Linda Hirshman Stands Defiantly In Judgment Of Domestic Abuse Victims

Illustration for article titled Linda Hirshman Stands Defiantly In Judgment Of Domestic Abuse Victims

Linda Hirshman, who is more adept at re-writing history than she is at letting anything go, has written yet another column about feminism, domestic abuse and Rihanna, without the benefit of reading any of the new research on abuse.


To recap Hirshman to date: Back in April, she wrote that focusing on the abusers isn't nearly good enough: we had to start embarrassing the victims.

Shouldn't we be focusing on the abusers? Well, not exactly. Old-style feminism would say "the personal is the political," as long-time columnist Katha Pollitt put it in her own tale of personal sexual betrayal, Learning To Drive: And Other Life Stories. A social movement that passed political judgment on a subject as intimate as domestic violence may be tough on the victim, but, as Pollitt concluded, "at least it offered a perspective."

According to Hirshman, it was feminists' duty to ask individual victims how it is they could be so stupid and anti-feminist so as to stay with an abuser, all but ignoring the well-documented psychological effects of abusive relationships.

When called out on on that steaming pile of victim-shaming bullshit that in no way actually helps women leave abusers, Hirshman got all defensive.

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.


Now, no feminist — choice or otherwise — would call women "natural" victims. What we can and have pointed out is that there is a vast body of research into how some women do become victims and what methods are useful for helping them exit abusive relationships and, moreover, that the blame for the abuse should fall squarely upon the abuser and not his victim. We also suggested that stopping abuse means providing means for women to exit relationships and better means of detection, prosecution and education for men about abuse. We just disagree that shaming women who are being abused is in any way, shape or form helpful to the end goal of helping women exit abusive relationships, what with one of the major causes of abused women's isolation being the shame they feel for either bringing the abuse upon themselves or being unable emotionally to leave.

Obviously, Hirshman still isn't keen to hear that part of any explanation. Her apparent takeaway from the discussion is that "choice" feminists believe women choose of their own volition to stay in abusive relationships and we should support them in their decisions. And so she's so very surprised that us "choice" feminists aren't attacking President Obama for his NAACP speech in which he encouraged African-American men and women to raise their children to work hard and do well in school, rather than succumbing to circumstances that might make them believe they can't succeed. (It's a little like Hirshman forgot Obama's speech on the same topic last June, actually).


In fact, because so little has been written by particularly white, feminist commentators (who, I don't know, might not feel quite right criticizing a speech by the first African-American President to African-Americans about raising African-American children for some odd reason), Hirshman thinks Obama's getting a pass in a way she wasn't.

Are women different from African-Americans when it comes to writing their own destiny, as the president powerfully expressed it? Apparently.


In other words, Obama suggesting to African-American parents that they encourage their children to dream of being scientists is exactly the same as suggesting that feminists try to shame women out of abusive relationships by telling them that it's their fault (and a betrayal of feminism) for staying.

It is difficult to imagine the same writers suggesting that President Obama is interfering with the freedom of choice of black parents when he tells them to prepare their children to be scientists rather than rappers.

If anything, the argument for leaving an abuser should be an easier one to make, no? But a few months ago, after reviewing Leslie Morgan Steiner's memoir of her four years as a victim of domestic abuse, I took a pounding for asking: Why didn't she leave?


Now, again, not a single feminist who disagreed with Hirshman argued that women should stay with abusers because it's their "choice" or that feminists shouldn't do what they can to reduce domestic violence, punish abusers and engage in productive measures to help women leave abusive situations. What we all collectively argued is that just asking women why they stayed or didn't leave is asking a woman suffering from psychological trauma to explain or justify themselves isn't fucking helpful to the end goal of enabling them to leave. But, obviously, Linda Hirshman knows better than silly "research" and we're all just obsessed with "choice."

Hirshman, though, has an explanation for her behavior.

[Her question was] Maybe not accusatory, but yes, the question is and was intended to be judgmental.


In other words, Linda Hirshman feels entitled to sit in judgment of victims of domestic violence. She wants to judge victims of domestic violence — in the same way that she judges sexual assault victims — because, like many people, she thinks herself immune. Like most people who've never been the victim of a crime — particularly a violent crime — she believes the world is a rational ordered place where if you just do the "right" thing, nothing bad will happen to you. Linda Hirshman lives in a fantasy world in which just being a good enough feminist protects you from domestic violence, or infidelity or sexual assault, because women aren't "natural victims." The problem is that crime isn't natural — no one is a "natural" victim.


Hirshman ends her piece with an appeal to the school of feminism that has declared the personal, political.

True, some of the oppression of women is imposed in private, emotional relationships, as opposed to on a bridge in Selma, Ala. or at a lousy crumbling inner-city school. But such manipulative emotional relationships do involve political oppression, just like the political oppression that produces those awful schools and the lack of job prospects upon graduation. That's what the old feminist insight "the personal is the political" was intended to illuminate.


Ah, let's do get back to the oppression Olympics! Jim Crow laws are just like individual cases of domestic violence! It's good to know that Hirshman can so reliably drive that wedge down in between white feminists and womanists of color again. And, again: how does what Hirshman is saying actually help individual victims of domestic violence? That the personal (for instance: rape, domestic violence, wage discrimination or freedom of sexual expression) is political is not an anathema to so-called "choice" feminism; the idea that the political should inevitably trump the expression of the personal, including the ability to use empathy and other, non-political tools to help enable women to exit abusive relationships, is.

In science Linda Hirshman probably should — but likely won't — look at, social scientists Jennifer Hardesty and Lyndal Khaw at the University of Illinois have identified the 5 discrete stages women go through when trying to distance themselves from an abusive relationship. Why is that important?

"Leaving a relationship is much more complex than just deciding to change, and it involves more than a woman's prioritizing her safety. Other actors are involved. The abuser makes decisions that affect a woman's movement through the stages. And children can be a powerful influence in motivating a woman to get out of a relationship and in pulling her back in," Hardesty said.


In other words, it's not just telling someone they need to get out: quite often, they know, but there are also reasons they see to stay. She adds:

"Discouraged friends and family members have to learn to view leaving as a process and realize that there's little they can say to speed it along. It's important for them to reinforce the risks the woman is facing by asking such questions as 'Has he become more abusive? Does he have a gun?'

"When talking to an abused friend or family member, you should always emphasize safety, but for your own sanity, you should realize that leaving is a process and she has to work her way through it herself," she said.


In other words: asking "Why don't you just leave?" does nothing to contribute to the process of emotional and physical disentanglement that a woman has to go through in order to get out, including finding shelter and the financial wherewithal to leave as she is emotionally disengaging. "Tough love" doesn't help most women who find themselves in abusive relationships, as personally and politically satisfying as Linda Hirshman might find it to dish out.

Talking Tough Love [double x]
Crazy Love, Crazy Choices [Slate]
Sheltering Women: Linda Hirshman Responds to Hilzoy [Slate]
For Abused Women, Leaving Is A Complex And Confusing Process [EurekAlert]


Related: Obama's Father's Day Speech Urges Black Fathers To Be More Engaged In Raising Their Children [Huffington Post]

Earlier: Writer Implies We Can Collectively Guilt Rihanna Into Leaving Chris
Former Victim Counselor Takes On Assumptions That Leaving Abusers Is Easy
Linda Hirshman Won't Let Domestic Abuse Victims Off The Hook
Who You Calling A Bad Feminist?


[In case you're wondering, the image of Linda Hirshman in a crown is her own head shot at double x]



I was physically and sexually abused for over a year by my ex. I would like Ms. Hirshman to send me a list of all the qualities I apparently lack as a woman. Sorry, her article made me cry in frustration.