When is a Battered Woman Not a Battered Woman? When She Fights Back

55 Pages Posted: 4 Oct 2007 Last revised: 27 Jul 2008

See all articles by Leigh Goodmark

Leigh Goodmark

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law


Over the past thirty years, the public, media, and the legal system have coalesced around a stereotypical image of the victim of domestic violence. Before the birth of the battered women's movement, the assumption was that domestic violence happened to "them" - poor African American women who lived in slums. Advocacy by the battered women's movement around the idea that domestic violence is endemic in all races, ethnicities, religions and socioeconomic brackets, coupled with the introduction of "battered woman syndrome" and its reliance on the theory of learned helplessness to explain why battered women remained in abusive relationships, changed the portrait of the victim of intimate partner violence from a low-income woman of color to a passive middle-class white woman cowering in the corner as her enraged husband prepares to beat her again. This woman would never fight back. And because this woman is the woman that lawyers want to present and judges expect to see in their courtrooms, women who fight back are at a distinct disadvantage when they turn to the civil legal system for assistance. The battered woman who fights back simply isn't a victim in the eyes of many in the legal system.

Who fights back? Unsurprisingly, the women who fight back are the women with the fewest options for addressing the violence against them. African-American women. Poor women. Lesbians. Women who lack access to resources, women who may be afraid or unwilling to turn to the police or other professionals for assistance, women whose marginalized status may deprive them of the ability to make choices other than retaliation. Women who may be conflicted about turning to the civil legal system and who find that when they do, and when they are honest about how they have defended themselves, they are penalized for exercising one of the few options open to them to prevent or escape from an assault.

This article looks at the conflicting narratives of victims of domestic violence who ask the civil justice system for assistance. It first discusses the importance of narrative in the construction of identity, both in constituting one's self and in determining how that self is presented to the world. It then juxtaposes the prevailing narrative of the domestic violence victim - the passive white middle class woman - against the narratives of women who fight back. The article examines how victims of violence are encouraged to tailor their stories as closely as possible to the prevailing narrative in order to persuade the civil legal system, and presents the consequences both for victims and for their advocates in constructing narratives that deny women the right to defend themselves. The article finally asks how the construction of the victim of domestic violence can be reframed to include the authentic narratives of women who fight back.

Keywords: women, domestic violence, feminist jurisprudence, feminist legal theory

Suggested Citation

Goodmark, Leigh, When is a Battered Woman Not a Battered Woman? When She Fights Back. Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1019078

Leigh Goodmark (Contact Author)

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law ( email )

500 West Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-1786
United States

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