Before the Senate reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) yesterday, Republicans tried a bit of quick maneuvering to save face. Instead of simply voting against the legislation and further alienating American women, Republicans put forward an amendment that was essentially a watered-down VAWA—a version of the bill that left out “controversial” provisions for same sex couples, immigrants and Native women.
The amendment failed and VAWA was passed in a 68-31 vote, but this attempt by the GOP serves as an important reminder to feminists that ignoring the most marginalized among us isn’t just bad strategy, it’s a callous disregard for the movement’s most basic tenets.
VAWA is undoubtedly a feminist success story. It has allocated billions of dollars to services for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, and since passing in 1994, reporting of domestic violence has increased by as much as 51 percent. It makes sense, then, that the legislation has long had bipartisan support—after all, who opposes creating services for victims of sexual and domestic violence? But the inclusion of measures that would expand services to marginalized communities was just too much for Republicans to bear. Specifically, language in the bill would make it illegal to deny someone VAWA-funded services based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Apparently, this non-discrimination provision is too “controversial” for Republicans.
VAWA would also make visas available to immigrant women (documented and undocumented) who are victims of violence—a necessity for women who may not report abuse for fear of deportation. Additionally, the bill would allow Native American officials the authority to prosecute cases of Native women by non-Natives abusers. (As Think Progress has pointed out, 86 percent of sexual assaults on Native women are perpetrated by non-Natives.) The Republican bill lacked these elements.
Representative Gwen Moore—who spoke about being a victim of sexual abuse—said, “violence is not limited to just Democrats or just Republicans or just blacks or just whites…It’s not limited to heterosexual relationships, but there are relationships of all kinds that are exposed to domestic violence.”
Did Democrats include these provisions because it was good policy, or because it was good politics–forcing Republicans to come out against VAWA? Either way, I’m glad that the legislation aims to protect all women—not just the most privileged—but the debate over VAWA over the last few days reminded me of how infrequently we hear about marginalized communities in mainstream feminist battles.
When feminists—and women across the country—shared their (justified) outrage over Rush Limbaugh’s attack against Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, for example, some wondered where all of this righteous energy is when women of color are harassed. After activists were successful in pressuring states like Virginia to remove language from anti-choice bills that would force women to have transvaginal ultrasounds, the fight seemed to stop there (at least in terms of visibility). We didn’t hear much about the fact that low-income women would still have to pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket for a medically unnecessary procedure before they could obtain an abortion—a cost so prohibitive that many women wouldn’t be able to afford abortions at all. Trans activists have even pointed out that the very language “war on women” is exclusionary and creates a narrow definition of who is and isn’t counted in the GOP’s ongoing attacks against reproductive justice.
Now, obviously Republican disregard for certain communities is different than the ways mainstream feminism can be exclusionary—the GOP actively fights against LGBT and immigrant rights. But when feminists don’t center oppressed communities in our activism, the result is the same—only the rights of a privileged few are counted while the most marginalized among us are ignored. We’re better than that—I hope.