The following is an adapted excerpt from Jezebel staff writer Kylie Cheung’s new book, Survivor Injustice: State-Sanctioned Abuse, Domestic Violence, and the Fight for Bodily Autonomy, which comes out on Tuesday.
Tawni Maisonneuve, founder of the domestic abuse support group the Purple Owl Project in Toledo, Ohio, has survived several abusive relationships and marriages over the course of decades. At one point in her life, Maisonneuve had worked as a manager in her state senator’s office and was deeply involved in her community as an activist. But the abuse she endured in her relationships took a toll: Several of her partners blocked her access to political information and coerced her to vote in a certain way, or stopped her from voting at all.
“It turned into a situation where I didn’t even register to vote anymore,” Maisonneuve said. Her divorce was finalized in 1994, but she says she “didn’t even vote after that for the simple fact that I didn’t want to run into [her ex-husband] at any polls” or “deal with any of those dynamics.”
In her next relationship, Maisonneuve’s partner accompanied her to polling places and voted on her behalf. “I felt if I didn’t vote the way he did, or I didn’t agree with those political views, it would really be a physical issue,” she said. “So whenever I would go vote with him, I would need to get things approved before I submitted them. And he would tell the people, ‘Oh, she’s slow, I gotta walk her through it.’ It was those kinds of humiliating things.”
Many victims may not even see political coercion from their partners as an abusive act. Maisonneuve attributed this in part to the reality that we still “have a hard time believing emotional and mental abuse occurs,” let alone recognizing political control over a partner as abusive. She finally began to understand her partners’ political coercion of her as abuse when, in 2013, she joined a program that she called “intense victim recovery therapy.”
In many ways, Maisonneuve believes controlling a partner’s vote is one of the most powerful forms of abuse. “When you look at that, if I can control the way you vote even in your community and everything else, I know I really have control of you at home,” she said.
According to Maisonneuve, this extent of calculation and control by an abuser isn’t out of the ordinary. For an abuser, acts of political coercion including controlling a partner’s vote aren’t necessarily about impacting an election or achieving specific political outcomes, but making their victim feel powerless, denying them agency in the home and in society at large. “It’s about complete power and control,” she said, “where there’s no room for disagreement, no room for your own opinions or even your own thoughts.”
To protect victims’ voting rights, Maisonneuve argues it’s critical that polling places educate volunteers and staff on how to ensure voters can vote independently. “It should be a red flag at polling stations if someone comes in and their partner or family member says, ‘Oh, they’re slow, they’re learning.’ In response, it should be, ‘Well that’s OK, we have somebody that can help them. Because the voting right is individual. We’ll help them,’” she said.
Jeff R., a survivor of domestic violence who grew up in a household with alcoholic parents and family, works with Maisonneuve at the Purple Owl Project. He told me Maisonneuve was his “savior.”
“When you grow up in a household where it’s, you have to do it this way or that way or get your ass beat, get belittled—you no longer see the value in your own feelings, your own beliefs,” he told me. “It would just be, ‘Oh, who did you vote for?’ and I’d say what I needed to say, or not say anything, to avoid a conflict, avoid belittling or a beating. Even now, I just don’t talk about politics with anyone anymore. Even now, I still can’t talk about it, let alone engage much in the community.”
Dr. Tonisha Pinckney, who researches and teaches about domestic violence, sexual violence, community engagement, and other issues, is a survivor of domestic violence and told me she was once convinced by an abusive partner that she was inherently unworthy and too uneducated to have a political voice. “I’m a Black woman, and when you’re a Black woman and dealing with domestic violence, it’s such a difficult situation, because there’s people who will always treat you like you’re completely stupid and unworthy,” she told me.
For eight years, her husband, whom she married at 18, subjected her to emotional and physical abuse and often weaponized their two children to deny her political power. “It wasn’t always about the fact he hated voting or politics, it was that he didn’t want me to feel as though I could do it, or my voice was loud enough,” Pinckney said.
Prior to her abusive marriage, she had been active in her community. Her mother had been a community organizer, and Pinckney had studied political science as an undergraduate. After surviving sexual assault, she had become an advocate for victims’ rights. But after she got married, she said her husband began to use the family they shared to prevent her from voting or attending political or community events.
“Once I had the kids, it became, ‘Oh, you want to go and hear this political speaker? Sure, you can go, but I’m not watching the kids,’ and they’re young, and we’re too poor [for child care] and didn’t have a car, so I couldn’t go. Or, ‘You want to vote? That’s stupid, you’re just wasting your time,’” Pinckney recounted. “A lot of his barriers were not specifically, ‘You can’t be involved in political things,’ or, ‘You can’t go vote,’ it was, ‘I’m not stopping you, but I’m stopping you from doing it in other ways.’ It was, ‘You can go, I’m not telling you you can’t go, I’m just making it so you can’t go.’”
Despite how deeply her abusive marriage had affected her political engagement, Pinckney said our interview was the first conversation she’d had about the impacts of domestic abuse on political autonomy. “Some of it plays to the patriarchal system of, ‘Why do you need to vote anyway? You’re just a woman, you need to stay in your place’—that kind of thing,” Pinckney hypothesized. “Those were some of the arguments I’d have, ‘You need to be home with the kids,’ or, ‘Charity starts at home, why are you out there in the streets trying to make the world a better place? You should be here cooking me food.’
“I think it just doesn’t really occur to people, that connection, because you don’t vote every day,” she said.
Excerpted from Survivor Injustice: State-Sanctioned Abuse, Domestic Violence, and the Fight for Bodily Autonomy by Kylie Cheung, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2023. Reprinted by permission of publisher.