Wednesday, November 5, 2008

VAWA Joe Becomes Our New VP

As a non-partisan, 501c3 organization, Women's Resource Center does not endorse candidates, so rather than appearing to advocate a certain ticket, we refrained from posting about Joe Biden until after the race was over. Now, however, we can say how excited we are to have someone so dedicated to the violence against women movement in such a powerful position in our country.

Joe Biden, of course, is the author of the landmark Violence Against Women Act. VAWA legally protects women from domestic abuse and gender-based violence, and Biden has proclaimed it the "most important legislative accomplishment" of his Senate career.

In a piece in The New Republic, Fred Strebeigh writes about the history of the legislation.

In the spring of 1990, a new staffer in the offices of the Senate Judiciary Committee received a surprise project from her boss. Joe Biden wanted her to figure out what Congress should do to reduce violent crimes against women. Victoria Nourse, the staffer, was then just six years out of law school and unaware of Biden's past efforts along similar lines. In 1981, as he recalls in his 2007 memoir, Promises to Keep, Biden had pushed for a provision opposing laws that treat rape within marriage as a lesser crime than other rapes. Biden's effort led to a rebuff by Senator Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, who replied, "D*** it, when you get married, you kind of expect you're going to get a little sex."

The late '80s, Biden noticed, showed a rise in violent crimes against young women. Then, in December 1989, a man walked into a university classroom in Montreal with a hunting rifle, divided the students by sex, yelled that the women were all "a bunch of feminists," and killed 14 of them. Biden's aide Ron Klain handed the Senator an article in the Los Angeles Times by a friend who had clerked with Klain the year before at the Supreme Court, Lisa Heinzerling (now professor of law at Georgetown). Heinzerling connected that murder of "feminists" to a gap in U.S. law. Federal law tracking hate crimes targeted only, she wrote, a "victim's race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation." Thus, she argued, "if a woman is beaten, raped or killed because she is a woman, this is not considered a crime of hate"--a legal loophole "welcome to no one but the misogynist."

Biden posed a challenge to Nourse: figure out what Congress should do, and start by looking at the marital-rape issue he had tried to tackle a decade earlier. In the legal reading room of the Library of Congress, Nourse found a twist that shocked them both. Some states had extended the marital-rape exemption to become a date-rape exemption that downgraded a rape charge if a woman was a man's "voluntary social companion." One state that had done so was Delaware, where Joe and Jill Biden were raising a young daughter.

...When Nourse reported this to Biden, she saw a "look of horror on his face."

Looking for a solution, Nourse drafted a proposal for the "Civil Rights for Women" section of what would become VAWA. (The bill's other two parts, "Safe Streets for Women" and "Safe Homes for Women," proposed funding and legal support to assist law enforcement and protect women from domestic abuse.) The goals of the civil rights section were grand: make women "free from crimes of violence motivated by the victim's gender."

...As he listened to a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (where his son Beau was still a senior) talk about efforts to help victims of acquaintance rape, Biden became energized. After hearing the woman say that some male students had harassed her with "nightly phone threats," Biden launched into what Goldfarb believed was an unplanned but revealing narrative. He told of trying to convince his wife Jill, who drove to night school for her graduate degree classes, to park in a place that was safer but illegal. In response, he said he got "almost a punch in the nose." Trying to work out why, he spoke of his wife's "frustration and anger" that she should need to take precautions no man would take. He linked her anger to her sense of "lost control."

Goldfarb felt she was hearing a man grasp a fundamental understanding about "the lack of control that is experienced not only by women who are themselves victims, but by all the women who have to constrain their daily activities to avoid becoming a victim." Biden was expressing, she thought, the "basic insight of the civil rights provision--that violence against women deprives women of equality."

Biden, too, portrayed himself as a man surprised by new knowledge. In Delaware, he found that victims of rape were beginning to "literally stop me in the street" to tell their stories and give thanks for VAWA. More than half, he said, spoke of a "need to regain control," which Biden evidently understood. The loss of safety, home, and control that he had felt himself when he lost his first wife and daughter was something that these women had also been forced to grapple with in the wake of their rapes.

Though the civil rights portion of the law was eventually overturned, the remaining funding and protections have been invaluable to advocates doing this work. The following video was prepared by the Obama/Biden campaign to illustrate the impact:

A partner organization of WRC, Men Stopping Violence, honored Joe Biden a few years ago as a True Ally at their annual celebration event. In recognition of his election as Vice President, MSV recirculated his acceptance speech:

Fred Strebeigh concluded his article by saying:

Joe Biden may have lost in a titanic struggle to expand the civil rights of women. But, along the way, he showed himself ready to follow the lead of female attorneys and judges. As Victoria Nourse told me in a recent e-mail from her desk at Emory Law School, where she is now a professor: "[I]n a day and age when Senators were still fondling interns in the Senate elevator, he not only protected me, he listened to me, my legal advice, and by extension, all the women who talked to me."

No one can pretend that getting Biden as vice president lifts women's spirits as high as they may go with the election of the first woman president. But no one will doubt that, on that wet day on the slippery Supreme Court steps, beneath his senatorial umbrella, Joe Biden was there--trying to stand tall for the rights of women.

Update: RH Reality Check has more information on the work Senator Biden is doing related to an International Violence Against Women Act.

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