The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), passed in the House on February 28, has gone to President Obama to be signed into law. It is an important bill that provides a slew of necessary protections for the 1.5 million women who are raped and/or physically assaulted by an intimate partner every year, and this time around expanded to include protections for particularly vulnerable communities, including LGBT women, Native women and immigrants.
For 20 years, VAWA received broad bipartisan support. This year, every Democrat in the House and Senate voted for the bill. But almost half of Republican senators and a majority of House Republicans voted against it.
GOP opposition to the entirely sensible and previously bipartisan VAWA is only the latest example of how far rightward the party has moved. Republicans of all stripes should be concerned – this is why they’re losing elections, after all – and so should Americans generally. A far-right GOP may not get a lot done, but it does change the general political discourse, moving the centrist position to a more conservative one and doing very real harm to women and disempowered groups of Americans.
It is worth highlighting the groups that so many Republicans didn’t want VAWA to protect. Domestic violence occurs in same-sex relationships at roughly the same rates as it occurs in opposite-sex ones. Since so many same-sex couples lack legal recognition, there are far fewer resources for lesbian and gay victims of intimate violence, and law enforcement officers are less adept at identifying and dealing with violence in same-sex relationships.
Transgender women who experience violence often find themselves dealing with insensitive or even abusive law enforcement, having to live through the extra trauma of being misgendered or mocked by the authorities who are supposed to help them, and even barred from taking refuge in women-only domestic violence shelters.
Undocumented immigrants logically fear interfacing with police officers, and often avoid reporting violence or seeking help for fear of deportation. Native women suffer violence at a rate 3 1/2 times the national average, with almost 40 percent experiencing intimate partner violence at least once and 1 in 3 Native women raped in her lifetime. If the perpetrator of the crime is non-Native, tribal authorities have limited power.
VAWA closes some of these gaps, most notably with law enforcement on Native lands. But what’s going on with a Republican party that essentially says, “Ok, we’ll protect some women, but not the gay, transgender, immigrant or Native ones”?
Inside Story Americas
The GOP has a long-time misogyny problem. As feminists were breaking ground in the 1960s and 70s, conservatives were working against the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment because equal rights were a threat to the traditional family. The Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision ended the era of illegal abortion that killed some 5,000 women every year and injured many more – and it galvanised religious conservatives who eventually formed today’s “pro-life” contingent of the Republican party.
The GOP’s Southern Strategy leveraged white racism to win elections and establish a base of voters resentful and fearful of social change; often, the locus of those fears was the black or brown female body, from Reagan’s mythical welfare queen to the modern-day pregnant immigrant supposedly running across the border to give birth to an anchor baby.
While right-wing hostility toward women’s rights is nothing new, what is different is the extent to which the most fringe viewpoints are normalised within the Republican party.
The pro-life movement is a prime example. While the “moral majority” crusaders turned abortion into a contentious social issue in the 1980s – partly out of racial animus and party for political gain – since contraception became widely available, the American public has been pretty united in its support of birth control and the health facilities that offer it.
Title X, the programme which provides voluntary family planning options and reproductive health care to low-income Americans, was established by Richard Nixon and remained relatively uncontroversial from the 1970s through the second Bush administration.
The tides changed in 2011, with Republican efforts to cut Title X and defund Planned Parenthood. Though Planned Parenthood has been a long-time target of pro-life terrorists – clinics bombed and picketed, doctors and women stalked and harassed – moves to cut the organisation’s federal funds and attempts to defund contraception coverage for the poor were new to the national political scene.
But not to the pro-life one. Radical anti-choice organisations have advocated against Planned Parenthood for years. The organisation “STOPP – Stop Planned Parenthood” was founded in 1986 and affiliated with the American Life League, aiming to bring Jesus to Planned Parenthood through Mary. While they advocated on a small level to defund Planned Parenthood and slowly gained strength through alliances with other anti-choice groups, they were generally ignored by the Republican establishment for two and a half decades.
Anyone following the pro-life movement knew very well that opposing contraception access is the mainstream pro-life organisational position – despite the fact that birth control prevents enormous numbers of abortions, I’m unaware of any major pro-life group that supports contraception access. That’s because, for all of their talk about valuing foetal life, the bigger issue for pro-life organisations is the radical shift in gender roles that birth control and abortion enabled.
We have more options than ever before and are attending college and graduate school in record numbers, moving up the ranks at work and filling political offices. An inability to plan our families would change all of that, and pro-life groups know it.
“Native women suffer violence at a rate 3 1/2 times the national average, with almost 40 percent experiencing intimate partner violence at least once.”
As anti-choice groups gained more influence within the Republican party, and as identifying as “pro-life” practically became a requirement for anyone running on a GOP ticket, the expansive definition of “pro-life” favoured by extremist groups became increasingly normalised. State and local efforts to chip away at abortion rights slowly started to inform national GOP politics.
The Republican rape philosophers – we heard so much from them in the last election – took their talking points from fringe anti-abortion leaders. That centring of radical conservatism, along with the Tea Party movement and a more generalised right-wing anger at the shifting face of American power after the election of Barack Obama, created the perfect storm of extremism, belligerence and resentment at historically marginalised groups.
The scapegoats? Women, among others. And most pointedly, the low-income women, women of colour and immigrant women who disproportionately rely on Title X and Planned Parenthood services.
Now, in 2013 – nearly 40 years since the Supreme Court declared in Griswold v Connecticut that married couples had a right to access contraception – birth control is controversial.
Now, in 2013, protecting women from violence is a divisive political position.
Again with VAWA, the women targeted by the GOP are among the most vulnerable, and make up a veritable “who’s who” list of groups the Republican party has antagonised and alienated: the LGBT community, Native Americans and immigrants. Unfortunately for the GOP, their long-time strategy of “appeal to white people, demonise everyone else” stops working so well once the various groups that make up “everyone else” gain both power and numbers.
But they don’t appear to be stopping. VAWA passed, but the funding for the programmes it authorises are now subject to the sequester. An estimated 200,000 victims of violence may lose services.
The general American public doesn’t take kindly to targeting victims of rape and domestic violence. Directing animosity at women, and at non-white women in particular, may be a good way to rally the base. But it’s also a great way to lose elections.
Jill Filipovic is a consultant, writer, speaker and recovering attorney. She assists fashion and lifestyle brands, legal organisations and law firms, international NGOs, non-profits and corporations in using new media to reach their business and strategic objectives.
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