Rx for Change: Language Matters, Especially When Talking About Root Causes

Taken from the March/April 2015 issue of the Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

But, really, it’s no laughing matter. I’m irked by the responses to the Ray Rice domestic violence episode, about rape charges being ignored on college campuses and that birth control is still controversial. And don’t get me started about abortion. Why does it feel like we have to fight the same battles that we’ve fought for almost 50 years? Have our successes as a movement also harbored the seeds that limited that success? I’d like to share with you my thoughts on this question, based on my own very personal experiences.

From its earliest days, the women’s movement fought for social change. We sought an end to women’s second-class status. Individual women’s problems were the way to express our critique of a society that limited women’s lives and opportunities. Our work on particular issues like abortion, women’s health, domestic violence, sexual assault, etc., was the vehicle to deliver a larger message about women in society.

In the late 1970s, I was living in rural Wisconsin. When a nurse friend asked if I wanted to meet with a few other women to discuss what we could do about domestic violence, I jumped in. Before we actually did anything, the five of us (a social worker, a nurse, two mental health workers, and me) met and shared our experiences.

We talked about individual cases of domestic violence and quickly recognized that there were larger forces at work. It wasn’t just the intransigence of the local police, the District Attorneys making fun of battered women, or the doctors who reported they’d never seen a woman who had been physically abused by her partner. What we realized was that women’s safety took a back seat to their caretaking role within their families.

To confront the problem of domestic violence, we had to talk about women’s value as individuals (without, of course, given our conservative, Right Wing community, ever using the words “sexism” or “feminism”).

On my frequent interviews with the local radio station, I said that domestic violence wasn’t an individual problem, but a community problem, and one that the community had to address. Boy, did that remark generate a backlash. One evangelical minister even preached against the shelter, saying we were out to destroy families. But, in time, the larger culture began to take domestic violence seriously. States, including Wisconsin, established funding for programs to remedy the problem.

It took a lot of money for us to accomplish our goals. We wanted to pay our bills and provide shelter to desperate women, but we also wanted to change society’s attitude about domestic violence.  It wasn’t, we believed, just a problem of a few dysfunctional families.  Our communities had to recognize that domestic violence was a pervasive problem and understand their role in perpetuating it. In order to get the funds we needed, we framed our work in language that would be acceptable to state agencies — so we focused on the services we provided: shelter, counseling, and advocacy.

For those of us who ran these programs, and for the women we served, funding we received through the state Department of Social Services (DSS) was a lifesaver (sometimes literally). But, changing our language and the way we talked about issues changed our work. Our grassroots social change programs subtly became more like social service agencies, tallying up services provided, and working in tandem with law enforcement and community professionals to assist women in need. On the plus side, domestic violence became a recognized problem and women in danger had safe places to go.

But some things didn’t change. We still blame the victims; 40 years later, we’re still asking, why does she stay, or what did she do?  We continue to accept excuses from perpetrators, in some cases even protecting them.

When we take the politics out of our work — either consciously or unconsciously, whether by choice or to gain funding or credibility — we undermine our efforts to effect social change, and to create a society where women are valued, and their decisions are valued. That was what originally motivated the women’s movement — a movement that we hoped would transform society. We did not want to be answering the same questions, justifying women’s lives, in the same way we had to half a century ago.

These are just my musings. I hope we can start a dialogue about these issues; I invite your thoughts, comments, and criticisms on what I have written here. You can reach me through editor@nwhn.org.

Laura Kaplan authored The Story of Jane, and is an activist for women’s health, reproductive justice, and domestic violence. She served on the NWHN’s Board of Directors for 8 years and co-founded Woodstock Immigrant Support. Now retired, Laura continues her activism through volunteering.

Read more from Laura Kaplan.