Of all the strange choices made by the GOP in recent years, the sudden opposition to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is among the most confusing. The act had long counted on bipartisan support for its reauthorization—George W. Bush signed it without incident in 2005—but now Republicans in the House seem intent on killing it. Republicans haven’t suddenly morphed into evil comic-book villains who openly support rape and wife-beating, so what gives?
Obviously, Republicans don't want voters to think they have it in for victims of gender-based violence. But the objections being offered by VAWA opponents are inconsistent or nonsensical. Some say the law represents an unconstitutional overreach and takes away state and local jurisdiction over domestic violence; in fact, the act provides federal support to local law enforcement, but leaves prosecuting these crimes to local authorities. Others take issue with small provisions in the new bill extending coverage to LGBT victims, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has been holding the bill up in the House because he objects to a provision that would allow Native American tribal authorities to use their own justice system to prosecute non-Native men who rape or beat Native women on tribal lands.
To get at what’s really going on, one has to look past the empty rhetoric of politicians to the various groups lobbying Republicans to kill the bill. These groups don’t care about jurisdiction or even the issue of LGBT victims. Rather, the right-wing Christian groups leading the charge against VAWA believe it is a piece of radical feminist legislation aimed at undermining patriarchal authority in the home.
As she did in the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly, an activist of the Christian right who rose to prominence as an anti-feminist leader in the 1970s, is leading the charge to kill VAWA. She claims the law is not about stopping violence so much as “promoting divorce, breakup of marriage and hatred of men.” She employs the same strategy as she did in the fight against the ERA—lying—to support her arguments, claiming that under VAWA, men can be jailed without trial. She also said that men can be jailed merely for yelling at a woman and that the bill doesn’t offer help to male victims of violence—both outright lies. She also objects to laws that make it easier for prosecutors to proceed in cases where victims retract, even though research shows that guilty men persuade victims to retract in a substantial number of domestic-violence claims.
Other conservative lobbying groups have picked up the charge. As reported at Talking Points Memo, FreedomWorks, the super PAC led by Republican and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey until recently, echoed Schlafly’s claims adding that “supporters of the VAWA portray women as helpless victims—this is the kind of attitude that is setting women back.” The implication: Simply refusing to call raped or battered people “victims” makes the whole problem go away.
Meanwhile, the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) denies that abusers’ desire to control and dominate their partners is the cause of domestic violence, instead blaming “substance abuse, emotional and psychological disorders and marital instability.” Concerned Women for America (CWA) concurs, claiming domestic violence is caused by “problems in relationships, psychological or social maladjustment, anger, alcoholism, and substance abuse.” The group claims, defensively, that only Islam’s teachings of male dominance contribute to violence, while Christianity’s similar teachings do not.
The IWF and CWA’s comments hint at the thinking among these groups about domestic violence. VAWA focuses almost exclusively on a specific strategy of preventing domestic violence: separating the victim from her abuser. Improving arrest and prosecution rates, establishing shelters and abuse hotlines, pushing for state provisions against stalking, and creating protections for immigrants all have the goal of getting victims out of abusive relationships and into safe situations. Separation-based policy is based on decades of law-enforcement and victim experience about what it takes to prevent future violent incidents.
But many conservative Christians believe that the priority should be reconciling couples in abusive relationships. The Christian right privileges keeping marriages together—even above protecting the women in them. Because of this, the belief that victims should try to reconcile with their abusers is common among conservative Christians. While they do not approve of domestic violence, many do believe that if women embrace wifely submission, they will “win” their husbands over and make them the kind of men who don’t hit women. Rick Warren’s teaching pastor Tom Holladay recently articulated this by characterizing divorce due to battering as “a short-term solution that's going to involve long-term pain.”
Unfortunately for the right, the facts simply aren’t on their side. Domestic-violence activists have instituted over 2,500 batterer intervention programs with hopes that batterers did have mental-health issues that could be fixed. Disappointingly, activists found very little reason to think these programs work, though some groups have continued the hunt for effective batterer interventions. Futures Without Violence reports that what success has been had in reforming abusers comes from taking an approach diametrically opposed to the one offered by conservative organizations: “[B]attering does not arise from mental illness, anger, dysfunctional upbringings, or substance abuse. Rather, battering is viewed as learned behavior that is primarily motivated by a desire, whether conscious or unconscious, by the abuser to control the victim.”
The question about the sudden opposition to VAWA is: Why now? It’s likely for the same reasons the Republicans have doubled down generally on the war on women, turning up the volume on attacks on abortion, contraception, and equal-pay legislation: A combination of the influx of hard right politicians in recents elections tipping the party further to the right and over-the-top outrage at the very existence of Obama that encourages mindless obstructionism of any Democratic legislation. The conservative base has grown more vocal in its demands that Republicans demonstrate fealty to the hard right cause, and voting against VAWA has, sadly, become an excellent way for politicians to demonstrate their conservative bona fides.