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«GOODMARK.7.11.2008 7/16/2008 12:44:53 PM When Is a Battered Woman Not a Battered Woman? When She Fights Back Leigh Goodmark† INTRODUCTION I. THE ...»

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147. Ammons, supra note 60, at 1042; see also Barnes, supra note 141, at 945.

148. Harrison & Willis Esqueda, supra note 37, at 131-32.

149. RICHIE, supra note 52, at 96.

150. For battered women who fight back, that problem is further complicated by the response to their actions. “Battered women may lose faith in the system if they feel that while the state did little to protect them when they were being victimized, it punished them when they stood up for themselves.” Dasgupta, supra note 88, at 1375.

151. Over the last thirty years, and particularly since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the primary response to domestic violence has been through the legal system: in the criminal system, through arrest and prosecution of batterers, and in the civil system, through protective orders and changes to divorce and custody law that were intended to benefit battered women. Violence Against Women Act of 1994, Pub. L. 103-320, 108 Stat. 1902 (Codified as amended in scattered sections of 42 U.S.C.). While it also includes funding for shelters and other victim services, federal VAWA funding has largely been used to support the development of these legal resources through grants to police, prosecutors, court systems and legal advocates for battered women. Goodmark, supra note 28, at 9.

152. MILLER, supra note 86, at 135. The rise in the number of dual arrests in cases of domestic violence makes these fears quite reasonable. Coker, supra note 124, at 1043.

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102 Yale Journal of Law and Feminism [Vol. 20:75

Belief in their strength and the need to present a strong front may also isolate African American women from potential sources of support.153 In describing her relationship with her abuser, for example, Johnetta stressed her sense of herself as an atypical victim of violence because she fought back.

Part of my problem is that I am a strong Black woman. I am angry, and some people think I am too loud. So even though he beat me almost to death, I beat him too. If I had been as strong as he was, we’d both be in trouble. But since I wasn’t as strong, he got away with almost murdering me. It’s as simple as that. The broken bones, the scar where he cut my face... all of those are because he was stronger outside, and I was stronger inside. By that I mean I’m not a regular battered woman, because he got his share of licks. It wasn’t until he started playing the mind games on me that I was really vulnerable to him.154 Johnetta, like many African American battered women, had difficulty reconciling her experience with that of a “regular battered woman.” Her view of herself as a strong, independent woman clashed with the stereotypes of battered women as passive and weak. Fighting back enables women like Johnetta to express their sense of themselves as strong, resourceful, and selfsufficient.155 One African American woman who did not fight back felt that she had failed to “live up to” her “birthright” because she did not have a story of retaliating against her partner; her “image of African American women was that they stood up for themselves.”156 Some African American women are taught from an early age that they need to be able to protect themselves. In her interview with Beth Richie, Selma stated, “I would have never done anything like that if I wasn’t well trained by my family to take care of myself and if I hadn’t learned from my husband that

153. Beth Richie found that because they felt that they could handle their problems themselves, some African American women were unlikely to use social services, medical services, or battered women’s programs. RICHIE, supra note 52, at 94-95.

154. Id. at 95 (quoting Johnetta, a battered African American woman); see also Thompson & Bazile, supra note 122, at 4 (describing African American women’s strength and sense of responsibility for themselves as cultural values and beliefs that inhibit disclosure of violence).

155. Martha McMahon and Ellen Pence suggest that this need to see oneself as strong and defiant is a particularly American trait. “Adults in U.S. society are expected to be autonomous individuals who can stand up for themselves and who do not just take it when people abuse them. One might even argue that not taking it is part of an idealized American identity.” McMahon & Pence, supra note 54, at 50.

Some African American women, however, see their willingness to fight back as separating them from white women. According to Alison, an African American battered woman, “White girls are gullible.

White girls will put up with centuries of abuse. They will not fight back. It is just the way they’ve been brought up. They are very soft. They are taught to be obedient.... Black women are a little smarter.” Websdale, supra note 124, at 148.

156. Moss et al., supra note 117, at 448; see also AMY LOU BUSCH, FINDING THEIR VOICES:

LISTENING TO BATTERED WOMEN WHO’VE KILLED 48 (1999) (describing African American women’s rejection of the term “victim” and perceptions of themselves as strong and able to handle anything).

Beth Richie notes, “Ironically, because the white battered women did not have the inflated sense of power or self-confidence that the African American women had, their self-esteem and expectations for the future were not barriers to their reaching out for help when they really needed it.” RICHIE, supra note 52, at 89.





GOODMARK.7.11.2008 7/16/2008 12:44:53 PM 2008] When Is a Battered Woman Not a Battered Woman? 103 men will do anything to get me, and I’d better try to protect myself when a man was coming to hurt me.”157 African American women whose sense of self is firmly tied to their strength may be reluctant to back down from their abusers and more likely to minimize their victimization,158 particularly in the face of the pressing problems faced by other family members and friends in the community. According to Juanita, a twenty-six-year-old African American woman, “[S]ince my family and friends always thought I could take care of myself, they never even thought that my problems would be so bad as they were. No, there was so much suffering around, everyone thought mine was lightweight.”159 The notion of “strength” transcends the physical. African American women are also more economically independent of their partners than white women.160 With less financial impetus to remain in their relationships, African American women may be less willing to tolerate physical violence and more likely to fight back.161 The long history of oppression and violence against black women informs their need to be prepared to protect themselves,162 but it may also have prompted some to assume “more assertive, more confident... more positive... and more resilient” personas than they actually feel.163 The “apparent assertiveness and resiliency” of African American women may also be a function of lack of trust in the systems that are meant to provide assistance.164 Ironically, that perception of strength—and the sense that therefore these women are not “victims”—may be what prevents African American women from receiving help from these systems; when African American women are seen as too assertive or not sufficiently afraid of their abusers, the doors of shelters and other service providers remain closed.165 Historically, African American family life insulated family members first from the depredations of slavery, and later from the brutality of a racist world.

African American women may be understandably reluctant to open their families up to the scrutiny of outsiders.166 For women who believe they are responsible for maintaining family integrity despite the violence done to them,

157. RICHIE, supra note 52, at 114.

158. Asbury, supra note 127, at 100-01; West & Rose, supra note 117, at 488.

159. RICHIE, supra note 52, at 94.

160. West & Rose, supra note 117, at 474-75.

161. Id.

162. Moss et al., supra note 117, at 447; West & Rose, supra note 117, at 488.

163. Grossman et al., supra note 121, at 79. That façade of control may be intended to shield white people from problems in the African American home. Moss et al., supra note 117, at 445.

164. Campbell et al., supra note 119.

165. Bent-Goodley, supra note 120, at 309 (citing Allard, supra note 37, at 193-94); see also Grossman et al., supra note 121, at 79; Moss et al., supra note 117, at 445; West & Rose, supra note 117, at 488.

166. Websdale, supra note 124, at 145.

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104 Yale Journal of Law and Feminism [Vol. 20:75

leaving an abusive relationship is not a viable option;167 “[t]o break up their families would just add to the problems of both their own families and the problems of the black community.”168 Maintaining the family structure may be important not only to challenge outsider perceptions of the weakness of black family ties, but may also be essential to the family’s economic viability.

Although African American women are more financially independent of their partners than white women,169 a family may still need the financial resources that a partner, even an abusive one, has to offer. As Professor Zanita Fenton explains, “African Americans are also disproportionately represented among the poor. Breaking up the family means breaking up the potential resources.”170 Faced with the choice of breaking up their families or enduring abuse, African American women, particularly poor women, may look to a third option— fighting back.

B. Lesbians Who Fight Back171

Lesbians may also be more likely to fight back against their abusers than are heterosexual women,172 but theories about why these women fight back are scarce.173 The narratives of battered lesbians suggest three types of explanations for why they may be more likely to fight back: because they are unwilling to seek outside assistance to address the violence against them, because they are unlikely to be believed when they do seek assistance, and because resources to address the violence against them are not as readily

167. Bent-Goodley, supra note 120, at 309; Thompson & Bazile, supra note 122. Some African American women believe that abuse means that they have failed in their relationships; rather than leaving those relationships, they respond to the abuse by working harder to establish a sense of order and control over their households. Their failure to stop the abuse, to make their relationships “work,” led to feelings of failure and self-blame. RICHIE, supra note 52, at 75.

168. Fenton, supra note 39, at 49; see also Ammons, supra note 60, at 1054; Asbury, supra note 127, at 101.

169. West & Rose, supra note 117, at 475.

170. Fenton, supra note 39, at 50.

171. I am using the term “lesbian” because it is the term that most often appears in the literature on battering involving same-sex women partners. I recognize, however, that the term, and some of the research, may be inconsistent with current queer theory literature.

172. See Becky Marrujo & Mary Kreger, Definition of Roles in Abusive Lesbian Relationships, in VIOLENCE IN GAY AND LESBIAN DOMESTIC PARTNERSHIPS, supra note 54, at 28 (noting that thirty-four percent of lesbians reported fighting back against their partners); Lydia Walker, Battered Women’s Shelters and Work with Battered Lesbians, in NAMING THE VIOLENCE: SPEAKING OUT ABOUT LESBIAN BATTERING 73, 76 (Kerry Lobel ed., 1986).

173. Like heterosexual women, lesbians often fight back to prevent further abuse. Cory Dziggel, The Perfect Couple, in NAMING THE VIOLENCE, supra note 172, at 62, 64, 66 (describing Dziggel’s experiences as a battered lesbian who fought back against her abuser). Lydia Walker suggests a few reasons for why battered lesbians may be more likely than other women to fight back: because they are more likely to have self-defense training, because there is less size disparity between female partners, and because the lesbian community is more open to the idea of fighting back and self-defense (and may even be dismissive of women who fail to fight back, discussed infra). Walker, supra note 172, at 76; see also Nomi Porat, Support Groups for Battered Lesbians, in NAMING THE VIOLENCE, supra note 172, at 80, 83 (arguing that lesbians may be more likely to fight back because of their self-defense training).

GOODMARK.7.11.2008 7/16/2008 12:44:53 PM 2008] When Is a Battered Woman Not a Battered Woman? 105 available. While no one explanation captures the experiences of all women in same-sex relationships, these theories may provide insight into what motivates particular women to fight back and underscores the need to move away from the paradigmatic victim to a more individualized and contextual assessment of victim stories.

1. Why Battered Lesbians Don’t Ask Outsiders for Help

Battered lesbians may be reluctant to seek outside assistance—from family, friends, the lesbian community, or the larger community—to end the violence against them. As a result, they may find themselves trapped within violent relationships, in which fighting back may be the only viable option to attempt to stop the violence.

Because domestic violence was widely perceived as male violence against women, lesbians involved with the early battered women’s movement hoped that their relationships would be immune from such violence.174 In the ideal, lesbian relationships were thought to be “based on nonviolence and egalitarianism.”175 Acknowledging lesbian battering meant “shattering a utopic vision of a peaceful, women-centered world.”176 Lesbians who reported intimate partner violence were sometimes considered traitors, airing the community’s dirty laundry before a homophobic society.177 The myth of the lesbian utopia discouraged some lesbians from addressing woman-on-woman violence within the community,178 and may have silenced women who otherwise would have sought assistance. The lesbian utopia may have operated in the same way that the “gag rule” does in African American communities; by refusing to acknowledge the existence of violence, the community sought to insulate itself from criticism by the majority.179 For individual battered lesbians, however, the lesbian utopia may have felt more like a prison.180

174. Meyers, supra note 81, at 241.



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