Linda Hirshman Won't Let Domestic Abuse Victims Off The Hook

A week ago, Linda Hirshman asked and then "answered" the question, "Why do women stay in abusive relationships?" by suggesting they're too weak to leave. Now she's not too keen on blogger Hilzoy's impassioned dissent.

(As an aside, in her fit of pique, Linda Hirshman saw fit to unmask Hilzoy's real-life identity. Having contacted Hilzoy to ascertain whether it was okay to do so and having been asked not to, we will continue to refer to her by her nom de plume in the following piece and ask that our readers do so in our comments. We've been informed that Slate editors refused Hilzoy's request to redact her name.)

Linda Hirshman's initial thesis was that the personal is political and that, as feminists, we were somehow doing individual victims a disservice by not asking them why they were not leaving their abusers, or by not castigating them for doing so. Hirshman was not suggesting that, as a society, we needed to reflect on the social and political pressures that contribute to women staying in abusive relationships and as feminists question how we change that — nor, more strikingly, was she advocating that, as feminists, our focus should be on ending the cycle of violence that contributes to domestic abuse or people feeling that domestic abuse is appropriate. Her thesis was simple: if women are feminists, they should have the insight and political will to leave abusive relationships. No where was this thesis more evident than in this statement:

The current love affair with understanding stops feminists from calling victims on taking responsibility for their own well-being. For centuries, Western culture has assumed that, no matter how "kind" they are, given adequate information, people can be trusted to look after themselves.

In other words, by suggesting that there might be more at play in domestic violence situations than a front door to hit one's ass on the way out, feminists (unlike Hirshman) are coddling victims who should either leave on their own or be castigated for not doing so.

Blogger and former women's shelter worker Hilzoy took exception to that, and made an honest effort to answer Hirshman's question of why women don't leave, explaining the often-psychological forces that often come into play in abusive situations to make individuals feel themselves incapable of leaving. Underlying her piece was one fundamental thesis: that the best thing that feminists (or anyone) can do is help the victim leave the situation. At the end of the day, whereas the personal may be political and there are tons of political things we all might be able to do to prevent abuse, prevent victims from feeling that they deserve abuse and to create resources to help them help themselves, the important thing is to help victims leave their abusers safely. And that, if that is your goal, castigating victims as weak, or insufficiently committed to feminism, or in charge of their own destinies simply isn't helpful.

Hirshman took exception to Hilzoy's well-reasoned piece — and to my response piece, which she called "less articulate" than Hilzoy's. (I am given to understand that is an insult but it's one with which I happen to agree, as Hilzoy's piece was a powerful blend of the personal, the political and the reality of the situation and I felt smarter for having read it, unlike anything I've read by Linda Hirshman.) Hirshman instead co-opts Hilzoy's story to attempt to prove her own original thesis: that "good" feminists would just leave.

Individual stories eventually add up to evidence, true, but a personal, revelatory anecdote tends to abort what is supposed to be a political conversation. If we are to discuss the politics of abuse, we need to resist this rhetorical move. It would be churlish of me to downplay the suffering of this well-known intellectual with many friends in the blogosphere. How can I say, he never laid a hand on you, what are you talking about? But other than evoking sympathy, her story actually makes my point perfectly. He screamed at her once; the second time, she packed her bags. In explaining why she left, she says, among other things, "I'm a feminist."

It is ironic, actually, that one of Hirshman's own anecdotal examples from her original piece was that of Katha Pollitt (since debunked by Katha Pollitt) and her philandering ex, which Hirshman compared to domestic abuse — yet she implies that Hilzoy's clear-cut case of emotional abuse isn't a good enough anecdote to make what Hirshman now claims is a political point.

Nonetheless, Hirshman continues.

Mining her shelter years for more data, [Hilzoy] suggests that being attacked by a lover is so shocking it deprives you of your capacity for judgment. Utterly unexpected and incomprehensible, it's like having the car turn into an elephant, she explains. The imagery is compelling, until one remembers that from the Farah Fawcett movie, The Burning Bed, to Rihanna's swollen face on the internet, everyone on this planet has been exposed to evidence that "lovers" can attack. The many comments about my essay also reflect how much warning attackers often give and how many victims come from backgrounds of abuse. Why, of all human experience, can women not learn of the reality of domestic violence from what they see, read and sometimes live through?

The problem is — as Hilzoy to Hirshman's other target, Leslie Morgan Steiner, tried patiently to explain — is that there is a disconnect for many women, especially as the actual abuse often doesn't begin immediately, between what happens to other people, and what is happening to you. But, apparently, Hirshman's brand of bootstrap feminism doesn't allow for psychological influences, a lack of self-esteem or the ability to perceive external realities different than internal ones. You know, being human.

Hirshman then misinterprets pretty much everything everyone said.

[Hilzoy] also tries to explain why I should not be asking (and implying) that women should leave their abusers.

No one that disagreed with Hirshman thinks that women should stay with their abusers. What a crap thing to say. What Hilzoy — and the rest of us — took issue with was Hirshman's initial assertion that it was feminists' collective duty to ask individual victims why, oh why, would you stay with someone — because it isn't helpful to the end goal of helping a victim leave an abusive situation. But, for that, I have to turn to Amanda Marcotte's response.

Linda Hirshman objects to my statement about how badgering women in abusive relationships to just leave is doing the batterer's work for him. I meant it in a pretty straightforward manner—-when you echo the very words that batterers often use to tear down their victims, you're doing their work for them. "Why don't you just leave?" is another way of saying, "How stupid, weak, and miserable a person could you possibly be to put up with this?" It's the grand catch-22 of abuse, especially when you're in the thick of it. You need self-esteem to leave. But it's hard to develop when the fact that you aren't fighting for yourself means that you're obviously not good enough to deserve to get out (something the abuser will happily remind you of if he thinks you're getting uppity).

Hopefully that's more articulate than I could be.

At the end of her second piece that Hirshman gets around to her original thesis.

I implied that women are natural victims, and I was just using battered women as a battering ram against "choice" feminism. If there's one take-away message in my piece, it's that women are not natural victims. Which means there must be a way to reduce or arrest battering. Silent sheltering and waiting isn't enough-that leaves between 600,000 and 2,000,000 women battered right now. If that prescription is all feminism has to offer, I am certainly blaming . . . us.

In other words, Hirshman isn't taking it back. Her prescription for ending domestic violence in this country isn't to teach men not to do it, or reform the culture, or provide opportunities (like, oh, I don't know, the shelters she decries as "not enough") for victims to leave or any of the other things that victims advocates want to do, it's for other feminists to stop pretending that women are "natural" victims and start shouting at them to grow a spine and get out. None of us think women are "natural" victims. What we think — what research shows — is that abusers are insidious, and that the mindset that leads victims to feel they cannot or should not leave can be inculcated and that telling victims who already feel ashamed and weak and not good enough that they are, indeed, weak, is not helpful to helping victims leave abusive situations.

Sheltering Women: Linda Hirshman Responds to Hilzoy [Slate]

Related: Crazy Love, Crazy Choices [Slate]
Why Do They Stay? [Obsidian Wings]
And Round We Go Again On This [Pandagon]

Earlier: Writer Implies We Can Collectively Guilt Rihanna Into Leaving Chris
Former Victim Counselor Takes On Assumptions That Leaving Abusers Is Easy
Oh, Snap!