A Collective History of the Fight Against Domestic Violence

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it still feels very much like we need this time to highlight the serious problem of violence within intimate relationships. But one thing we can say about the 2020s is that, at the very least, we now recognize that domestic violence is a violent, serious problem. There was a time when domestic abuse was hidden behind closed doors, and considered a private matter. But there were groups of women who set about to change that in the 70s, and while the problem has obviously not been solved, they helped bring us to the point where we are today. And now we can shine a light on the problem and continue to work towards changing things. 

Putting a Name to a Problem

Domestic violence, or domestic or intimate partner abuse, is by no means a new problem: in fact, it’s probably one of the oldest problems plaguing modern humanity. But the, well, problem was that we didn’t recognize it as a “problem.” Up until the 1970s, domestic violence was virtually ignored by the legal and medical professions, and by society in general. If the subject did come up in a scholarly way, it was usually briefly mentioned in a journal of psychiatry, as a rare occurrence that was due to a psychological disorder. And often, it was written about as something that was women’s fault, something that they somehow “provoked.”

woman looking down with a fist over her head

And outside of the scholarly world, society at large generally saw violence against women in the home as a private matter, something that should stay behind closed doors. That meant police and medical professionals were reluctant to get involved. And, just as horrifyingly, it was also seen as a joking matter. Popular cartoons and TV shows made what were meant to be lighthearted references to hitting wives; another disturbing example is an ad for a Michigan bowling alley that sported the big, bold pun: “HAVE SOME FUN. BEAT YOUR WIFE TONIGHT.”

So the pre-1970s world was a time when violence against women was not recognized as a problem, even if it did exist, and so there was almost no help to be had. The idea of the category of an “abused woman” looking for help did not exist, and even the few and nonspecific resources for people who were in crisis and unhoused were completely inadequate. For example, in the early 1970s in Los Angeles, there were homeless shelters that provided 1000 beds for men, and only 30 for women.

There were no resources for women who were suffering, and they weren’t even afforded the dignity of having their suffering recognized. But then the world began to change, and women took matters into their own hands.

The Activism and Organizations that Began to Change Things

We can give much of the credit for changing the seemingly hopeless situation laid out above to the women involved in the feminist movement of the 1970s. They saw the 2-4 million women who were beaten in their homes annually (in fact, many of the women in the early “battered women’s movement” were survivors of domestic abuse themselves) and took up the banner at a time when women were agitating for change. 

In the mid-1970s, these feminist activists and survivors organized under the banner “We will not be beaten,” and launched a nationwide campaign to expose what was really going on – as well as to demand change from law enforcement, the medical profession, and all of society.

Demanding is one thing, and taking matters into your hands and finding practical solutions is another. These women also set out to do that, in addition to trying to change policy and get the attention of people in power. They set out to create support networks and shelters for abused women, and they were admirably successful. Between 1975 and 1978, more than 170 battered women’s shelters opened across the country; by 1978, there were over 300 shelters, hotlines, and groups advocating for abused women. 

Many of these initiatives were started by collectives of women. They include: 

Women Against Abuse 2 phones with text bubbles coming out of them

This organization was started in 1976 as a part-time domestic violence hotline in a neighborhood women’s center. Based on what they heard from the women who called in, they worked to open an emergency shelter in 1977. This shelter started out in a small row home, and despite no publicity, was filled to over capacity overnight. WAB eventually expanded to a space given by the city of Philadelphia, and also began to offer legal support. They have only continued to expand their services since then, and are still going strong.

Chicago Abused Women Coalition

Now known as Connections for Abused Women and Their Children, CAWC began after a kitchen-table meeting in 1976 to address the problem of domestic violence. This one meeting formed a task form that created the first domestic violence program in Chicago, which eventually became a hotline and an emergency shelter. They are also still going strong; in 2018 alone, they provided over 30,000 hours of domestic violence services.

Women’s Advocates

Known by many as the first shelter for women and their children escaping domestic abuse, Women’s Advocates was formed as a collective-based nonprofit in 1972. They operated out of a legal assistance office, then one of the founding volunteers’ homes, then in a rented office space. It began essentially as a divorce rights information line – a number for women to call to get legal information and advice about leaving their abusive partners. But the volunteers soon realized that the biggest obstacle for these women was the lack of a safe place to stay. So they decided to write letters asking friends, family, and members of the community for funds in order to purchase a permanent shelter. And within two years, they had collected enough funds to make a down payment on a house in St. Paul, Minnesota. According to their website, “Today, Women’s Advocates provides shelter and services for up to 50 victim-survivors and their children daily, conducts crisis interventions and safety referrals via the crisis line daily, and educates students and professionals about domestic abuse awareness, prevention and services.

And the above three organizations are just a few examples of the collective organizations that came from women, for women. Others, to name just a few, include:

  • First Step (Wayne County, MI)
  • Women & Children First: The Center Against Family Violence (Little Rock, AK)
  • The Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence
  • Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence
  • Partnership Against Domestic Violence (Atlanta, GA)
  • Austin Center for Battered Women

The hard work of the women who fought against domestic violence, and those who started these organizations, did pay off, and they did get a whole lot of attention for their cause. In fact, according to activist Susan Schechter in her account of the battered women’s movement, by the early 1980s, “in contrast to just one decade earlier, battered women are no longer invisible.” Thanks to them, we have hotlines, shelters, other resources, and a name for what is happening to far too many women.

But Schechter, and anyone who has their eyes open, would agree that we need to keep going.

Where We Are Todaydomestic violence stats infographic

While the work that the women of the late 20th century did was crucial and monumental, we’re still nowhere near where we need to be. Considering that it took until the 1990s to get an act passed by Congress to address violence against women (the 1994 Violence Against Women Act), it can often feel like women are still not really being heard. And the statistics surrounding domestic violence are still staggering. 

Consider the following stats from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: 

  • On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.
  • 1 in 7 women and 1 in 25 men have been injured by an intimate partner.
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking.
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence (e.g. beating, burning, strangling) by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
  • Intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crime.
  • 1 in 10 women have been raped by an intimate partner.
  • Only 34% of people who are injured by intimate partners receive medical care for their injuries.

Fortunately, thanks to a lot of hard work by a lot of women both past and present, we can name this violence, and we can fight back against stigma and indifference. But there’s no denying that domestic violence is still a problem. So let’s get aware, not just this month but every month, and lend our support to organizations both old and new that are still working hard to combat this very real problem. 

Co-written by Joanna Bowling

Recognizing Financial Abuse

Domestic (or partner) abuse, whether it’s emotional or physical, shatters lives. But if there’s anything positive we can say on this topic, it’s that, as a society, we’ve finally begun recognizing it, and taking steps at least towards helping those who are experiencing it and those who have survived it. But if we are just talking about emotional or physical abuse, we’re actually failing to recognize a serious form of abuse that either comes before or goes hand-in-hand with other types of abuse, and is often the reason that someone cannot leave their abusive situation: financial abuse. Knowing the signs of this type of abuse is vital to protecting yourself or someone you love from spiraling into a situation that you, or they, might not be able to get out of.

Financial Abuse by the Numbers

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “financial abuse,” or have never really thought about it, you’re not alone: although financial abuse occurs in at least 98% of abusive situations, 78% of Americans don’t recognize it as a form of abuse. Not only that, but a study by the Allstate Foundation found that only 3% of Americans thought financial abuse would likely cause long-term effects, compared to emotional (43%) and physical abuse (22%). financial abuse infographic

But the above couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only is financial abuse the number one reason people return to toxic relationships, which already makes this type of abuse a serious crisis for those experiencing it, but it also has long-lasting effects on their lives, and even society at large. For example, someone who has had their credit cards maxed out by a partner who refuses to pay the bills will have their credit ruined, and will then have issues finding housing, purchasing a vehicle, or obtaining student loans. And without access to economic resources, survivors will then find their safety and long-term security at risk.

And the above happens in a majority of abusive situations: 59% of people who experience financial abuse have their credit ruined by their partner, and 70% are not able to have a job, with 59% of them having lost their job because of their abuser. Survivors lose nearly $53,000 in lost wages over their lifetime; not only that, but their communities and society at large suffer losses, as well, since victims of financial abuse lose a total of 8 million paid work days a year, with the estimated overall workplace productivity costs totaling $1.3 trillion.

These are some pretty grim statistics, and should be eye-opening. Financial abuse is a real problem and is happening all around us – so how can you recognize it in either your or someone else’s relationship?

Recognizing the Signs of Financial Abuse

According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, financial (or economic) abuse “is when one intimate partner has control over the other partner’s ability to access, acquire, use or maintain economic resources, which diminishes the victim’s capacity to support themselves and forces intentioned dependence.” In other words, one partner controls the other’s finances, isolating them and trapping them in the relationship, and they are left unable to see a way out of their situation. That’s why it’s so critical for people to be able to recognize financial abuse before it escalates into a totally ruined credit history and an inability to work to earn a living. 

And, while it can be difficult to identify, because there isn’t one way to handle money in all relationships, there are some common tactics that abusers use:

Preventing you from using your resources illustration of a man in a suit tugging at money with a woman in a dress on the other side

  • Withholding money or giving an “allowance”
  • Not giving you access to bank accounts
  • Hiding or lying about joint assets
  • Keeping you in the dark about or not allowing you control over household finances or how your money is spent
  • Refusing to pay child support
  • Denying access to a car, a phone, the internet, or other utilities
  • Making large financial decisions without you
  • Withholding financial information such as account passwords, account numbers, and investment information
  • Making threats to cut you off financially when you disagree

Preventing you from getting or keeping a job

  • Forbidding you from working outside of the home, or telling you where you can or cannot work
  • Stalking or harassing you at your workplace
  • Forcing you to be late, or to miss or leave work (for example, they might promise to watch the children, but not show up)
  • Cutting off your transportation to work
  • Forbidding your from attending trainings or opportunities for job advancement, or interfering with further education
  • Criticizing and minimizing your job or career choices
  • Pressuring you to quit your job (sometimes by using guilt, and using your children as an excuse)

Exploiting your resources

  • Forcing you to sign financial documents without explanations
  • Insisting you share your income, but not sharing theirs
  • Forcing you to write bad checks or file fraudulent legal financial documents
  • Pressuring you to be a co-signer or guarantor
  • Coercing you to go into debt, or forcing you to overspend on credit cards
  • Using your personal information or assets against your will or without your knowledge
  • Converting your assets into their own
  • Keeping all assets their name, while forcing you to keep all debt in your name only
  • Requiring you to bail them out of difficult financial situations
  • Ruining your credit history by running up bills and then not paying them
  • Intercepting or opening your bank statements and other financial records

It’s important to remember: someone who uses any of these tactics, whether it’s one or all or them, is financially abusive. So if you are experiencing any of the above, what can you do? 

What You Can Do

green phone in a green conversation bubble
If you experience financial abuse, reach out to someone you can trust, like a counselor or domestic advice counselor.

If you’ve ever heard someone wonder why someone experiencing domestic or partner violence doesn’t just leave, all of the above is a big part of the answer. In fact, as we pointed out above, financial abuse is the number one reason cited for staying in an abusive relationship – that’s why it’s so vital to address financial abuse right away before it escalates.

It’s unfortunately true that leaving an abusive situation is more than just difficult emotionally – it can also be life-threatening, and the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is post-breakup. If you or someone you know needs to get out of a situation like this, it is important to have a plan. First, reach out to someone you can trust, like a counselor or domestic advice counselor; if you don’t know who to turn to, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

Next, make copies of your financial data like credit cards and financial statements if it’s unsafe to take the originals, so you can prove later who owns (and owes) what. Keep these documents in a safe place where your partner can’t access them until you’re able to safely leave the relationship.

Financial abuse is just as damaging to someone experiencing it as any other kind of abuse; in fact, this type of abuse is usually inextricably linked to other types of abuse. Having your financial independence taken away can destroy your whole life, and trap you in a situation that gets more and more dangerous to your emotional and even physical health – that means it’s vital to get help as soon as you recognize the above signs in your life, or in the life of a loved one.