Four steps that helped fight domestic violence

“…and that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.” –Audre Lorde

The Violence Against Women Act turns 20 this year. The federal government’s first comprehensive approach to end violence against women, the VAWA starts from a clear premise: Women, children, and families should be able to live in violence-free homes and communities.

This sounds like a truly bipartisan vision. One that both “pro-family” and “pro-choice” factions could support.

But even something as basic as family violence prevention law has its detractors. In 1984, one congressman dubbed it the “Take the Fun Out of Marriage Act.” Two years ago, Congress let the VAWA lapse for the first time in over a decade (See this OP post for more on the topic).

And just this week, a New Hampshire lawmaker posted a sickening joke at the expense of domestic violence survivors.

Still, anti-violence advocates and their allies persist. They got Congress to renew the VAWA last year. Between 1993 and 2010, domestic violence against adult women has gone down by 64%. How did we get here?

In her recent TED talk, Esta Soler outlines some of the anti-domestic violence movement’s key successes. Founder of Futures Without Violence, she has been a force in the movement to end gender-based violence for the past 30 years.

Soler highlights four key steps in the movement, offering an abbreviated guide to anti-violence activism:

They organized.

We created this extraordinary underground network of amazing women who opened shelters, and if they didn’t open a shelter, they opened their home so that women and children could be safe.

They changed the law.

We had bake sales, we had car washes, and we did everything we could do to fundraise, and then at one point we said, you know, it’s time that we went to the federal government and asked them to pay for these extraordinary services that are saving people’s lives… Ten years later, after lots of hard work, we finally passed the Violence Against Women Act.

They made the invisible, visible.

I want you to imagine what a breakthrough this was for women who were victims of violence in the 1980s. They would come into the emergency room with what the police would call “a lovers’ quarrel,” and I would see a woman who was beaten, I would see a broken nose and a fractured wrist and swollen eyes. And as activists, we would take our Polaroid camera, we would take her picture, we would wait 90 seconds, and we would give her the photograph. And she would then have the evidence she needed to go to court.

Before 1980, do you have any idea how many articles were in The New York Times on domestic violence? I’ll tell you: 158. And in the 2000s, over 7,000. We were obviously making a difference.

They engaged men as allies.

National polling told us that men felt indicted, and not invited into the conversation. So we wondered, how can we include men? How can we get men to talk about violence against women and girls? And a male friend of mine pulled me aside and he said, “You want men to talk about violence against women and girls. Men don’t talk.” (Laughter) I apologize to the men in the audience. I know you do. But he said, “Do you know what they do do? They do talk to their kids. They talk to their kids as parents, as coaches.” And that’s what we did. We met men where they were at and we built a program.

 Soler’s talk struck me for a few reasons. She talks about how anti-violence advocates have used technology—from Polaroids to ad campaigns to Twitter—to organize and to tell their stories.

Most interesting, she does more than celebrate the good guys and condemn the bad guys. She talks about the strategies and concrete tactics progressives and other social change agents can use to turn great ideas into law.

This Women’s History Month, as we uplift feminist icons and celebrate accomplishments like the Violence Against Women Act, let’s also pay tribute to the savvy strategies and political moves that folks like Esta Soler have used to make change. Because wins like the VAWA are as much about good strategy as they are about good policy.

Strategy, policy, and a healthy sense of optimism. Soler says she “fundamentally” and “passionately” believes that “violence doesn’t have to be part of the human condition:”

I’m the daughter of a man who joined one club in his life, the Optimist Club,..And it is his spirit and his optimism that is in my DNA…I believe we can bend the arc of human history toward compassion and equality…

Such hope is at the heart of our movements for social change.

What other strategies are progressives using—in the women’s movement and beyond—to bring about a more equitable, compassionate future? Are there more movers-and-shakers like Esta Soler we should be talking about? Please share your thoughts.