by Barry Goldstein
Sexism is critical to the discussion of domestic violence because it causes men to abuse their partners based on a sense of entitlement and superiority. It promotes many other practices and policies that mistreat women such as the issues that led to discussion of the Republican war on women. Most people become deeply insulted and angered when called sexist, but most sexism is far more subtle than the over-the-top hateful comments recently made by Rush Limbaugh. Good and caring men engage in sexist behavior, often without realizing they are doing so. I would urge Republican leaders, as well as Democrats and independents to avoid the normal defensiveness in responding to accusations of sexist behavior.
Instructors at the New York Model Batterer Program where I teach receive ninety minutes of training every week. Almost inevitably, male instructors, and sometimes also female instructors, say or do something sexist. The staff or other instructors explain that what they did was sexist. The normal response, particularly from newer instructors is to try to explain or suggest a misunderstanding. We ask the instructors to sit and listen and try to understand why someone says it was sexist because it almost always was. We consider this process of informing an instructor of his sexist behavior as a gift because it is hard in this society to say this to anyone. It is important to respond in a way that encourages colleagues to share this important information with us.
As part of this process, I have heard many things that made me uncomfortable. I needed to recognize my sexism, racism and other unearned privileges in order to work to change my behaviors. I wish the Republican leadership could understand the criticism of their war on women as a gift that should encourage them to consider the harm they are causing instead of defensive justifications and renewed attacks.
When we speak about oppressions, the experts are members of the group that is disadvantaged by that oppression. Women living with an abuser pay very close attention to his tone of voice, words, body language and other indications of his attitude in order to gain some advance warning of danger. They do this as a matter of survival and men do not need to pay similar attention because they are not at risk. When men in the batterer program or court professionals claim that men know as much about domestic violence as women, it is because they do not understand this fundamental dynamic. I believe it was significant that Republican Congressional Leaders held a hearing about contraception in which only men listened to only men. This is an example in which the damage they did to their reputation was self-inflicted and belies later claims by Republican leaders that their political problem was caused by unfair coverage or Democratic criticisms.
Republicans Earned Unpopularity by Hurting Women
In a society in which men tend to react defensively to their exposure for sexist behavior and a political environment where confident repetition of lies is often effective, it is not surprising Romney and Priebus would try to blame others for their party’s mistakes. I hope the tactic will not work in this case and it will encourage them to change policies and more importantly start to listen to women’s concerns. Here are some of their recent gaffes that caused a dramatic reduction in their support from women.
1. There was a dispute over requiring employers with religious affiliations to provide contraceptives to employees as part of their health insurance coverage. Some religious institutions such as the Catholic Church wanted a conscience provision to permit them to opt out. This was provided for religious institutions but not for affiliated entities that might cover employees from other religions. President Obama sought to arrange a compromise so in most cases the insurance company and not the religious institution would provide the contraceptives. There is room for reasonable people to differ over where the line should be drawn, but the Republicans sought to curry favor with religious supporters and aggressively attacked the compromise arrangement. In doing so they failed to consider that many women use contraceptive drugs for medical treatment or the longstanding right to contraceptives since the 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut. House Republicans exacerbated the harm caused by holding hearings at which they refused to listen to any women.
2. One of the women Congressional Republicans refused to listen to was a Georgetown Law Student, Sandra Fluke. Ms. Fluke instead spoke to a hearing organized by House Democrats and pointed out the frequency with which women used contraception for medical uses and the expense of doing so if they were not covered by medical insurance. This led to an offensive and personal attack by Republican hero, Rush Limbaugh in which he used some of the most offensive and sexist language available. Many abusers claim that they were taught not to hit women and would not do so unless she is a (insert slur). In other words the kind of language Limbaugh used places all women, Republican and Democrat, Conservative and Liberal at risk. Limbaugh has great influence and power in the Republican Party and many of their leaders, including the presidential candidates seemed not to have the courage to forcefully condemn this unjustifiable personal attack. By way of contrast, Georgetown University which disagrees with her position supported her right to express her viewpoint and labeled Limbaugh’s attack as improper. In another recent example that demonstrates even Democratic women could make offensive comments, Hillary Rosen claimed that Ann Romney never did any work. President Obama responded by unequivocally stating such comments are wrong.
3. In Virginia and some other states, Republican legislators in their haste to make it as difficult as possible for women to exercise their Constitutional right to have an abortion proposed legislation requiring the woman to be penetrated in order to see an ultrasound picture of the fetus. Many commentators recognized this as a form of rape. The legislation was amended so that penetration was not required, but they demonstrated a complete lack of concern over a woman’s right to privacy.
4. The Violence Against Women Act has been one of the most effective laws in working to reduce domestic violence. It provides funds for many critical programs and practices that help prevent domestic violence. It has always been a bi-partisan measure with strong support from both parties. In the Senate supporters gained the 60 sponsors they needed which means several Republicans joined Democrats to provide bi-partisan support. Now Republican leaders are threatening to kill VAWA (and who knows how many women and children) because they object to provisions to protect victims in same sex relationships and immigrants. A few months ago, I wrote an article in this space about how we could save $500 billion by using best practices to prevent domestic violence crime. VAWA is part of these best practices and it is impossible to imagine a justification to interfere with legislation that could save both money and lives. Does being a “pro-life” party not include saving the lives of the living?
5. In Wisconsin the Republican majority in the legislature passed legislation, signed by the Republican governor, that undermines the ability of women to sue for employment discrimination. They repealed legislation providing remedies for women paid less than men for the same work.
Obviously complaints about the Republican war on women were not made up out of thin air or even exaggerated. Instead, women and their supporters brought together a recent group of outrageous actions by Republicans that are harmful to women to show a pattern of hostility. I don’t think the Republicans were trying to hurt women and they certainly did not wish to give Democrats a powerful issue. Instead it was their sexism and privilege that blinded them to the harm they are causing.
In our personal lives, when men engage in sexist behavior, the best response is to apologize and make a commitment to avoid these offensive actions in the future. Politicians do not like to admit mistakes, but I believe Republicans could best defuse the harm they have caused to their political position by acknowledging their mistakes. They could join in the traditional non partisan cooperation to pass the reauthorization of VAWA and perhaps support the efforts of domestic violence advocates to save $500 billion by supporting proven plans that would drastically reduce domestic violence crimes (see my earlier article, “Why Don’t We End Domestic Violence?”).
The Nexus Between Sexism and Racism
The King Center in Atlanta is a wonderful monument to the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One of the most interesting exhibits is one dedicated to the continuation of his work that is proceeding all over the world. The exhibit focuses on movements to end many different oppressions and I was particularly drawn to information about the woman who started the domestic violence movement in Russia. The problems described in Russia in the 1990s were the same as in the United States in the 1970s. It is not that some societies permit domestic violence and others don’t. Instead virtually all societies have a history of sexism and domestic violence and the differences reflect when movements started to respond to men’s abuse of women.
In the batterer classes I teach some of the men complain or ask why we would speak about racism in a class about domestic violence. I often tell the story about the King Center in which they conceive that the work in Russia to end domestic violence is a continuation of his work to end segregation and racism. This is because racism and sexism are part of a system of oppression and we cannot end one without ending all oppressions.
Just as I discussed how sexism is often subtle or unconscious, the same is true about racism. We tend to think of racism as the kind of behavior associated with the Ku Klux Klan, but more often it is about stereotypes and unconscious assumptions that give whites unearned advantages over blacks. Whites, including politicians who are quick to deny their actions are racist would likely pass a lie detector test, but only because they do not understand all that racism entails.
Research shows that local television stations disproportionately cover crime stories involving alleged black offenders and do so even when the crime rate is down. This promotes stereotypes suggesting young black men are dangerous and has serious consequences. Trayvon Martin was viewed as potentially dangerous, not because of anything he did but because of this stereotype. Many whites have never heard of someone arrested for DWB, but people of color know this stands for driving while black. Many whites would not associate their fear of black men as coming from racism. It is important to understand that good people can act on their racist or sexist superiority and do so without realizing it. This means we should be slower to deny our own oppressive acts.
Vitriolic Attacks against the President
President Obama has repeatedly been the subject of some of the most personal and offensive attacks that any President has received. Obviously people have different political views and there is nothing wrong with criticizing someone whose policies they disagree with. I have heard some people justify the attacks on the President by saying that Presidents Clinton and Bush were attacked similarly. I believe the level of hatred against Obama is greater than the other presidents, but perhaps more to the point there was a basis for the level of anger against Clinton and Bush that does not exist in the actions of Barack Obama.
President Clinton earned strong public anger and disgust over his sexual behavior with an intern and lack of honesty about this and other issues. There were scandals involving his administration and many believed he was dishonest with the American people.
President George W. Bush engaged in many actions that could reasonably have created severe anger in his opponents. He prevented a full count of the ballots in Florida so that many people believe he was not properly elected. When the country came together after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, many believe he used the issue for political gain instead of using it as a way to maintain unity in the country. He made serious misrepresentations to the public to justify starting a war against Iraq that many believe was unjustified. In doing so, we lost an opportunity to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden. His economic policies that included lax regulation, the costs of two wars and a massive tax cut without paying for these expenses, led to the worst economic catastrophe since the great depression. He also had significant scandals in his administration.
By contrast, there has been nothing in President Obama’s record that compares to the actions that could reasonably have led to the angry reaction towards Bush and Clinton. Again it is reasonable for people with different political views to dislike his policies and wish him to be replaced. Everyone is entitled to their views. His administration has been remarkably free of scandals. He did not talk about getting Bin Laden the way Bush did, he just went out and did it. Many people, including Obama hoped or expected the economy would improve more quickly and dramatically, but the President has been successful in averting a massive meltdown which was a real possibility and the economy is far stronger than when he took office.
Many people strongly disagree with his position on health care, but any discussion that considers context would provide a more reasonable perspective. There has been strong support for a national health care law for many years from both parties. Republicans as diverse as Richard Nixon, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have advocated for a national health law. This has been needed because so many people are uninsured with devastating consequences. People can disagree about whether we need such a law, but it cannot be viewed as something outside the mainstream of thought and support. I could understand anger from the right wing if Democrats passed a one payer system which would be the liberal form of health reform. The moderate form would involve an insurance mandate with the government providing competition. The actual plan that relies on a mandate originally championed by Romney, Gingrich and others, based upon the free market system, was the most conservative approach considered. People can disagree, but the level of vitriol does not match the moderate nature of the reform. This is especially true when no other realistic alternative has been put forward by those who so strenuously object.
Included in the common personal attacks against the President are bizarre and obviously false claims that he is Muslim and was not born in the United States. There would be nothing wrong with a President who was Muslim, but this is used by opponents in a pejorative manner. There is no factual basis for these claims and the widespread belief is based upon repeated lies by the President’s opponents and racism. A recent poll of Republican primary voters in one southern state found over forty percent of the voters believed he was Muslim and another forty percent were not sure if he was. The level of ignorance and prejudice necessary to believe such obvious lies makes one wonder if such people should be qualified to vote.
Claims that Obama is the Worst President Ever
Included in the attacks against the President are frequently expressed opinions that he is the worst President ever. Obviously anyone is entitled to their opinion, but based on his actual record described earlier, there is no reasonable basis for this view. The multiple and catastrophic failures of the Bush Presidency would create a much stronger argument that he was the worst President ever, but he is not close.
The worst President in our history was Richard Nixon and there is no one in second place. He is the only President forced to resign from office in disgrace because of a long series of gross violations of our laws and our Constitution. Today many people do not understand the extent of his corrupt actions and how close he brought us to losing our democracy.
Many people have heard the lies he promoted that other Presidents did the same thing or that it just involved campaign irregularities in an election he would have easily won anyway. In reality, when he started his Watergate crimes, the polls showed him losing to Senator Edmund Muskie who had been a popular Vice Presidential candidate in 1968. Nixon and his co-conspirators systematically and illegally destroyed the campaigns of each of the Democratic candidates who had a good chance to beat him. In effect he selected his Democratic opponent and then engaged in dirty tricks against Senator McGovern also.
I was a student in Washington during Watergate and the election and so had the opportunity to see just a small part of the criminal activities from the Nixon campaign. At one point the president of the George Washington University College Republicans repeated to me a conversation I had just had with a McGovern staffer. The Senate Watergate Committee would later describe his activities on behalf of the Committee to Re-elect the President (aptly referred to as CREEP) for spying on the Quaker Peace Vigil that was protesting in front of the White House. We thought the information suggested CREEP had placed a listening device at McGovern Headquarters and sought to warn them by giving them a piece of paper that described how the Republicans had information from the phone conversation. A few years later I learned from a former McGovern staffer that they treated everything as an open campaign because Nixon spies had infiltrated McGovern’s staff.
One of the scariest events I ever witnessed was the Nixon Justice Department’s response to May Day protests aimed at ending the war. Thousands of people, most of whom had nothing to do with the demonstrations were arrested and held at RFK stadium. On our campus many students were arrested going to or leaving class. Pepper gas permeated the campus for weeks afterwards. That night parents kept calling the dorm and we did not know where their children were or even if they were alive. The courts later found the arrests to be illegal and the victims were compensated.
It is important to remember that the successful outcome with Nixon removed from office was not inevitable. We came chillingly close to losing our democracy. And I have not even discussed his decision to continue a war we later learned he knew was hopeless in order to delay the political consequences. Nixon was also involved in illegal spying on political opponents, enemies’ lists and financial corruption. Nothing that Obama, Bush, Clinton or any other President did comes close to the deliberate and fundamental violation of our rights by Nixon.
The Cause of the Extreme Level of Offensive Personal Attacks
There is room for good people to disagree with the President, believe he is doing a poor job and to prefer someone else in office. As discussed earlier, the level of hatred and personal attacks are not justified by his character, behavior or policies and it is not close. There are a group of factors that have created this extreme response and it is important to understand them in order to reverse the trend of coarsening our political discussion. If the public tolerate the abuse of President Obama, we are likely to see it repeated against all other leaders.
1. In 1964, Republican leaders in Congress joined Democrats to pass the Civil Rights Act. A group of Democrats supported the Reagan tax cuts. Senator Ted Kennedy helped President Bush pass the No Child Left Behind Act. Democrats and Republicans repeatedly came together to pass and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). More recently moderates in both parties have been removed from office and each party takes more extreme positions. This has made it harder to reach the needed compromises and creates an environment in which ever more outrageous personal attacks are tolerated based only on a difference on policy issues.
2. The public has permitted deliberate lies to work so that politicians have learned to use this outrageous practice that weakens our country. We saw this in the 2004 election in which lies that the war in Iraq was justified because Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9-11 terrorist attack and had weapons of mass destruction. The debate over health care was infected with lies like the claims of death panels. The lies discussed earlier about Obama being Muslim or not being born in the United States have been part of this trend of our toleration of these lies. Although the media occasionally provides “fact check” type stories, they have failed to make clear when some claims are clearly wrong. Obviously they do not wish to be seen as partisan, but when statements are clearly false, this needs to be part of the story. For many years conservatives accused television networks and other media of bias, but a recent study found that those who watch Fox News are less knowledgeable than if you do not watch FOX. Extremists like Rush Limbaugh seem to have no concern about the accuracy of his statements, but many listeners believe his lies.
3. The worst offenders usually bristle at suggestions that racism is behind their personal attacks against President Obama. I have tried to acknowledge there are other forces that contribute to these attacks and not every one is caused by racism, but it would be naïve to believe racism plays no role. Many of these personal attacks were made before the President even took office. It is fair to say that many people are uncomfortable with the idea of a black President. Some of the offensive statements have involved racial stereotypes making it easy to recognize. Those accused of racism would do well to follow the example of instructors in our batterer program and stop to consider why someone finds their statement racist rather than reacting defensively. Most of the time they will find the accusation is accurate and could help them avoid offensive conduct in the future.
One of the most troubling aspects of the deteriorating civility in political discourse has been open statements by elected Republican leaders to the effect they want President Obama to fail. It is no surprise or offense that they would like to see a Republican elected in his place in the next election. The problem is when they take actions designed to deliberately hurt the country and particularly the economy in order to make him look bad and thus encourage his defeat on election day. On several occasions it has appeared that their lack of cooperation or willingness to seek compromise was done not out of principle but in furtherance of a plan to hurt the President’s chances by hurting their constituents.
What happens if they get elected in this election or some future election and the Democrats use the same obstructionist approach? In this closely divided nation it will be rare for a party to have the sixty votes needed to control legislation in the Senate in addition to control of the House and Presidency. This is a formula for long-term disaster. I hope both parties will avoid this kind of obstructionism and perhaps more important I hope the public will punish any political party that engages in such tactics by voting against them.
I do not believe Republican politicians woke up one day and decided they wanted to figure out all the ways they could hurt women. In each case they were focused on something else they saw as a benefit and failed to understand the harm to women until much later. They attacked Obama’s attempt to compromise the contraception issue as a way to support their deeply religious supporters, but in doing so failed to recognize that access to contraception is a well settled issue. They also seemed unaware that many women use contraceptives for health issues. In the case of Rush Limbaugh, they needed his support and failed to find the courage to denounce offensive behavior they would not have tolerated from almost anyone else. In Virginia they backed off the mandated rape of women seeking an abortion, but much of the damage had already been done. In each case they could have acknowledged their mistakes, changed their positions and created a mechanism to better hear women’s voices. This requires a level of humility we don’t often see from sexist men or powerful politicians.
It appears that Republican leaders have decided to respond to the harm they have caused to their relationship with women through denial and blaming others. Unfortunately, this strategy sometimes works, but the harm they have caused seems so obvious that it is unlikely to work this time. I believe they could instead take a couple of actions that would not conflict with their political philosophy, would provide real benefits to women and would improve the way they are being viewed. It would be an example of doing well by doing good.
The first thing they need to do is join with Democrats in the bi-partisan passage of VAWA. In the past, Republicans have always supported VAWA and there should be nothing in their political philosophy that would support men’s right to assault and brutalize their partners. VAWA provides support for many useful projects that help make women and children safer. Indeed this should be viewed as a fundamental part of any pro-life policy. VAWA has helped in creating new research that would help make even more progress in the work to end domestic violence.
The second thing they should do is propose or join in support of policies to create what might be called Quincy Model 2.0. This would use the best practices I described in the earlier article that have been shown to result in a dramatic reduction in domestic violence crime. Most prisoners have a childhood history involving domestic violence or child abuse so adoption of these practices would drastically reduce crime. Republicans have always made crime reduction an important priority. Many Republicans have sought to promote abstinence so that children do not engage in sexual activities with other children. The common mishandling of sexual abuse allegations by the custody courts places children at risk. Surely if Republicans don’t want children having sex with other children they will even more want to protect them from sexual assault by adults. Finally Republicans want to reduce the deficit and cut taxes. Implementation of the Quincy Model 2.0 would save $500 billion every year and the savings would gradually increase as children live their lives without witnessing domestic violence. This would permit proposals that reduce debt and cut taxes without cutting vital services women need.
I believe these actions would improve the conditions in our society and improve the way Republicans are viewed by women. I know there are many skeptics in the political community, but I am confident women would prefer safety to a campaign issue. Together we can end the war against women.