Domestic Violence: Still Hidden

In the same year that Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, the broadest law against domestic violence ever written, O.J. Simpson was charged with murdering his wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman. Although Simpson's prior conviction for spousal abuse and Nicole Simpson's earlier 911 call revealed a history of domestic violence, that story got lost in the media obsession with DNA evidence, possible police racism, and glove sizes.

Even prosecutor Marcia Clark admitted in her book on the case, Without a Doubt, that during the trial she avoided playing up the domestic violence because it paralleled her own painful experiences: She was raped as a teenager and was stalked by her ex-husband. One of the 10 women on the Simpson jury said, "This was a murder trial, not domestic abuse."

We've come a long way, baby, but not far enough, suggests Elizabeth M. Schneider in Battered Women & Feminist Lawmaking. Before the 1960s, domestic violence was not part of the legal lexicon. For generations, husbands were entitled to hit their wives. Abuse, while frowned upon, was seen as a private part of marriage that police should tacitly ignore. Today, the private issue has become a public one. Many states have enacted laws mandating the arrest of a spouse when abuse is reported. October has been named Domestic Violence Awareness Month. But Schneider, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, argues that as the issue has entered the mainstream consciousness, the deeper societal roots of domestic violence have been ignored. Feminism has been taken out of the equation, she says, and domestic violence continues to be a hidden problem.

Schneider recounts how battered women and feminists together created women's shelters in the 1970s, offering both solidarity and physical protection to those fleeing abusive men. Since then, shelters have been institutionalized. Caseworkers "do social service work and perceive battered women as 'clients,' not 'sisters'—as persons to be helped, not participants in a larger struggle," she writes. The violence is no longer linked to "gender socialization, women's subservient position within society and the family structure, sex discrimination in the workplace, economic discrimination." Nor is it linked to other problems, such as the lack of child care or community support for single mothers.

Instead, broad laws have been enacted, and stereotypes now plague courtrooms. The new mandatory arrest laws appear to crack down on violence, but they may actually bury the problem by discouraging some women from calling the police, Schneider says. Such laws have taken away women's autonomy, she adds.

Furthermore, in the process of outing the problem, society has come to see the victim—not the batterer—as the one suffering from mental pathologies. Many people blame women for not leaving abusive relationships, Schneider says, but they fail to see that battered women often fear becoming destitute or losing custody of their children. Schneider also notes that a new trend allowing expert testimony on "battered women's syndrome" in domestic-violence trials has come at a cost: The advent of these defenses as an explanation for women who fight or murder their batterers makes women look helpless and even mentally ill. Giving battered women options before they get to the point of murdering their abuser seems to be the only answer.

Schneider expresses hope that the new international focus on women's rights can bring feminism back into the dialogue on domestic violence. The Violence Against Women Act helps put gender awareness back into the picture. Clearly, more work needs to be done to prevent domestic violence, but Schneider doesn't suggest the next steps.

Underlying the entire book is the question of whether domestic abuse is really a gender issue or a power issue. Research has found that domestic violence can plague same-sex couples too. The elderly—men and women—can also face abuse from family members. Is a feminist response the answer in these instances? Or would it be just another legal effort to make a private problem a public concern? Schneider answers the questions theoretically: Within the scope of gender, variables such as race, class, age, and sexual orientation must be considered. But on the practical level, she doesn't explain how this approach would take shape in real laws. The Violence Against Women Act addresses the abuse of women; will other laws have to address the abuse of the elderly?

Schneider's story gets bogged down in the pitfalls of feminist theory. In a few spots, her writing spouts clunky jargon over clear English: "This relationship between particularity and generality is dialectical." Schneider tries to weave together theory and practice, as contemporary feminism advises, but she has presented an oddly divided book. The first half addresses the theoretical issues with few illustrative details. It's only in the second half that she ventures into the specifics of the lawmaking touted in her title. Finally, at the end of the book, Schneider presents excellent details on actual legal precedents and lets the cases of battered women speak for themselves.

Schneider presents a wide range of information on domestic violence. But just as she wants a more integrated approach to domestic violence, her book itself could use a better-integrated framework.