Who Knows? Theorizing Violence through Activism

In the 1970s and 80s, feminist anti-violence activists founded hundreds of domestic violence shelters, hotlines, and drop-in centers across the United States. Their aims were radical: to dismantle the oppressive systems that allowed domestic violence to occur and to undo the cultural mythologies that blamed victims for abuse. They marched, they demanded funds, they protested against the police, they heckled psychiatrists, they published the names of suspected rapists in underground papers, they hid battered women in their homes. Activists were diverse and they served diverse communities: early documents from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reveal that many of the first shelters served queer and trans women and that the shelter movement was “born in [the] gay bars” of cities across the country. One of the first shelters in the country (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) was started by two queer mothers on welfare who opened their apartments to women fleeing their homes.

The Research

Many of you likely already know that feminists protested against rape and domestic violence in the 1970s. But what I explore in my Gender & Society paper is how those activists also produced new theories of abuse while they were organizing. Protest movements are knowledge production movements: they pursue new ways of knowing about inequality. When feminists constructed shelters, they constructed surveys. When they organized hotlines, they organized studies. In consciousness-raising groups, they sketched out novel theories of power. Activists created powerful new frameworks to explain abuse and they revolutionized how we understand violence in the home. Their theories weren’t perfect – in fact, they were often exclusionary – but they were rooted in the experiential knowledge of survivors and activists.

Feminists didn’t do this knowledge production work without adversaries. What’s known as “family violence” research had more power than feminist research at the time, since it emerged from sociology and psychology departments complete with National Institute of Mental Health funds. Family violence researchers conceived of abuse as a set of incidents of physical violence found within the home – punching, slapping, kicking, strangling – an incident that anyone could perpetrate against anyone else.

Feminists challenged this popular model of abuse – they opposed the idea that violence in the home could be separated from gender inequality outside the home. Abuse isn’t just an incident. “Private” abuse is connected to how women are excluded in workplaces, ignored in school, sexually harassed in public, stereotyped by bureaucrats, shoved outside of leadership positions. As they developed programs for abused women, activists also called for an end to the family violence research paradigm.

In a 1980 speech, activist Susan Schechter bemoaned the fact that existing research only gave “excuses for why individual men beat up individual women.” She called for research to be “redone” by “formerly battered women, women of color, and working-class women.” In 1982 newsletter, organizers demanded their own research programs, since existing questionnaires were “biased” and relied on the “unnatural constraints of the scientific model.” Activist Barbara Hart wrote about her efforts to get “feisty women” on the boards of academic journals in order to demand studies rooted in women’s experiences (1985).

Based on archival data such as these, I show that feminists produced theories of abuse that went against the grain of “family violence” theories. Family violence researchers depicted violence as thing-like. Feminist activists, on the other hand, used women’s experiences to theorize abuse as a system or structure, exposing inequality across “public” and “private” spheres – challenging the idea that “separate spheres” existed at all. Feminists were able to “see” this because they relied on women’s stories as the foundation of their theories, rather than on researcher-gendered categories. Feminists were standpoint theorists: they placed direct experiences of violence and marginalization at the center. Since survivors experienced abuse, they should know best.

This image from a feminist march theorizes violence as something that is experienced multiply, connecting physical harm in the home to legal discrimination in public settings. Feminists built models of abuse that refused a separation between intimate violence in the home and gendered exclusion in institutions. Domestic violence could never be imagined as a set of discrete incidents in the home because this would have belied the reality of abuse, which survivors insisted operates across boundaries of public/private.

Photo by Betty Layne. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

I argue in this paper that this historical story questions for sociologists about how we produce knowledge and about whose accounts we privilege.

Paige L. Sweet is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. Her work focuses on gender/sexuality, gender-based violence, and the politics of health. Her book The Politics of Surviving: Domestic Violence in Traumatic Times is forthcoming with the University of California Press. 

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