There is an article by Linda Hirshman on Slate's women-centric XX Factor today entitled "Crazy Love, Crazy Choices" that deals with domestic violence. In it, Hirshman posits that present-day feminists are too easy on domestic violence victims because "the current love affair with understanding stops feminists from calling victims on taking responsibility for their own well-being."
I have to disagree.
This article, which includes a review of a new memoir by Leslie Morgan Steiner that details her own experiences with abuse, is problematic for many reasons (keep in mind that I am one of the postmodern feminists Hirshman criticizes in this piece, and can therefore only speak to my own opinions). First of all, Hirshman makes it clear at the outset that she thinks modern feminism focuses too much on domestic abusers themselves and not enough on the agency of the victim. When responding to Steiner's claim that it is understandable why women such as herself (who are struggling with intimacy and self-esteem issues) stay in abusive relationships, Hirshman says, "Steiner is wrong: It IS difficult to understand why she stayed in this awful relationship, given that she was not risking starvation and had no children with her abuser."
Just because a woman does not have children and isn't starving to death does not necessarily mean that she is in a situation where she can (or wants to) just walk away from an abusive relationship. Also, while I understand that Hirshman sees this as a black and white issue, I do not. I guess Hirshman would consider me to be a perpetrator of "the soft bigotry of low feminism" that puts too much of an emphasis on "understanding."
Hirshman longs for "old-style feminism" where "choice" is not as much of a focal point. While I think she is trying to say that she'd like feminists to encourage victims to leave abusive relationships (and no one likes to see women or men being abused), I don't think that victim-blaming and discrediting others' experiences is the right way to make this point. Also, I happen to think that expanding definitions, focusing on understanding others' experiences, and realizing that no situation is black and white are positive attributes of "new-style" feminism. Why regress?
At no point in her article does Hirshman address how feminism might constructively hold an abuser accountable for his/her behavior. While I agree that abuse victims should be afforded agency to change their situations, I cannot support a proposed method of dealing with domestic abuse that lets perpetrators off the hook for their own actions. Sure, a woman like Steiner doesn't deserve to be in an abusive relationship (no one does), but she is not the one committing the abuse. Why, then, should she alone shoulder the responsibility of remedying the situation? How is that the best solution from a feminist standpoint?
In addition, Hirshman employs a tactic toward the end of the article that I find particularly deplorable: Pitting women against each other in order to determine who is truly in need. To accomplish this she cites Michelle Goldberg's new book "The Means of Reproduction" (which I am currently reading and think is quite excellent). She mentions Anne, an 11-year old girl profiled in the book who walks 25 miles to escape genital mutilation, to make the point that women like Steiner are not really victims when compared to other women.
While Anne's story is moving and valuable, there is no reason to juxtapose it with Steiner's memoir and claim it as an example of "women who really were powerless." Perhaps both of those women felt powerless. Perhaps neither of them did. There is room for both stories, and many others, in discussions about domestic abuse. Why can only one type of woman be in need of help, support, and understanding?
Hirshman ends her article by saying that, "Women should be able to look after one another." I agree, but I do not personally think she herself is looking out for other women with this piece. Feminism is not to blame for enabling or perpetuating domestic violence, even if you do disagree with some of the tenets of modern (or more accurately, postmodern) feminism. The culture of violence in which we live, the discussions that blame victims instead of abusers, and the idea that women must compete to prove their victimhood are far more insidious than "low feminism" when it comes to domestic abuse, at least in my opinion.
But enough of my opinion. What do you think?