#WhyIStayed: 20 Years After VAWA, a Groundswell of Empathy for Domestic Violence Survivors

From Janay Palmer Rice to Jennifer Lawrence, we blame women for the bad things that happen to them. But last week—on the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act—women took the conversation back.
Woman With Computer

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Earlier this week, Aeon published an article by Rebecca Onion on the history of Ladies Home Journal's infamous advice column, "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" It was the flagship project of what was, for decades, America's premier women's publication—until it folded earlier this year at 131 years old.

Here's how it worked: Someone (almost always a woman) wrote to the Journal with a marital grievance. She and her husband met with an appointed counselor, and then all three published their perspectives in the column. The counselor always had the last word.

Mostly, women would share feelings of being trapped, demoralized, desperate, and unheard. Also, deeply burdened by guilt and fear. They felt frustrated in matters of vocation and intimacy. Some had held their own jobs, before marriage relegated them to the household, and felt a lack of purpose in domestic work. Some were simply lonely in their new homes. Whatever the issue was, Onion writes, the counselor was sure make it clear that it was always—at least partially—the women's fault.

This was before we had terms like "domestic violence," and though not typically the main point of the wives' complaints, hints of abuse were common. Sometimes, plain as day.

Consider "Elsa," who in 1957 was hit by her husband after he came home from a party, and then berated by him when, pregnant and ill, she stayed in bed instead of making him breakfast. After reaching out to the Journal, her counselor wrote, "If she wanted a serene family life, she would have to learn to give Josh what he wanted from their marriage and thereby help him control his temper."

Or "Sue," who in 1953 showed up at her counselor's office bruised. After working with the couple, the counselor warned in the column that when Sue refused her husband sex after being hit, "she ... touched off another almost inevitable explosion. Many husbands endeavor to make up for their misdeeds by such ardour, a fact of life that wise and loving wives accept."

It goes on like this for decades. (I recommend reading Onion's sometimes bristling, often moving account of it here).

But then something amazing happens. In 1970, a group of feminists—by some accounts, more than 200—occupied the Ladies Home Journal office for 11 hours, demanding editor John Mack Carter step down and place a woman at the editorial helm instead.

This, he refused. But he did allow them to guest-edit an 8-page supplement to the August issue. They covered ideas like equal pay for women and the importance of the clitoris in female orgasms. And notably, they morphed "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" into a column that asked, "Should This Marriage Be Saved?"

Their advice for the troubled wife of the month? Not more diligent housekeeping or learning to "padlock her tongue" (as previous columns had prescribed). Instead, they advised "Barbara" to connect with other women who would convince her that no, everything was not her fault.

Thus, hundreds of thousands of subscribers at home were exposed to the burgeoning feminist consciousness-raising movement, slipped into their mailboxes by stealth. This, at a time when mainstream media was little infiltrated by such voices, at least in a way that took them seriously.

VAWA turns 20

This weekend is the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, a time to  celebrate hard-won progress toward all women's right to live safely, freely, and equally.

Since its passage in 1994, domestic violence cases have dropped by 64 percent. (Though, according to the Centers for Disease Control around 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner. That makes more than 12 million a year—still, today.)

Joe Biden, the bill's sponsor, acknowledged the progress we've made toward deep cultural change, calling VAWA "my proudest legislative accomplishment."

"20 years ago, kicking a wife in the stomach or pushing her down the stairs was repugnant, but it wasn't taken seriously as a crime," he wrote in TIME. "Many state murder laws still held on to the notion that if your wife left you and you killed her, she had provoked it and you had committed manslaughter."

Indeed, when you look at it like that, it's remarkable to see how far we've come. VAWA made headway in legally defining what Betty Friedan in 1963's The Feminine Mystique called a "problem that has no name" that "is taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease.”

In the decades since, we have succeeded in naming plenty of formerly invisible problems. These days, you're unlikely to find many mainstream women's magazines advising battered women to work harder to appease explosively angry men; or to be less sexually frigid after being smacked around. If you need reassurance that culture can progress, there's that. And yet, it hasn't progressed enough. Not nearly.

This month—our 20-year anniversary of passing monumental protections for women—is already getting complicated when it comes to violence.

Last week, Jennifer Lawrence and dozens more of the country's most influential women were hurled into a hostile, intimate spotlight when stolen nude photos of them were published online. Many people appropriately called it a sex crime. But many, many others vociferously argued that if you don't want your intimate photographs shared, don't take them. Also, don't be famous. Or attractive. Or in any way capitalize on your appearance. In other words, Jennifer Lawrence was asking for it.

As Lena Dunham put it:

This week was hardly better. In South Africa, we saw Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius let off the hook for shooting girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp multiple times through a locked bathroom door. Since he argued he thought she was an intruder, he was only convicted of culpable homicide—basically, manslaughter.

And then there's Ray Rice.

#WhyIStayed

Pretty much everyone knows what happened. But just in case: On Monday, TMZ published a video of Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee, now-wife, Janay Palmer Rice, in an Atlantic City elevator in February (read Christopher Zumski Finke's take on it here).

Everyone already knew this had happened, but somehow watching a video of Rice's live brutality shocked people into a renewed debate about who should do what—and how they could be blamed for it: both the NFL (who dismissed him), and Janay Palmer Rice (who stood by him).

When Palmer Rice released a statement via Instagram asking the public to leave her alone, that public was confounded. Critics questioned her sensibility and complicity in her abuse, and the judgement came rolling in. If Janay Palmer Rice was so viciously attacked and decided to reconcile with her partner anyway, wasn't she somehow also to blame?

Writer Beverly Gooden put it this way:

For over a year, I was physically abused by my ex-husband. When TMZ released the video of Ray Rice punching, dragging, and spitting on his wife this morning, the internet exploded with questions about her. Why didn't she leave? Why did she marry him? Why did she stay?

Under the hashtag #WhyIStayed, Gooden started tweeting her own reasons for not leaving her abusive partner, and dozens more stories from other survivors soon followed. The conversation plunged straight to the painful heart of abusive partnerships and the complex ways in which women are coerced to remain in them. Why do they stay? Because it's dangerous to leave. Because you could lose your home. You could lose your children. He could kill you. He sleeps in front of the door to make sure you can't get out. He has a gun.

Or maybe you love him. Or you believe that you trigger his rage and provoke him to violence. Or you've been taught that ending a marriage is so wrong that the shame is less tolerable than the violence. Read a bunch more of them here.

So rather than judge Janay Palmer Rice, the authors of #WhyIStayed suggested, perhaps we might instead empathize with her and try to understand her situation—recognizing that her choices may be constrained in a million ways, but respecting the fact they are hers.

Following this thread, I thought of Onion's piece in Aeon, published right around the same time. Just as Ladies Home Journal saddled wives with the full burden of fixing their (often abusive) marriages by accommodating men, condemning Janay Palmer Rice for tolerating her abuse saddles her with the responsibility of ending it.

She may be able to, she may believe she's not. She may not want to. Whichever it is, in this way the burden of change is often placed squarely on women.

And here's the danger: The next time her husband slams her head against a rail, won't everyone say she was asking for it? If she's beaten up one or 10 or 100 more times, won't we believe it's kind-of-sort-of-just-a-little-bit her fault? Will we tell ourselves that if a woman doesn't extract herself from danger like that, then maybe she deserves it?

Probably, yes. But perhaps not entirely—because of what we saw with #WhyIStayed.

Just as, in 1970, a group of women occupied the messaging of one of the biggest women's media-makers of their time, Gooden and #WhyIStayed occupied the national Janay Palmer Rice conversation and veered it in a compassionate direction. Where the guest editors of Ladies Home Journal gave the refreshing advice to seek out connections with women who could help them see that violence wasn't their fault, #WhyIStayed created that connection. And from The Washington Post to The Guardian to USA Today to CNN to Al Jazeera to TIME—mainstream news headlines went from asking, "Why did she stay?" to stating: ‘Why Did She Stay?’ is the Wrong Question (Bloomberg).

"That is hope."

In her recent book, Men Explain Things To Me, author Rebecca Solnit calls violence against women a major human rights crisis of our time. Acts of violence comprise a constellation of dots "so close they're splatters melting into a stain, but hardly anyone connects them, or names that stain." In other words, we're missing the forest for the trees.

"There is, however, a pattern of violence against women that's broad and deep and horrific and incessantly overlooked," she writes.

Occasionally, a case involving a celebrity or lurid details in a particular case get a lot of attention in the media, but such cases are treated as anomalies, while the abundance of incidental news items about violence against women in this country, in other countries, on every continent including Antarctica, constitute a kind of background wallpaper for the news ...

If we talked about crimes like these and why they are so common, we'd have to talk about what kinds of profound change this society, or this nation, or n

Just as #YesAllWomen named the darkness of sexual harassment and assault after Elliot Rodger's rampage in Isla Vista, #WhyIStayed has carved some space for a vital conversation that might someday be capable of naming the stain.

Maybe we make the connections with our stories.

Beverly Gooden wrote, "I believe in the power of shared experience. I believe that we find strength in community."

On Sunday, Gooden, who said she never believed she'd spark a global movement with her hashtag, shared some things the last week has taught her. Among them:

"...There are millions of people standing with survivors, from every nation in this world. That is POWER. That is hope. That is what we need. And that is why I won't quit."