Feminist Movements to End Violence against Women Essay

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Women’s resistance to men’s violence against women seems to be a constant through known history. The terms of that resistance have changed, and yet are often bound up with ideas around gender, sexuality, class, race, colonialism, and other historical systems of oppression. Collective efforts in the United States to address men’s violence against women consistently occur within the context of social and political movements addressing systemic inequality, oppression, and violence, including the antislavery movement, women’s rights movements, Black women’s club and ant lynching movements, and anticolonial, socialist, and labor movements, among others. This essay focuses on the feminist movements aimed at ending violence against women.

Social and Political Movements

The issue of violence against women gained prominence in the United States within the context of contemporary feminist movements of the 1970s and their connections with the Black nationalist, civil rights, La Raza, lesbian and gay, American Indian, antiwar, and other social movements of the 20th century. The explicit naming of violence against women as a tool of social power and control serves as yet another rupture in public consciousness about the personal and social realities of the gender-specific violence in women’s lives. Feminist movements struggle to challenge and change a mainstream discourse that mostly constructs this violence as individual women’s problems to be borne in silence and shame, except in the cases of interracial rape involving men of color and White women. In the latter case, the socially constructed myth of the “stranger” and often Black rapist of “innocent” White womanhood circulates and is responsible for justifying the lynching and incarceration of African American as well as Latino, poor, and/or working class men.

Feminist movements since the late 1960s have created contexts for women to understand their experiences of men’s mistreatment, abuse, harassment, and violence in an effort to challenge and ultimately end violence against women. Many women participate in consciousness-raising groups, direct action groups, and other forums to name, analyze, and strategize to end this violence. They politicize their experiences by linking them to gender-based subordination with its connection to interlocking systems of oppression. Feminist movements provide validation, support, and recognition of women’s stories, develop analyses and theories based on these stories, and collectively engage in political action to change everything—from individual selves to the culture to the social, legal, and religious institutions, to the entire world.

Forms of Violence

As a result of this movement, thousands of women (and increasingly men) have testified to the many forms of interpersonal, public, and state violence in the lives of women, men, and children across race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, and other social groups and identities as well as contexts. The forms of violence include physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, and economic violence, among others, and occur in intrafamilial, intimate, and interpersonal relationships on the street, in the workplace, and in educational, medical, prison, and military institutions—as well as in contexts of war, colonial and imperial domination, and through globalized markets and industries (including prostitution and pornography, among others). Most feminist antiviolence work has focused on men’s gender-based violence against women, although feminists continually negotiate and conflict with one another over the limits of focusing on men’s violence as if men were always/already the perpetrators and women always/already the victims. Some groups in the United States, particularly incest survivor and child sexual abuse groups and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) groups, tend to include women as perpetrators of violence as well as men as victims of interpersonal and familial violence. Other groups have increasingly recognized the realities of violence against men that may be motivated by gender, sexuality, race, and other systems of domination (e.g., antigay violence, gang violence, rape in prison, lynching, militarized torture). In addition, increasingly, feminists who struggle to address the realities of structural violence and violence stemming from interlocking systems of oppression and privilege that cannot be reduced to patriarchal violence continue to expand and make complex their analysis of violence and what would need to change to end it.

Organizations, Initiatives, and Projects

Thousands of organizations, initiatives, and projects have developed to address the endemic violence in women’s lives. These draw from many different perspectives, approaches, and strategies and focus on individual, community, institutional, and/or international change. In general, they provide validation, critical analysis, resources, activism and advocacy, and more; they include survivor groups, direct action organizations, rape crisis centers, domestic violence agencies and shelters, prison rights and prison abolitionist groups, human rights organizations, and grassroots community organizing and community accountability initiatives. Feminist activism against violence has taken a variety of forms—including direct action protests, civil disobedience, demonstrations and vigils, speakouts, Take Back the Night marches, spoken word performances, art exhibits and installations, newsletters and zines, safe home networks and legal defense organizations, civil and criminal court cases, legislative and judicial reform, and social and institutional change. Some individuals and groups publicly confront their perpetrators in efforts to create community accountability, while others press criminal charges, and/or file civil suits (a method successfully used by some adult incest survivors against their fathers).

The contemporary movement’s approaches to the violence in women’s lives have taken multiple perspectives. In the United States, the most mainstream sources of the broadly based movement to end violence have become more integrated into the hegemonic system. Some organizations that began as feminist political action and advocacy groups have become more institutionalized in ideology, structure, and connection with the welfare, criminal justice, and health care systems. Many citywide and state organizations have become dependent on governmental and foundation funding. Collectives have thus, in some cases, turned into organizations with hierarchies of paid staff whose credentials are increasingly dependent upon professional degrees and who decreasingly possess firsthand knowledge of violence and a connection to grassroots activism in the community. Many rape crisis and advocacy organizations and domestic violence agencies are modeled on traditional social services and work closely with the criminal justice system, efforts to end sexual harassment have morphed into policy offices in educational and/or corporate institutions, and the feminist challenge to endemic child sexual abuse is now oriented toward traditional counseling and therapy rather than politics. Because of their ties to state and national government and foundation funding, policies, and institutions, they are less connected to more politicized feminist analysis and politics in their approaches and strategies. A major result of these changes is that the movement has become oriented to managing the violence in women’s lives, rather than committed to ending the violence and the social systems of inequality that perpetuate it.

Mainstream organizations tend to approach the violence in women’s lives with a monolithic framework that emphasizes the commonalities in gender based violence against women and often marginalizes and/or overlooks differences in race, class, sexual orientation, and social, historical, and/or political context. In many ways these organizational initiatives look less like social movement organizations and more like social service agencies. Political analysis and strategy has been supplanted by a focus on interpersonal and familial violence. These groups approach differences in women’s (and men’s) experiences in terms of individual cultural and/or personal differences between women and the need for specialized services for “other” women (i.e., women who are not White, middle class, heterosexual, U.S. citizens).

In part, in response to these universalizing approaches, women of color, lesbians, women in the sex trade, and disabled women, among others, continue to develop their own initiatives based on a recognition of how race, ethnicity, religion, and/or sexual orientation shape the experience and response to this violence. These initiatives tend to situate their strategies and actions within the particular cultural and social contexts in which the violence takes place. They are as focused on a critical analysis of the social and institutional responses to the violence, including barriers to service and/or justice given these contexts, as on the inequalities underlying these responses. In addition, they consider the particular cultural and/or religious and/or spiritual identities and beliefs of women in their communities. For instance, there are a number of faith-based organizations and networks that have been generated by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities, as well as ones focused on South Asian, Latino/a, Asian American, African American, and LGBTQ communities.

A critical mass of feminist antiviolence initiatives— often led by women of color, poor women, queer women, women in the sex trade, formerly incarcerated women, women with disabilities—focus on social and structural forms of violence. These groups often critique the mainstream focus on individual experience and identity, with its preference for psychology and social service, and reorient the movement to address how race, class, globalization, militarism, and colonialism shape the pervasiveness and context of the violence and the forms of resistance needed to address it. The work of Incite! Women of Color Against Violence focuses on the intersections of interpersonal and state violence. Critically challenging the overreliance of the mainstream movement on the criminal justice system, Incite! initiates ideas, gatherings, and actions to generate ideas around community accountability to end violence against women and to create discussions and collaborations between antiviolence activists and those focused on addressing the prison industrial complex. An increasing number of antiviolence projects are bringing attention to state violence against women, including police harassment and brutality, sexual abuse of women in prison, and Immigration and Naturalization Service violence against migrant and immigrant women in the United States and along the U.S.–Mexico border.

Men who identify themselves as allies and/or profeminists have been consistently involved in contemporary feminist antiviolence movements. There are organizations, activist projects, newsletters, and educational initiatives that focus on men’s responsibility for the perpetuation of men’s violence against women, on men’s privilege and the need for accountability, and on the social construction of masculinities and the relationship to sexual and other forms of violence. In addition, profeminist men have sought to research and explore systems of privilege and their own implication for the perpetuation of privilege and power, as well as violence.

Mass Media

Another major focus of feminist movements to end violence has been on the contributions of the mass media in perpetuating violence and the apathy and victim blaming that is so endemic to social and institutional responses to violence. There are a variety of critical media projects addressing the pervasive violence in the mass industries of advertising, popular culture, and pornography. In this arena, feminists educate the public about the connection between the media and pervasive violence in women’s lives. Many argue that the media and popular culture are responsible for cultural ideas that justify, normalize, minimize, and deny the significance of the many forms of violence against women. They see the ideology of the media as creating a context of apathy, denial, and victim blaming, and seek to find ways to hold the media accountable. The strategies include creating campaigns against particular advertisements, media literacy campaigns to create critical consciousness, and alternative media that offer alternative images, stories, and counternarratives.

International Initiatives

U.S. feminist efforts to address and end violence against women are intricately tied to initiatives around the world. There have been a number of international tribunals on the specific issue of violence against women. Activists from around the world have used the United Nations Conferences in Mexico, Copenhagen, Nairobi, and Beijing and other international women’s forums and gatherings to exchange information, ideas, and strategies. Each of these gatherings has had a central and vital focus on violence in women’s lives. The violence connected to war and militarism continues to be a major source of international solidarity and action addressing violence against women in the contexts of war and imperialism. The international and transnational efforts toward connection and solidarity across nations and contexts are also fraught with tension and their own set of problems given a world in part shaped by imperialist domination and global power inequalities.

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