It has been more than 15 years since The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Since becoming law on Sept. 13, 1994, VAWA has provided billions of dollars to bolster the criminal legal response to violence against women, provide services for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, and increase protections for battered immigrant women.
I got into anti-violence work in VAWA’s infancy and continue to wrestle with the questions that brought me to the movement in the first place. These questions include: Why is there so much violence in intimate relationships? What kinds of activism are most effective for reducing this violence? What role should the state play in regulating (reducing violence in) romantic relationships? What role should the criminal legal system play? What role should our communities play?
Working as a legal advocate in a mainstream anti-domestic violence program in the mid-1990s, I saw VAWA as unquestionably good. Finally, there was federal recognition that violence against women is pandemic, and serious, and worthy of public attention. Federal dollars–billions of them—were going to every corner of the country.
I worked on several projects funded with VAWA dollars. I collaborated with cops and prosecutors to design trainings and improve the criminal legal response to domestic violence. I began to see fewer cops saying “we don’t get involved in domestics,” or telling violent husbands to “take a walk around the block to ‘cool off.’” I helped women navigate the legal system and advocate for their interests and the interests of their children. I brought the concerns of battered women to policymakers. And every few years, when VAWA came up for re-authorization, I contacted my senators and urged them to continue funding VAWA. I saw these changes in the criminal justice and legal systems as the unquestionably sweet fruits of feminist activist labor.
It wasn’t until I interviewed feminist activists in the course of my dissertation research on responses to violence against women in Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia, that I realized that the larger social justice picture was quite a bit more complicated. One activist I interviewed had a particularly powerful critique of VAWA:
“…At first we’re like VAWA has both good things and bad things. But then I really understood the bad things about VAWA and understood that it was part of…this big, gigantic, monstrous crime bill and inside of this crime bill was where we got…the bullshit around three strikes and mandatory minimums and things that were devastating to our communities. So if you ask me now whether or not we should have supported VAWA given the money that came to programs and given the general attention that was put on violence against women, both of which are good, I say ‘no.’ (Seattle feminist activist)
Soon after transcribing these words, I began to do some homework. I learned that VAWA, indeed, was part of a massive crime bill. Though then-Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) initially introduced VAWA as a stand-alone bill in 1990, it did not command the necessary support to pass. After 4 years of lobbying and revising the legislation, Congress folded it into a comprehensive crime bill. As legal scholar Rachelle Brooks explains, embedding VAWA into a comprehensive crime bill “…placed many feminists in the awkward position of mobilizing around a measure with which they did not agree.” She goes on to say that:
“…the symbolic act of consolidating VAWA in the Crime Bill means that the legislative system grouped domestic violence with other violent crimes and has framed it as a criminal problem. By associating domestic violence against women with other criminal acts the state can ignore the many other roots of this violence” (Brooks 1997: 79).
Indeed, a look at the budget for the initial VAWA legislation reflects this commitment to the law and order response: over half of the funding—almost one billion dollars—was allocated to criminal legal system remedies. This was a significant infusion of money into criminal legal organizations and contributes to the perception in the US that cops and courts are intimately involved with and the primary responders to domestic violence. The budget also gave significant funding to social service remedies, most notably battered women’s shelters. However, even this funding helped bring the CLS into women’s lives and communities. Much of the VAWA funding required women’s anti-violence organizations to work collaboratively with CLS agencies (such as many of the projects I have worked on).
Another problematic aspect of feminist support for VAWA—which has received even less attention than the problems with the de facto support of a far reaching crime bill—is the removal of the Racial Justice Act from the final version of VAWA. The proposed legislation would have given inmates of color additional avenues to appeal death sentences. Feminist acquiescence to the removal of the Racial Justice Act led to the all-too-familiar feminist prioritization of gender over race. As Brooks comments, by supporting the final version of VAWA embedded in the crime bill “…feminists implicitly endorsed both the removal of the Racial Justice Act…” as well as the racism in the CLS (Brooks 1997: 80).
Where does this leave us now, nearly 16 years after the initial passage of VAWA? While I am acutely aware of the limits of advocacy within the criminal legal system, I do think it makes a difference that the key players in the criminal legal system receive training and tools to intervene in cases of intimate partner violence. As a result I do not regret my support for VAWA. I doubt that so much attention, and so many resources, could have been dedicated to address violence against women in the 1990s outside of a law and order frame.
However, as we approach the 16th year anniversary of VAWA, I believe that activists should continue to rethink violence against women outside of a law and order frame, and make connections between interpersonal violence and other forms of violence (the 2001 Incite!-Critical Resistance statement is a powerful expression of the connections between interpersonal violence and state-sponsored violence). I am inspired by the work of local activist groups exploring community-based responses to violence against women that deemphasize the role of the CLS. This work has included, for example, organizing groups of friends who share information about what’s going on in their intimate relationships to counteract the isolation that often accompanies abuse and creating community dialogue about the impact of specific acts of abuse. Here in Seattle, two groups at the forefront of this work are Communities Against Rape and Abuse and the Northwest Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse.
VAWA was born of compromise and the tensions that were present at its inception—the focus on gender at the expense of race, the over-reliance on the CLS—are still very much with us. At the same time, the sustained attention and resources directed toward the problem of violence against women has been genuinely helpful in many ways. The critiques of VAWA that activists and academics have developed over the life of VAWA move us powerfully ahead – pointing us toward the importance of community involvement and the dangers of relying too heavily on cops and courts to change a culture that fosters violence against women.
Karen Rosenberg directs the Writing Center at the University of Washington Bothell and has been involved in anti-violence against women organizing for over 15 years. She earned her doctorate in Women Studies from the University of Washington and her research explores the contradictions inherent in using the criminal legal system to regulate intimate relationships.
Referenced and recommended sources:
- Brooks, R. (1997). “Feminists negotiate the legislative branch: the Violence Against Women Act.” In C.R. Daniels & R. Brooks, (Eds). Feminists negotiate the state: The politics of domestic violence (65-82). Lanham: University Press of America.
- Incite! – Critical Resistance Statement. “Gender violence and the prison industrial complex” (2001).
- Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. (2006). Color of violence: The Incite! anthology. Cambridge, Mass: South End Press.