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The Dartmouth
June 17, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Professor examines state of legislation on women

The history of legislation on violence and women has featured a number of controversies making difficult the success of the Violence Against Women Act, according to Georgetown University law professor Victoria Nourse. Drawing on her experience in the Senate as she helped to draft and support the act, Nourse spoke about the resurfacing of women's issues in current politics in a lecture on Tuesday afternoon.

Nourse initially researched and proposed the Violence Against Women Act in 1990, when the U.S. Senate contained only two women, while working for then-Sen. Joseph Biden, D-De., on the Senate Judiciary Committee. While she was not solely responsible for the legislation, Nourse was often the only woman present for relevant discussions, she said.

When she began her work on the legislation, Nourse had the "benefit of naivete" and was unaware of the sensitivity of the issue.

"I went to the library and I had to find some women, since there weren't many women in the Senate, so I found them on the shelves," she said. "Unfortunately, they were often very, very sad stories."

Over 10 days during the Senate's spring recess, she sifted through accounts of abandonment and abuse. Nourse then faced the challenge of translating these stories into a proposal for legislation, she said.

Throughout the process, Nourse was aware of the unique opportunity she had as a woman in her role and said she recalled asking her father what career she should pursue only to be told she could be a secretary.

"I knew that I had been given something very precious," she said. "I was part of a shattering generation, a woman old enough to remember the women's-only entrance at her father's Boston club."

Despite this awareness, Nourse was soon surprised by opposition to the act, which included its nickname of the "hate men bill," she said.

Nourse said that although the act should have been easy to pass given that violence is universally condemned, its passage took four years. She began studying the recent history of violence against women in order to understand this difficulty.

"We've had this problem for a long time, so we have to ask why was there no federal legislation before," Nourse said, citing newspaper articles reporting domestic abuse from the 1800s. "There's a very long history of second-class citizenship."

Although the women's rights movement received widespread support during the 1970s, this period was followed by backlash. The next decade saw the rise of "a new and powerful force by the name of the family," which became a justification for various legislative initiatives, she said.

Among other measures, legislation proposed by this movement would have mandated gender segregation on playgrounds and stated that textbooks must describe only women who held traditionally family-oriented roles. Proponents believed that legislative measures on violence and women were harmful to family values, she said.

When a bill giving $15 million to battered women's shelters was proposed, conservative columnists were so shocked that Congress would discuss domestic violence that one declared, "I'd like to commit some," Nourse said.

These reactions began to change in the late 1980s as incidents of women's violence were publicized, according to Nourse. Neither party attempted to pass legislation on the issue until the 1990 introduction of the Violence Against Women Act, she said.

"Had I known of this history, I think I'd be a little more afraid of what I proposed to Sen. Biden," she said. "Of course, had I known that I was destroying the family, I would never have told my mother what I was doing."

Although the Violence Against Women Act initially faced strong criticism, speeches and phone calls from female survivors of violence helped the law gain bipartisan support and positive media attention.

"It was clear everyone was like, Is this going to fly?'" she said of the initial Senate hearings. "It was the voices of the women and the men who work on these issues, and particularly the women survivors, that transformed the entire Senate Judiciary Committee."

The Violence Against Women Act passed in 1994. The bill continues to cause controversy, as critics decry the "radical feminists" who wrote it and Congress debates its reauthorization.

Nourse said that these debates combined with recent occurrences such as comments made by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., on "legitimate rape" give the Violence Against Women Act continuing relevance. These comments motivated her to expand the memoir section of her book into a broader discussion of the continued backlash against women's issues, she said following the lecture.

Nourse also noted that the gains represented by the Violence Against Women Act are recent and there is still progress to be made. It is therefore important for college-aged women to avoid taking their rights for granted and to speak out against injustice, she said.

"It was important to remind young women that this happened in the near past," she said. "It is not ancient history. It is fragile."

Students at the lecture highlighted the relevance of Nourse's lecture to current events, echoing Nourse's reference to Akin's recent comments.

"I thought it was really interesting," Katie Bonner '15 said. "I think it's definitely relevant today, especially with what's going on with the comments about legitimate rape versus non-legitimate rape."

Nourse currently serves as the Law Director of the Center for Congressional Studies at the Georgetown University Law Center.

The lecture, titled "Backlash Revisited: The Lost History of Legislation on Violence and Women," was sponsored by the Rockefeller Center and the Dartmouth Lawyers Association.