Commentary

Issue: Making The World Safe Enough For Women

Monday, August 28, 2000

From the "wilding" attacks in Central Park to systematic rape as a war crime in the Balkans, women are vulnerable to violence. Even more than reproductive choice, this writer argues, women must demand a safe enough world.

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No more violence

A big event in the women's summer is the campaign for women's votes. In the aftermath of both political conventions, CNN political commentator Bill Schneider analyzed the gender dynamics of the Presidential race: "This election looks more than anything else like a battle of the sexes, men versus women, with each gender voting for a different candidate by a very wide margin."

When they think about women at all, the political pundits mostly think about choice. This time they've got it wrong. True, Republican candidate George W. Bush did not touch the GOP anti-abortion platform, while Democrat Al Gore supports a woman's right to choose. But recent events have demonstrated an election issue even more fundamental than reproductive choice. Forget choice. The question this election is much more basic: Can American women effectively demand a world safe enough for them to live in at all? The issue of a safe enough world for women transcends this election, this time and place.

Author Linda HirshmanThis women's summer follows a bad spring. In May, the Supreme Court struck down, by a vote of five to four, a key provision of the federal law that protects women against rape and other violence, the Violence Against Women Act. The case involved a college freshman who claimed she had been raped by the football hero and that their college did nothing about it. Just a month later, bands of "wilding" young males subjected women to a barrage of sexual violence, assaulting them at random in New York's Central Park -- pawing them, robbing them and stripping them-- with little or no police intervention.

The political connection between violence and gender politics was particularly easy to make in the Court decision, because the Supreme Court ruling came down the day after hundreds of thousands of women marched in Washington for federal legislation against gun violence in the Million Mom March. If past decisions are any indication, much future gun control legislation will be struck down with the same argument used to gut the Violence Against Women Act--that protections against violence are not the business of the federal government, but of the states. Indeed, in 1995, the Supreme Court had already used the same theory to throw out the federal law against guns in schoolyards.

Rape. Guns. Wilding. Pundits haven't noticed, but safety is a women's issue. Women want to walk in Central Park. Women want to go to college without worrying about the football hero. Women want to send their kids to school without wondering whether schoolmates are armed and dangerous. But women are, on the whole, smaller and weaker than men, rape-able, impregnate-able and vulnerable in ways men are not.

Not surprisingly, then, polls show that women are disproportionately opposed to violence. Women favor handgun legislation by almost 80 percent. The Million Mom March against gun violence was patterned after another recent female movement against risky death dealing behavior, the Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

On the other hand, statistics reveal that almost all handgun violence is perpetrated by and against males. Men also do most of the drunken driving. Until recently, however, women have usually behaved as if they could not change the risky and dangerous world created by men. However, through the Violence Against Women Act, the Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Million Mom campaign, American women are moving to use politics to change their violent world.

On the international front, it was women's efforts to publicize the systematic rapes in Bosnia that made the international community at last inscribe rape within the canon of recognized and punishable war crimes and crimes against humanity. If the election really is a battle of the sexes, a candidate who can capitalize on that new political dynamic would have a big electoral advantage.

In the upcoming U.S. election, how would the issue of women's safety "play?" All five justices who struck down part of the Violence Against Women Act are Republican appointees. The opinion by chief Justice William Rehnquist held that enforcement of the law protecting women from violence is not a matter for the federal government, but for the states. Four justices dissented--both of the Democrats, plus Ford-appointee John Paul Stevens, and Republican David Souter.

In that decision and others, the majority of justices embraced "strict constructionism" of the U.S. Constitution. Strict construction technically means reading the words of the Constitution, which creates the powers of the federal government, very narrowly. In political talk, "strict constructionists" are the opposite of "activist" judges, who read the constitutional language more broadly.


Strict Interpretation Can Hurt Women

The Republican-dominated court has developed a pattern of strict constructionism when it comes to the powers of Congress, especially when Congress is legislating against violence. First, the court struck down as unconstitutional the law prohibiting gun sales near schools in 1995. Now, in an ominously sweeping opinion, the court has gutted the women's protection from violence law. Women can expect future strict constructionist, five-to-four decisions that further erode governmental protections against violence, unless the court composition changes significantly.

At least three retirements are expected soon. The Republican platform promises more strict constructionists and condemns "activist" judges. Republican nominee Bush has said repeatedly that he would appoint strict constructionists.

Although this connection has not been widely noticed, strict constructionism should also doom Roe v. Wade, which Bush said "was a reach (and) overstepped the constitutional bounds."


Sometimes 'Jackbooted Thugs' Look Good

But women's newfound demand to live in a safer world is inconsistent with conservative antagonism toward government power at a level even deeper than constitutional theory. We have heard conservatives call the federal government a bunch of "jackbooted thugs," and even mainstream conservatives believe that less government is better.

Safety as a women's issue conflicts fundamentally with this conservative approach. Women voters help select their government, which then sets the rules for them. Everything is not the battle of the sexes, as CNN's Schneider describes it, but many aspects of women's safety are. When there is no elected government, it's not that no one wins the battle. When there is no government, the strong win. That's why the strong don't like government! Without the government, women don't get to vote on who sets the rules, they get to deal with men one-on-one. In that context--one freshman vs. one football player, one sober driver versus one drunken driver--women are the often the losers.

The women in Central Park saw a "battle of the sexes" in a world without government when they were stripped and robbed in the middle of the nation's second largest city in broad daylight, while the police stood by. I'll bet that a cop wouldn't have looked much like a "jackbooted thug" to them that day.

Linda R. Hirshman is a professor at Brandeis University.

Cover photo by Radu Sigheti REUTERS.

 
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