist response to the needs of victims. Today they're neither.
Let's look at what
happens when a woman goes into a shelter. Her kids are uprooted,
often taken out of their schools. She loses her housing, which
in today's economic climate will likely consign her to a couple
of years of homelessness before she can get on her feet again.
Often she also loses
her job, either because her batterer knows where she works or
because complying with all the shelter's "program" requirements
leaves no time to go to work. And at many shelters a part of her
meager welfare check (if she's lucky enough to still have one)
is taken to pay "rent" on her room, leaving little for
housing deposits and the other costs of creating a new life.
just wonder what would have happened to the civil rights movement
if, in 1959, the federal government had flooded their organizations
with $1 billion. Do you really think desegregation would ever
Plus, she's now doing
childcare 24/7, watching her children like a hawk for fear she'll
be kicked out of the shelter, or worse. And through it all, she's
buried in rules and prohibitions, bullied by staff, cut off from
her family and support system - in effect, she's in prison, while
her batterer remains a free man.
. . . Or Just Turned
on its Head?
If anything, it makes more sense to put the batterers in the shelters,
rather than their innocent victims. Then the women and their children
could get on with their lives with as little disruption as possible.
And the men could be bullied and badgered by the shelter workers,
forced to work their program eight hours a day, and threatened
that if they don't get their heads on straight, the next stop
At least it would send
the right message: rather than locking the women away so the police
won't have to bother to protect them, we could lock the men away.
Effective Law Enforcement
In the real world, once the violence has reached a certain level,
law enforcement is the only institution with the power to actually
stop it. For where else is a woman to turn in that critical moment
when she lies, beaten and bloodied, knowing that sooner or later
this is going to end with a gun to her head?
So if, instead of women's
shelters, we put our time and resources into ensuring that domestic
violence is prosecuted like any other violent crime, many of the
problems victims face would disappear.
The woman and her kids
would stay at home, in school and in their jobs. She would be
supported, rather than criminalized; empowered rather than imprisoned;
liberated from the violence, rather than merely having her battering
spouse replaced by a battering social worker.
And most importantly,
she'd be safe. Ask any woman at a domestic violence shelter if
she feels safe.
That's not to say that
law enforcement alone can put an end to male violence against
women. That will only come with feminist-based revolutionary change
in the way our culture views women, views violence, views race,
views safety. It's a long-term struggle, with no certainty of
success at the end.
But in the meantime,
millions of women are being beaten and destroyed every year. The
reality is that if we don't put the batterer in prison, we put
the victim in prison - either leave her in the prison of the violent
relationship, or put her in the prison and isolation of a shelter.
Time for an Insurrection
Regardless of where you come down on all this, one thing is clear:
what we're doing now isn't working.
More women every year
are beaten, held hostage, or killed by the men they live with
or used to live with; those who dare to fight back are rotting
in prisons. The costs to these women and to the society at-large
At this point, the
only thing that has been proven to protect women is incarceration
of the men who beat them. If there's a better solution, let's
find it. If there's not, let's quit being afraid to demand that
police do their jobs.
It's time for us to
get over our fear to even name the oppressor, and stop making
(or tolerating) excuses for batterers and the cops who protect
It's time to quit waiting
for government funding to take care of women's rights (when has
it ever?) and get back to taking care of them ourselves.
That means increasing
our political and financial support for independent feminist organizing
tenfold - or a hundredfold - so we're free to set our own priorities
about what needs to be done.
And it means getting our hands dirty and wrestling toe-to-toe
with the raging, hate-filled face of the misogyny and male privilege
at the root of it all.
Anything less is deadly.