By Carol Downer
American society seems surprised and shocked that Janay Rice decided to not leave her boyfriend, Ray Rice. Anti-rape feminists in the ’70s knew why a woman stays with an abusive boyfriend or husband. It is the male-dominated system that forces women into positions to “choose” to stay in abusive relationships.
Then, in the mid-’70s, grass-roots feminist anti-rape groups found themselves re-formed when they received funding from law enforcement agencies. The Law Enforcement Assistance Agency (LEAA) funneled vast funds into replacing lay staff with Ph.D.’s who softened the militancy of the women’s liberation movement. Instead of confronting rapists or forming self-help defense groups, the group’s objective became collecting physical evidence needed to catch and prosecute rapists. Later, efforts to fight violence against women similarly were funded and became social service agencies.
The feminist energy to fight male violence tolerated by the male-dominated system (patriarchal system) was diverted into providing social services to abused women and punishing abusive men who were disproportionately of lower class and of color. In other words, the system used its money as a counter-revolutionary tool. Today, the debate is couched not in sexual equality terms, but rather in statistics. Experts talk in gender-neutral language about “intimate partner violence” and “abusers” and “abused”, ignoring that the problem in rooted in male supremacy, even if some minority of female partners are sometimes abusive.
I must admit, when I heard about the video of Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of the elevator after he punched her, I thought, “Why doesn’t she just kick him in the shins and leave.” With a moment’s reflection, a flood of reasons, all related to the economics of the situation, came to me. Ray Rice is a successful, high-earning man, so the economic aspect is more clear than the usual case, where a ordinary pay check is all that might be put in jeopardy with law enforcement intervention, however a woman and her family may depend on that paycheck.
Beyond economics, there are a myriad of reasons to stay in an abusive relationship in a patriarchal society. The woman is blamed; the church disapproves of or forbids divorce; one’s social life often depends on being in a couple.
Lastly, and not inconsistent with being self-respecting, a woman may stay with a man who has qualities that she values, or they may have a history that is irreplaceable. If women had more power in our society, the woman would be able to insist on better treatment.
As to the fact that Janay Palmer is Black, White prejudice may negatively affect public perceptions of her decision to stay, but whether an abused female can leave an abusive relationship is grounded in difference in power between males and females. Any implication that abused White women somehow have it easier than abused Black women ignores the reality that White men have a lot more power than Black men in our society, thus they tend to have more economic power, and they are able to conceal their violence or they are dealt with more leniently.
When feminists take our movement back from those who cloud the issue, the issue will be simplified; male supremacy, or patriarchy, will be directly attacked.
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Carol Downer co-founded the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Los Angeles in the early 70’s. The FWHC authored several women’s health books, notably A New View of a Woman’s Body. Her website is www.womenshealthinwomenshands.org.
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