The Violence Against Women Act, Framing, and Feminist Compromise

By Nancy Whittier

During the 2012 elections, unprecedented public argument emerged over what Democrats dubbed Republicans’ “war on women,” as Republican politicians made countless belittling remarks about rape. Republican Representative Ted Akin commented that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that thing down” and prevent pregnancy, while Representative Ricviolence_9-22-16k Santorum said that rape victims who became pregnant should “make the best out of a bad situation” by having the baby. In addition, Republicans blocked the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This may not seem surprising, but in fact VAWA – first passed in 1994 –  had never been controversial before. It was originally cosponsored by both conservatives and liberals in Congress and some of its strongest opponents in 2012 previously had been cosponsors.

Both the dispute in 2012 and earlier bipartisan support depended on how violence against women is understood. Is it a matter of women’s oppression and thus a feminist issue? Is it a matter of crime and law enforcement and thus a traditionally conservative concern? Is it only a matter of gender, or are there distinct experiences and needs for immigrant women, women of color, Native American women, or LGBT people?

Women’s movement organizations that worked for the law, especially the National Organization for Women’s legal advocacy arm, understood violence against women as both a feminist issue and – through an intersectional feminist lens – as shaped by race, citizenship status, and sexuality, as well as gender. But when they worked closely with liberals and conservatives in Congress to craft and past the legislation, they framed violence against women strategically. My analysis of Congressional hearings found that, while feminists testifying for the bill were more likely to emphasize gender and Republican legislators more likely to emphasize crime, most legislators and witnesses across the ideological spectrum combined these ideas, framing the issue as a distinctly gendered crime. This facilitated near-universal support for the law.

The idea that intimate partner violence and sexual assault are crimes that are primarily about gender made it difficult for advocates to address intersecting issues. VAWA did contain funding incentives for services to “underserved populations” like rural residents, non-English speakers, and women of color. These made a concrete difference in the kinds of services shelters and other organizations offered. But the extension of protections to undocumented and immigrant women, I found, was debated in Congress not in terms of crime or gender, but in the much more continuous terms of immigration, especially the potential for fraud. Protections for Native American women – similarly – were debated in terms of Native American sovereignty, also more controversial than crime. As a result, these measures in VAWA were always more limited. Republican opposition in 2012 crystalized around precisely the issues of protections for immigrant and Native American women (along with a non-discrimination clause for services to LGBT people).

Some of VAWA’s measures increased criminal justice enforcement against violence against women, and have been rightly criticized for working with the racially biased police and prison system that often victimizes rather than helps marginalized women. But VAWA also increased a wide range of social and support services for people who experienced intimate partner and sexual violence and made these services markedly more accessible to non-English speakers, immigrants, poor and rural women, and other marginalized groups. Were these gains worth the compromises that advocates made? Was framing violence against women as a gendered crime a strategic error that limited VAWA’s reach? Or was this the only way to achieve the limited gains possible in a Congress where votes from conservatives are a necessity? These questions, and the VAWA case, go to the heart of federal policy-making in a two-party system. They also are crucial questions for activists about the shape, strategy, and results of incremental change.

Nancy Whittier is Professor of Sociology at Smith College. She is the author of The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse (Oxford, 2009), Feminist Generations (Temple, 1995), numerous articles and chapters on gender and social movements, and a forthcoming book on how feminists and conservatives influence policy on sexual violence. Her article can be found in the October 2016; 30 (5) issue of Gender & Society here


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