In the first two parts of this post, I wrote about trends that I’ve observed in domestic violence services that concern me a great deal. The movement has been derailed into seeing abused women as victims of individual misfortune, rather than recognizing that they are part of the entire fabric of oppression that takes women’s rights away. One result is that abused women are seen as poor unfortunates that we have to help, rather than as targets of outrageous oppression that we have to join with. This not a battle over wording; the distinction I’m making is about mindsets that take services in two completely different directions, as I laid out in the previous parts.
Now I need to examine the forces that have driven us down this mistaken path, to create the context for then putting forth solutions.
WHY HAVE WE MADE THIS MISTAKE?
How did our movement – what for decades was known as “The Battered Women’s Movement” — get so derailed? How did the teeth get taken out of our efforts to bring about profound social change – in other words, profound changes in the lives of all women, not just the tiny percentage of women that we can reach with “services”?
1) Foundation and government funding
The simple, but vastly significant, reality is that our funding sources have molded us into a system that works to help victims and to hold individual abusers accountable, but that shuts up about the need to change the actual social system that is causing this misery. Our funding sources have pressed us to:
* meet high goals for how many women we serve per year (so there’s not time for community organizing and rebellion)
* professionalize our staff (which drives many survivors and almost all poor people out of our employee pools, so those people’s perspectives stops guiding our work)
* develop close collegial relationships with police, courts, and government officials (which means we stop wanting to publicly criticize those people and institutions, because our funders won’t like it if we get those folks upset)
* drop our political beliefs (avoid using words like “patriarchy,” start serving males in the same offices and shelters where we serve females, stop even referring to domestic violence as a gendered act or as a form of oppression, don’t speak out against the cuts in welfare that have devastated abused women and their children)
The most stark reminder to me of the impact that our funders have had on us is the fact that, on multiple occasions, I have been approached after speaking engagements by Executive Directors of domestic violence programs who have said to me, “It’s so great that you said the things you said today; I wish I could say those things, but I’d never get away with it.”
That’s not a minor matter; rather, that perfectly captures how severely we’ve been silenced as a movement (even though as individuals many of us have continued to speak out).
2) Feeling that we accomplish more for the victims we serve if we get along with everybody
This is a tricky one, because in some ways it’s true – the friends we’ve made in high places can help in a big way when we’re trying to help a specific abused woman. But look where this approach has taken us in the big picture; over time we’re actually becoming less able to come through for the women we serve regarding the aspects of life that matter most to them – especially child custody but on many other fronts as well.
3) The whole notion of “service”
Thinking of abused women as “our clients whom we are serving” is very different from thinking of them as oppressed people whose struggle we are joining with. That frame also leads us to forget how many survivors we have working right beside us. I have spoken to advocates at certain programs who are survivors themselves but who have been told by their bosses that they are not to reveal this fact to their clients. This kind of policy is, I hope, not super common, but the fact that it’s out there speaks volumes about where we stand.
As I explained in Part 2 (in slightly different words), domestic violence is caused by hierarchy; specifically, hierarchy by sex and hierarchy by class. Well, how can we fight a problem that has hierarchy at its roots while we ourselves work in hierarchical organizations? I hear frequent (yes, frequent) serious grievances across the country from domestic violence program staff about ways in which they’ve been really badly treated by their supervisors and directors, or ways that important opinions and insights of theirs have been dismissed. “My director is an abuser herself” is a surprisingly common (though hushed) statement that staff make to me.
This problem goes back to #1 – our funding sources – because non-profit legal status actually requires an agency to structure itself hierarchically, and most funders expect a top-down structure to any organization they’re underwriting.
Stay tuned for Part 4 of this post, “Solutions and Moving Forward.”
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