Until the women’s movement organized in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most Americans considered wife beating a custom. The police ignored what went on behind closed doors and women hid their bruises beneath layers of make-up. Like rape or abortion, wife beating was viewed as a private and shameful act which few women discussed. Many battered victims, moreover, felt they “deserved” to be beaten—because they acted too uppity, didn’t get dinner on the table on time, or couldn’t silence their children’s shouts and screams.
Men slugged women with impunity until feminist activists renamed wife beating as domestic violence, and described its victims as “battered women.” Such women needed refuge, and activists created a network of shelters for women who tried to escape, often with their children, the violence threatened by their partners.
Throughout the 1970s, feminists sought to teach women that they had the right to be free of violence. “We will not be beaten” became the slogan of the movement against domestic violence. Books and pamphlets argued that violence violated women’s rights. But it wasn’t until 1994, during the presidency of Bill Clinton, that Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), legislation that allocated funds to investigate crimes against women, created shelters for battered women, provides legal aid, and protected victims evicted from their homes because of domestic violence.
Feminists considered VAWA, signed by Clinton on September 13, 1994, to be landmark legislation. It gave the federal government the authority to punish domestic violence. Studies showed that the law had some positive impact by creating refuges and forcing the judicial system to deal with domestic violence. But as daily newspapers reported, it didn’t stop violence against women in private or in public—at home, at universities, on streets and in parks.
Nor did it take long for right-wing opponents to try and weaken VAWA. As an increasingly polarized America bitterly fought over women’s new rights and protections, social conservatives targeted the VAWA as undermining the traditional family and men’s dominant role in society. And each time the legislation came up for reauthorization, activists had to renew their struggle to protect what they had gained, even as they tried to expand VAWA to include new groups of women. In 2013, for example, opponents wanted to deny Native American, and immigrant women, as well as women in same-sex couples, the protections provided from VAWA. They lost, but only after a lengthy Congressional political battle.
Setbacks were, of course, inevitable. Like abortion, VAWA symbolized women’s new social, economic, and sexual independence from men’s control. In 2000, a sharply divided Supreme Court, in United States v. Morrison, struck down a section of the VAWA that gave women the right to sue their attackers. By a five to four majority, the court overturned the provision as unconstitutional because it usurped Congress’s power to regulate "commerce with foreign nations, states and Indian Tribes."
At the same time, grassroots organizations of women began identifying all kinds of violence against women, including genital mutilation, dowry death, rape, forced sterilization, forced pregnancy, sex trafficking, honor deaths, as well as the custom of throwing acid into the face of a woman who had “dishonored” her family.
The idea that violence against women was a violation of human rights began gaining new legitimacy, within the U.S. and around the world. At the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna, women from every continent testified about the distinct forms of violence they experienced at home. The Conference issued a Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which the U.N. General Assembly adopted. Just six years later, the U.N. designated November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women—a day to raise the world’s consciousness about violence against women. These resolutions were viewed as complementary to the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In 1995, at the Beijing U.N. World Conference on Women, Hillary Rodham Clinton famously declared: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely—and the right to be heard.”
Certainly, every Secretary General of the United Nations heard her and felt obliged to speak against those customs that violated women’s human rights. In 2006, then-Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote: “Violence against women and girls is a problem of pandemic proportions. At least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime with the abuser usually someone known to her.” Only last week Unicef published a major report, Hidden in Plain Sight, based on data from 190 countries, which revealed that some 120 million girls and young women face serious sexual assault.
Today, twenty years after the U.S. Congress passed VAWA, it’s hard to know if violence against women has decreased or increased, because it is chronically underreported. But the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year in the U.S. Social media, moreover, expose us daily to videos of the Taliban flogging women in Pakistan, state complicity in the sexual abuse of women in Cairo, and men’s brutality toward female activists during and after the Arab Spring. Violence against women is everywhere.
Eve Ensler, an American playwright who wrote the highly controversial and Tony-awarded play, The Vagina Monologues, has tried to combat violence against women around the globe. Her play sought to teach women to value their bodies. She then renamed Valentine’s Day, V-Day, to encourage women to speak out against the violence they faced. "I was obsessed with the statistic that one in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime,” Ensler explained, “which is equal to over one billion women." And so she created One Billion Rising, which encourages men and women to break the “chain of violence” on V-Day by dancing in flash mobs against violence against women. The movement’s website functions like an international bulletin board, with posts from harassed female street artists in Cairo to a BBC program about the Yazidi women, a religious group that few people in the West had ever heard about before.
More than anything, war reinforces the custom that the victors get to rape, as part of the “spoils” of war. On June 19, 2008, the United Nations Security Council declared such rape, when a tactic of war, to be a war crime against humanity. But that has changed little. Every day, in every war zone, we hear about women who have been abducted, kidnapped, and raped by members of fighting forces who have declared themselves to be the enemy of that woman's ethnic or religious identity. The truth is, millions of women are currently caught between murderous organizations like ISIS, which want to control every aspect of women’s lives, and modern societies that have at least given lip service to the idea of gender equality.
So far, Americans have not greeted the twentieth anniversary of the VAWA with any significant fanfare. Even without any celebration, however, the legacy of VAWA remains influential. On August 30, the nation’s highest immigration court decided—for the first time—that a Guatemalan woman who had been a victim of severe domestic violence was eligible for asylum.
For years, feminist immigration lawyers had failed to convince immigration courts that many women will die if they are deported and returned to their husbands. Such a change in American law is a perfect way to note the twentieth anniversary of VAWA, whose great achievement has been to change the terms of debate about violence against women.
Still, it is not new laws, but the enforcement of them that needs to be addressed. Violence against sex workers by customers, and of undocumented workers by employers, for example, is widespread, but these women fear reporting violence because of their illegal status. Domestic violence is just the tip of the iceberg. It may take another century before violence against women seems as barbaric and unacceptable as slavery does today.