Taking Our Work to the Next Level

Taking Our Work to the Next Level

I started my feminist activism in the 1970’s, at a time when the movement to end violence against women and girls was in its infancy and under circumstances that would catapult any conscious young woman into its ranks.

By day, I was a graduate student in English literature at the University of Virginia, where I studied in a department without a single tenured woman professor, on a campus famous for its alcohol-saturated, misogynistic frat houses. By night, I was a volunteer victim advocate at a rape crisis center where the women we assisted ranged from a privileged young woman raped by fraternity brothers to a poor mentally disabled rural woman who was regularly picked up, gang raped, and discarded in front of her parents’ trailer.

Not one of these two victims, not any of the women we tried to help, received justice. The crimes against them were never investigated; their assailants were never arrested or charged. Instead, violence against women was fodder for jokes and bragging rights. A student hangout opened up on the corner facing Mr. Jefferson’s university named “The Minories” after the London district where Jack the Ripper hunted, murdered, and mutilated prostituted women. Its owners named the fare on the menu after the Ripper’s victims. I remember “Mary Kelly” cheesecake.  One night I painted slogans of feminist outrage on the tavern’s front. Unlike the rapists, I was apprehended, interrogated, and almost expelled. The university had given me an education and a mission, though not the kind its founder had envisioned.

Thirty-five years later, much has changed. In the last week, in the city where I now live, there have recently been two highly publicized cases of sexual assault. Two cleaning staff workers in luxury hotels have accused wealthy, powerful customers of sexual assault–one a powerful politician in France who headed up the International Monetary Fund, the other the chairman of one of Egypt’s biggest banks. The social, economic, and gender gulf between complainants and defendants could not be wider. In the first case, the victim’s native country, Guinea, had been a colony of the perpetrator’s, France. Both women were believed by police and prosecution and both defendants were treated like any others accused of a serious crime of violence. A longtime critic of law enforcement, I did something unprecedented while speaking at a press conference held by the Manhattan District Attorney on Friday—I praised him.

“Why am I part of the Move to End Violence Initiative?  There are a number of reasons, but one of most significant is that I think that the movement to end violence against women and girls is at a crossroads and on the brink of effecting deep social change.”

Why am I part of the Move to End Violence Initiative?  There are a number of reasons, but one of most significant is that I think that the movement to end violence against women and girls is at a crossroads and on the brink of effecting deep social change.

We have come a long way in a comparatively short period of time, a mere thirty some years—not even a lifetime. In addition to improved law enforcement in many jurisdictions, we are seeing other developments that I believe represent a seismic cultural shift: the success of organizations like GEMS and the Rebecca Project, which have empowered the historically most stigmatized survivors of sexual abuse—prostituted women and girls–to stand up proudly and speak out against their exploiters and the growing influence of organizations like A Call to Men and Men Can Stop Rape that are mobilizing men to become activists against gender violence.

A sure sign of progress is the growing dissemination of our message by the mainstream media, such as last Thursday’s Nicholas Kristof column in The New York Times condemning prostitution in India and the current Vanity Fair expose of the brutal but until recently ignored crime of domestic sex trafficking.  (When I helped found CATW in 1988, no one outside a small cadre of human rights activists had any idea what “trafficking in women” meant.) Finally, the fact that a major foundation is not only offering resources but offering leadership–speaking out boldly on issues that the mainstream part of the movement has been reluctant to address–is an unmistakable sign of a breakthrough. Who wouldn’t want to join forces to take our work to the next level?

Of course progress is not victory, and there are looming obstacles—external and internal–to be overcome. Popular culture is gender toxic, more saturated than ever with images and messages sexually objectifying women and girls at younger and younger ages. Thanks to the internet, the most graphic and misogynistic pornography has become normalized as sexual instruction for our youth and sexual entertainment for men, as was recently highlighted when the inspector general of the Securities and Exchange Commission revealed that senior officials there were more occupied with watching pornography in their offices than scrutinizing the financial transactions of Bernie Madoff.

Improvement  in law enforcement’s response to violence against girls and women has been uneven.  Courageous feminist leaders like Suzanne Koeppplinger of Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center and Corrine Sanchez of Tewa Women United remind us that Native American women and girls have seen limited progress and unintended consequences in the justice system’s response to gender violence in their communities. And leaders and organizations working to combat violence in ethnic minority and LGBT communities remain under resourced and, too often, marginalized.

A related concern is the fact that success can lead to stasis. There has been growing concern within our movement that some mainstream components are more focused on warding off competition and protecting legacy than pursuing social justice.  Careerism and professionalization have increasingly eclipsed innovation and activism.  Dependence on funding and funders, especially those whose methods or goals are not in sync with the organizations they support, can be a prescription for movement disaster.  The grenade of a phrase–“nonprofit industrial complex”—has been exploded by some concerned activists within our midst.  Accurate or not, it’s a sign that serious soul searching is necessary to ensure that our movement stays true to its grassroots vision and origins. The Move to End Violence Initiative offers the opportunity for reflection and action to address and overcome the inequality and complacency that can undermine our effectiveness.

One of the concepts I most struggled with during the Initiative’s first retreat was that of “the beloved community.” Perhaps this is in part the result of my rootless childhood—for the early years a move every two to three years– and separation from extended family. It is likely also the result of being female in communities that are patriarchal and misogynistic. Few offer a sense of community to the women and girls in their midst.  At Sanctuary for Families, where almost 80 percent of our clients are immigrants, we strive to provide a feeling of community to the women and girls we serve, many of whom have been ostracized by their own communities for refusing to endure violence, but our success in doing so is uneven. For those of us who are activists and leaders, the women’s movement, for all of its value and achievements, has been less a community than a battleground on which to be tried and tested.

I must confess that while I remain painfully doubtful about the possibility of achieving the goal of a “beloved community,” in much the same way that I feel dubious about the likelihood of achieving spiritual enlightenment, as appealing as those pursuits are, what attracts me most about the Move to End Violence Initiative, and what I found most satisfying about our initial retreat, was the opportunity to get to know, share ideas with, work with, and perhaps even start to build a movement with the other members of the group. I started out feeling like the new kid on the block or in high school—self conscious and inhibited. Having to write and recite a poem to a roomful of strangers, publicly describe my internal weather, and chart the course of the movement in fifteen minutes before explaining it to a jury of my peers–while being videotaped !—was more than a little daunting. But in the course of it—perhaps as a result of it—I found myself developing a stronger sense of connection with and increasing admiration for my fellow victims and survivors. By the end of the week, I even began to feel, shall I admit it, the beginning of a feeling of community.

Dorchen Leidholdt
Dorchen Leidholdt
Director, Center for Battered Women's Legal Services
Sanctuary for Families

Dorchen A. Leidholdt has served as the Director of Sanctuary for Families’ Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services since 1994. She also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), which she helped found in 1988. Learn More

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