Agency/Autonomy Of Battered Women Essay

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Agency is the power to direct one’s life. It is a core principle of the battered women’s movement. Historically, researchers and community actors adopted frameworks that characterized women’s responses to gender-based violence as lacking in agency. This resulted in advocacy approaches and judicial responses that ignored and compromised the agency of battered women. Subsequent research illustrated that battered women are active strategists who employ an array of strategies. Thus, advocacy and interventions that recognize the complexity of battered women’s lives and assist victims in their own strategic decision making foster the agency of “survivors.”


Survivor-centered and context-based understandings of battered women have replaced earlier characterizations of battered women as passive and psychologically weak human beings.

Learned Helplessness

In the early 1970s, Lenore Walker applied the theory of learned helplessness to battered women. This theory posited that when battered women perceive that none of their actions lead to changes in the batterer’s behavior, they see their own actions as futile. She asserted that a battered woman became “psychologically paralyzed” as a result of learned helplessness, causing her to feel that she had no control over the experience, while taking the blame for its occurrence. Under Walker’s theory, battered women were characterized as wholly compromised, weak, and passive. Thus, according to her research, battered women needed treatment and counseling, as opposed to community resources and institutional support.

Walker’s theory was challenged by many researchers and activists. It was criticized for representing a single model of battered women’s experience, which had an appearance of psychopathology. The learned helplessness account of battered women (and the “battered woman syndrome” that it created) failed to account for the deliberate, active help-seeking behaviors that women employed to resist, avoid, or escape the violence in their lives and the lives of their children.

Survivor Theory

In contrast, the survivor theory posits that battered women are active strategists, rather than passive, helpless victims. In their Texas shelter study, Edward Gondolf and Ellen Fisher explained that battered women seek assistance in proportion to the realization that they and their children are in more and more danger. Gondolf and Fisher found that the help-seeking behavior of battered women is diverse and extensive. They also found that battered women are more inclined to leave their abusive partners if they are provided with the material resources to do so. By observing various dimensions beyond the violence, including economic resources, children, and the batterer’s other behavior, the empirical model demonstrated that context is critical to understanding the variability of women’s help-seeking behavior and advocacy needs.

Assessment And Decision Making

The complexity of battered women’s lives makes strategizing for the future much more intricate than simply “leaving” or “staying,” as overly simplistic models of battering might suggest. The most dangerous time for battered women is when they attempt to separate from their abusers. When battered women leave their abusers, the risk of retaliatory violence substantially increases. Therefore, decision making requires a complex assessment of a variety of factors, not the least of which is physical safety. Batterer-generated risks may include physical injury, psychological harm, risks to and involving the children, financial risks, risks to or about family and friends, loss of relationship, and risks involving arrest or legal status. Life-generated risks are risks that are environmental or social in nature and may include risks involving finances, home location, health, inadequate responses of major social institutions, and discrimination. Many of these factors provide the context for battered women’s argentic risk analysis and decision-making processes.

Implications For Advocacy And Practice

An understanding of the strategic responses of battered women has enormous implications for advocacy and policy. Many have observed that “one size fits all” approaches fail to address the variability of battered women’s needs. In service-driven advocacy systems, women’s needs are only met to the extent to which they reflect or coincide with the specific type of advocacy offered. In contrast, survivor-defined advocacy places the assessment and decision making in the hands of battered women, acknowledging their prior efforts to achieve autonomy and supporting their future agency. The variability in women’s needs illustrates the importance of emphasizing women’s active involvement in identifying their needs and how they wish to prioritize them. Such an approach requires comprehensive and individualized advocacy— comprehensive in that it offers a wide range of options to address a woman’s various needs, and individualized in that the advocacy attempts to tailor responses to fit her particular circumstances as articulated by her.

Many have criticized the criminal justice system for its tendency to diminish the agency of battered women. Criminal cases are initiated and controlled by the state, as opposed to survivors, thus they may be attenuated from the needs of battered women and may in fact contradict their needs. Mandatory arrest and “no drop” prosecution policies are, by definition, not dependent upon the expressed wishes of individual survivors. Many opponents of mandatory criminal policies argue that such policies deprive women of the ability to self direct their own lives and may in fact jeopardize their safety and agency. Others have simply argued that an exclusive focus on criminal justice strategies fails to meet the comprehensive needs of battered women.

With the expansion of the domestic violence field, professionals have come to expect survivors to avail themselves of particular remedies (e.g., protection orders, criminal charges, support groups). However, information regarding the complexity and variability of women’s experiences suggests that mandating particular responses may minimize the extent to which their decision making is based upon active strategizing. Survivor-centered approaches aim to offer comprehensive services, defined and directed by battered women.

Legal scholars and practitioners have noted the important role that agency plays in crafting legal remedies for domestic violence survivors. While accounts of victimization are necessary for accessing justice, descriptions of battered women’s experiences that paint a single victim profile or that fail to highlight individual women’s acts of resistance lead to negative results for individual survivors. For example, many have argued that battered women’s syndrome must be replaced with expert testimony that describes the contextual individual and systemic variables contributing to women’s decision making, and custody cases must offer testimony that describes both the violence and the agentic steps that the battered mother had taken to keep herself and her children safe. They argue that such descriptions will not only recognize but also foster the agency of battered women in the law.


  1. Allen, N., Bybee, D., & Sullivan, C. (2004). Battered women’s multitude of needs: Evidence supporting the need for comprehensive advocacy. Violence Against Women, 1(9), 1015–1035.
  2. Davies, J. (1998). Safety planning with battered women: Complex lives/difficult choices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Dutton, M. A. (1996). Battered women’s strategic responses to violence: The role of context. In J. L. Edleson & C. Eisikovits (Eds.), Future interventions with battered women and their families (pp. 105–124). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Gondolf, E., & Fisher, E. (1988). Battered women as survivors: An alternative to treating learned helplessness. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

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