Why is stopping gender violence a ‘women’s issue’?

By — May 13, 2012

The Violence Against Women Act is causing contention as it comes to Congress for the third time for reauthorization. Democrats want to extend the act, first approved in 1994, to provide protection to Native American women, victims in same-sex relationships, and undocumented immigrants—some of the country’s most vulnerable populations. But Republicans have accused Democrats of deliberately including these “controversial” issues in an attempt to lure them into blocking the bill, politicizing a bipartisan issue to enmesh them further in what’s being called a “war on women.”

The act, which has made a clear statement in its very existence that violence against women must be named and stopped, has passed the Senate, but Republican women have announced they will challenge it in the House with a version of their own. Leading female Democrats held a press conference to champion their version of VAWA and members of both sides have revealed personal experiences of domestic violence to highlight the issue as the battle for women’s votes rages on.

This summary is an amalgamation of hundreds of news reports covering the same ground, telling the same story, recycling the same phrases and facts. Phrases that have been used again and again: “women’s votes,” “the war on women,” “women’s issue,” “hot-button issues,” “contentious areas,” “Republican women,” “the female vote.”

But here’s a question: Why is domestic violence a “women’s issue”? Think about murder. It’s an issue we are all concerned with. Is it likely to affect us personally in our lifetime? No. But we still care deeply about it, whether it affects us directly or not. According to a poll by the Allstate Foundation, 74 percent of Americans personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence. So what is it about this issue that can possibly, in any reasonable terms, be described as “contentious” or “divisive”? And what makes it a “women’s issue”? Don’t men care about women’s wellbeing? Aren’t they concerned with acting to prevent violence against their mother, daughter, sister, or wife?

This is no more a “women’s issue” than infanticide is a “children’s issue,” not to be voted on or fought for by adults because it doesn’t affect them directly. The phrase “women’s issue” is a straw man. We are talking about rape. We are talking about domestic violence, abuse, sexualized attacks, and gender-based murder—issues that affect every American, regardless of their gender, race, or faith.

Purple ribbons are used to raise awareness of domestic violence and other kinds of violence against women.

Conservative groups like the Concerned Women for America and the Independent Women’s Forum have called the law a “slush fund” for feminist causes that “harms men unfairly and encourages the dissolution of marriages,” according to The New York Times. With the act focusing on interventions for women in violent situations—such as health care, safe housing opportunities, and economic security solutions, how can we suggest that this is a “slush fund”?

The political marginalization of women caused by labelling issues like domestic violence "women's issues" is inestimable. It ostracizes women from mainstream policies by suggesting that they focus only on those that affect them directly and consequently softens their voices in other debates too. And the deepest irony is that while confining women to such tight political definition, it can be described as “controversial” to include immigrants, lesbians, and Native American women in the category at all. What is “contentious” about the idea that all women should be supported by the same legislation?

The problem is compounded by the women of both parties who have “claimed” these issues in Congress, performing press conferences to show female unity and even emphasizing that they are “working with female lawmakers.” Focusing on female legislators and lawyers has the same deeply patriarchal overtones as the exclusion of men from the birthing room and the accusation of women for wearing short skirts when they are raped: This isn’t your problem, don’t concern yourselves here; this is our mess, we should get ourselves out of it. It goes right to the root of the whole problem.

It must have taken an enormous amount of personal courage and strength for the women in this political fight to share their own stories of violence—and I do not mean in any way whatsoever to belittle their bravery in doing so. It is the political culture that necessitates these actions that is the problem.

There is something wrong with a status quo in which it is necessary to demonstrate some kind of card-holding affiliation to the club to fight against domestic violence. It contributes to the state of “otherness” that already plagues legislation relating to crimes of sexual harassment and gender-based violence and increases the sense of mystique and rarefication that so wrongly surrounds these issues, allowing a culture of suspicion and controversy to grow up around them in the first place. In no other legislation is this phenomenon so acutely observed—no senator appears to feel the need to reveal his or her own medical records when campaigning for better health care and would likely be ridiculed for suggesting that you needed to have lost a child to be able to battle for measures to reduce infant mortality.

If we are to make any headway at all against the horrifying statistic that 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the U.S., we must start by discarding the term “women’s issue” altogether. Every issue is a women’s issue. Our votes should be equally weighed and courted on policy, from education to engineering. And no man should step back—or be asked to—from our shared responsibility to tackle violence and abuse, wherever it may occur and whomever it may affect. We are in this together. It’s time we started acting like it.

Laura is a freelance writer. Women Under Siege has published only her first name because she is receiving threats based on her work. She last wrote here about the gender disparities of laws in conflict zones.