What I Learned From the Women in Detroit

What I Learned From the Women in Detroit

What I Learned From the Women in Detroit

In Anita Hill’s new book, she recalls a pivotal moment in her work speaking about women’s empowerment at a shelter in Detroit.


Politics govern how much of our public resources we are willing to invest in challenging gender-based violence. And the politics of gender‐based violence is fraught with victim blaming. When public officials categorize intimate partner violence as a private matter, the victim blaming becomes built into our structures. It also shows in our calculation of the cost of the behavior to individuals and the greater society. Classifying gendered violence as a private rather than a public issue has many effects. It reduces the significance of the problem and serves as an excuse for lack of public funding for solutions. We tell ourselves that it’s not so bad. And then we ignore the costs in lives and human resources it causes. Personalizing the impact of gender‐based violence is a kind of denial that allows us to tell ourselves “it’s not our problem.” Why should government funding be spent on individual personal problems? Labeling intimate partner violence a private matter has a social effect—stigmatizing victims and marginalizing them in our communities. All of the above reductive approaches to gender‐based violence devalue women who experience abuse, silencing the witnesses preemptively.

Victim blaming plays a role in suborning gender‐based violence. But it is never more problematic than when it happens to intimate partner violence survivors, who often encounter sexual assault, emotional abuse, beatings, and financial extortion at the hands of partners. Shaming, for “allowing themselves to become victims,” by friends, family, or people to whom they reach out for help can further trap them in abusive situations they are trying to escape. I had read about this part of the cycle of abuse as well as the role that abusers themselves play in entrapping victims of gender‐based violence. But I had not witnessed it firsthand until 1992, in a shelter for what we then called “battered women” and their families in Detroit.

The Women in Detroit

Long before I ever visited Detroit, it loomed large in my imagination. As a place of near‐legend status, for the economic opportunities and the music it created, Detroit is important especially among Black Americans. Its spectacular prosperity in the first half of the twentieth century, shared by Black people who landed there during the Great Migration, and spiraling economic decline in the second, which hit Black neighborhoods hard, make it a true example of the urban American story. I’ve now visited the Motor City twice, and both my experiences exceeded my imagining. I’d grown up in Oklahoma, a Black child in a rural community with a population that was as White in the 1950s, when I was a child, as Detroit’s was Black in the 1990s.

Even with the downturn in its economy, the city had an allure. My ancestors were not a part of the Great Migration that brought families north to escape racism and restrictions on our basic rights. To those who joined the throngs who left, mobility gave them a newfound freedom. Many were just one generation from severe beatings for being caught off the land of their slaveholders. When I studied the scant section on the Great Migration in my small‐town rural high school American history course, I wondered how my life might have been different had my mother been lured to Chicago or Detroit as many girls and women were. The migration north was not something my family experienced firsthand, but it was part of my history as a Black American and a part of American history. Many of their families had arrived in Detroit decades earlier, looking for the freedoms they could only dream of in the South. They wanted more for themselves and their children. The toll that racism, dating back to slavery, had taken on the migrants to the North was palpable and enduring. But stories about the cost of gender violence on Black women’s bodies, families, and entire communities were largely unspoken, often consigned to the experience of slavery. On this visit to Detroit, what had been a continuing tax on Black America, the unacknowledged price of intimate partner violence, was evident on the faces of women in a domestic violence shelter. Like their mothers before them who abandoned their homes to escape Jim Crow laws that threatened lives and stifled freedom and opportunity, children led the women in Detroit shelters to abandon their homes to escape an abusive partner who threatened their lives, their freedom, and their opportunities. The former danger was state imposed. Too often, the latter danger has been neglected by the state.

Had my family moved north, would my chances of being a victim of domestic abuse and ending up in a shelter have increased? Intellectually, I knew that domestic violence victims came from all backgrounds. From my experiences with the women’s center in Norman, Oklahoma, I knew that small‐town and rural women were abused. But for that brief moment, I thought that somehow the circumstances of living in an economically depressed city were the cause of the violence instead of one more thing that made it hard for some victims to escape. And though it plays a role in intimate partner violence, including options for escaping it, financial hardship is not a determinant of who gets abused.

Sandra Kent, a Detroit native and nurse who worked to reform the state’s health‐care system and who devoted her spare time to women’s empowerment and community services, organized my trip to what was once a Black mecca. More than the lure of my romanticized images of the Great Migration, Sandra’s passion for the Motor City was what persuaded me, with just one phone call, to travel there. Buckets of ink had been spent describing Detroit’s various woes—job losses, failing schools, abandoned houses, and ravaged neighborhoods. But rarely did any of the media I read focus on the injury the city’s woes caused women whose livelihoods and bodies were imperiled by the economic downturn. After I landed at the airport, our first stop was a trip to a local intimate partner violence women’s shelter, where I encountered a group of women who had suffered violence that drove them and their children from their homes and landed them in a shelter with other women in the same situation.

Perhaps it was anxiety, but for a moment I wondered what I would say once I got to the shelter. For a year I had been speaking about gender equality and women’s empowerment. A speech wasn’t appropriate. But I was out of my comfort zone. I had never spoken to a group of survivors. Though I was on the board of a local service provider for domestic violence survivors in Norman, where I lived in 1992, I’d never visited their shelter. For privacy and security reasons, not all board members visited the house where women who had no place else to go were sent.

Sandra explained to me that the women had watched the Thomas hearing. As with women around the world, the senators’ dismissive and hostile reactions to my experience with harassment had resonated with them. How many times had they been asked why they didn’t just leave at the first sign of abuse? The connection between me and them was clear. And upon reflection, I realized that to believe in their own ability to weather this dark time in their lives, they needed to see me as a survivor. I also realized that I needed to see them where they were in their journey—as victims, survivors, or somewhere in between. To understand the complexity of gender‐based violence, I needed to know what it was like for them to suffer physical and emotional trauma and have to decide whether to stay or to leave. To really understand, I had to hear how, in the face of trauma, they decided whether to call police, where they would live if they had to leave their homes, what might happen with their jobs and to their relationships, and most of all if their children would suffer more harm. All emotional decisions, but all decisions with concrete consequences that had to be worked through even as their bodies ached from the blows and their brains were on alert for the next battering.

On a cool, sunless day, I and about two dozen Black women who had mustered the courage to escape home violence sat on gray folding chairs. The setting was austere, but the safety the women found was enough for them to remain there for the time being. Facing one another in a circle provided a sense of intimacy that made me uncomfortable at first. But there I heard and felt face‐to‐face how that threshold question to victims (Why didn’t she just leave?) lingers well after they find help. Even the people who love them question survivors’ credibility to make sense of their own stories. The economic turmoil the city faced made their personal struggles for survival even more difficult to overcome. Many shared, through tears, the guilt and responsibility they felt for being beaten. They spoke about what they wanted most. Most of their desires were pretty basic—to be able to wake up in the morning, get themselves and their children ready for the day, and return from work all in the safety of their homes. They also wanted to know that they were valued members of the community.

From Believing, by Anita Hill, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Anita Hill.

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