No Safe Place Woman Photo
No Safe Place
No Safe Place: Violence Against Women
Interview: Patricia Ireland

Executive Director, National Organization of Women

Transcript of Interview

Q: What is the Rally for Women's Lives?

The Rally for Women's Lives is the first national action ever to focus on violence against women. And to draw the connections between the physical violence, the physical attacks, the anti-abortion terrorism at the clinics and the political attacks we're facing in congress. We need to mobilize women and men across the country to stop these attacks.

Q: Are we seeing a backlash against women politically?

There's a terrible backlash against women politically but also physically. We have seen an increase in rape in the 80s, we hear both from law enforcement and from battered women's shelters that there appears to be an increase in violence in our own homes as well as on the street, harassment on the job. We have to stop this violence. We have to make the political nature of the violence clear, that the violence we experience in our own homes is not a personal family matter, it's a public and political problem. It's a way that women are kept in line, kept in our places. It's part of a response to a very powerful women's rights movement that has begun to threaten some people that creates more competition for the jobs, for the powerful positions in our culture. And so we really want to draw that political function that violence plays into focus. It's an old axiom. It is nevertheless true that the personal is political and there's no area in which that is more true than violence.

Q: What kind of resistance have you encountered in fighting violence against women?

Well, we wondered when we started prioritizing violence against women as an issue how our opponents would attack. It was very clear that no one was going to stand up and say, "I support violence against women. I think women should be battered and raped."

We always knew when we took on the issue of violence against women that somehow our opposition would come after us. We were quite clear they weren't going to stand up and say we think violence against women is a good thing. And so what we found in fact is that the opposition has moved from a blaming the victim to blaming the victim's advocate's statistics. Irrespective of what the numbers are, it's far too many. And I don't want us to be diverted into a discussion of whether it's 1.7 million who are battered each year or is it three million battered each year. Is a woman raped every three minutes or every six minutes? It is far too much, whatever it is. But we do know that the battered women's shelters the rape crisis centers who do deal with a lot of women who don't officially report the attacks on them, say that it's going up.

I've talked to law enforcement officials at the state and local level who say that violence against women is going up. In any case, we think that it's an important issue whether it's going up or not. And we are determined to stop it. There is family violence that includes violence that women commit. There is child abuse that involves women. And I suspect that between partners of the same gender there is violence in relationship. We are dealing with a culture of violence. The culture that teaches children in their own homes that the way to deal with conflict is with physical violence. The way to be a man if you're a little boy is to be willing to throw your weight around. And so I think it's a culture-wide problem, and I don't want to get into you know, who suffers more or what are the data, but rather what are the solutions.

Q: What do you see as the origins of violence against women?

Well, you know when I started law school I was shocked to learn that our legal system traditionally had the man as the head and master of the family. And as late as the 70s and 80s when we were fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment, states like Louisiana still had a head and master law that said that the husband, for instance, could mortgage the family home without even telling his wife or over her objections. The most classic case of that was a woman named Feinstra who brought her husband to trial for childhood sexual abuse against their daughter. They won that trial. He went to jail. She and her daughter lost their home because he had mortgaged their house for his lawyer's fees.

I think when I hear traditional family values raised, I hear that effort once again to re-establish the man as head and master of his family. Who had the, not only the right, but the obligation to discipline his wife and children to keep them in line? And of course we are familiar with the English common law rule of thumb that said a man could in fact use a stick no bigger than his thumb to discipline his wife and family. That was actually an improvement, that was an effort to reduce the level of violence but still recognize corporal punishment as appropriate.

We had a judge out in Baltimore who sentenced Ken Peacock to eighteen month's work release after the cold-blooded murder of his wife. And said to Ken Peacock, "I don't know any man who would have come home under those circumstances, found his wife in bed with another man and not have inflicted some sort of corporal punishment." So I think that we have a structure, a culture that is based on the dominant dad whether it's in a family or in the politics. And that has used violence to keep that position when necessary, using psychological and other kinds of abuse when it's not necessary but using physical violence when it's perceived to be necessary to keep that power, keep that control.

Q: What are the solutions?

The solutions are multifaceted. The solutions include better law enforcement, which is why the Violence Against Women Act is so important. It provides money to train the cop on the beat, to train the judges that this is a new day that we won't tolerate this violence and to know how to deal with it. We need more conflict resolution skills taught in the schools and more emphasis on non-violent means of resolving conflict. I think that we need a whole cultural shift so that when we look at the sports industry, for instance, we don't have little boys being brought up by coaches who when the boys don't play, will say, "You throw like a girl, come on ladies, you can play harder than that, what are you, a pussy?" equating what they see as weakest or worst in men with being a woman.

As we look at all of the cultural changes each of us has a role to play, some of us may push on the legislatures to get more money for battered women shelters or rape crisis centers. Some of us may push to get, as the Violence Against Women Act did, recognition of the political role that violence plays as a violation of women's civil rights. Some of us may just in one-on-one conversations with our family, with our friends, over the back fence with our neighbors, talk about the reality of our lives and realize that we're not alone, that we have a right to be physically safe and emotionally safe in our own homes and to have that self-esteem and the resources to be able to do something about it.

As we see the conflict in Congress over welfare reform and poor women's rights, I think of Katie, a woman who I was arrested with, in the Capital Rotunda, just a week ago, who was herself fleeing an eleven-year marriage to an abusive man who beat her for eleven years and when she fled, the fell into poverty. And then she got a job, worked double shifts for seven years to support her family, but then she had two heart attacks and had no health care with her job, and so she fell into poverty again and became homeless. When I look at her story alone, I know that it isn't just violence against women, it's how do we support ourselves and our families, how do we deal with health care for ourselves and our families. It's a bigger picture. The violence may be a good focus to organize around, but we have to look at women's lives in our entirety.

Some of those men in power, we just have to change their faces because we're not going to change their minds. And so I want to organize so that women see ourselves as people who are entitled to power, entitled to leadership. I want to see young women who come right out of school and start running for office or start moving into some positions where they will be able to shape the institutions that define our culture. And so if there are men who just don't get it, then they're just going to have to get it.

Click here to go to the top of the page

No Safe Place: Violence Against Women is made possible in part by a grant from the Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation and the Dr. Ezekiel R. and Edna Wattis Dumke Foundation. The documentary is a production of public television station KUED in Salt Lake City, Utah.

PBS Online | |  No Safe Place Homepage | |  KUED