94 Pages Posted: 19 Jun 2007
One of the most celebrated successes of the feminist movement is its lasting impact on domestic violence criminal laws. Today, society has moved from discourse characterizing domestic abuse as legitimate or merely a private problem to a belief that battering is a heinous crime, more egregious than garden-variety assault. I know all too well how far the pendulum has swung, having practiced as a public defender in the District of Columbia domestic violence system. Day after day, prosecutors proceeded with cases against the wishes of victims, resulting in the mass incarceration of young black men. Could this have been the result feminist law reformers hoped for when they began their movement of resistance against patriarchy that legitimized domestic violence?
This Article answers the foregoing question with a resounding no. It demonstrates that domestic violence reform has become far removed from its progressive roots and now supports rather than supplants patriarchal ideology. The Article traces the history of domestic violence reform and explains how it transformed from a grassroots populist movement to a politically powerful lobby deeply allied with law enforcement. One of the reasons for this transformation was the influence of the powerful victims' rights movement. This movement originated as a conservative counter to Warren Court civil liberties and employs essentialist discourse objectifying victims and characterizing defendants as purely autonomous agents to unmoor crime from its social roots. The Article argues that in recent times, victims' rights reformers and the government have appropriated the domestic violence issue, not to change the patriarchal institutions that support battering, but rather to further a pro-criminalization agenda. In addition, feminists, whose original program was to vindicate women's autonomy, have begun to adopt the essentialist discourse of objectifying battered women by characterizing abused women as helpless, scared, irrational, and sick. The Article suggests that feminists simply stop advocating criminal law reforms as the solution to the problem of domestic abuse and proposes some pedagogical methodologies for teaching domestic violence without characterizing abused women in an essentialist manner.
Keywords: feminism, crime, domestic violence, victim rights, objectification, essentialism
JEL Classification: K14, K19
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation
Gruber, Aya, The Feminist War on Crime. Iowa Law Review, Vol. 92, p. 741, 2007; Florida International University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-04. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=991563