“I honestly don’t even know.” Several weeks ago, in the wake of the Weinstein maelstrom, I posed a question to my friend Olivia, “What will the world look like when women seize their power?” We were sitting in her kitchen, having tucked away a bottle or three of wine, impatiently waiting for a Moroccan-inspired chicken dish to finish cooking while the smell of cinnamon and roasting apricots surrounded us. The silence of our unknowing drew long as we contemplated the enormity of the question.
“Themyscira,” I semi-jokingly replied, referring to the paradisiacal island home of Wonder Woman, where women thrive and develop rippling muscles without the male gaze shaming them into wondering if their bodies are too masculine. I laughed for a moment, but unfortunately, my reply served as a reminder of last year’s United Nations fuck up, when, apparently facing a dearth of real-life candidates, the organization appointed Wonder Woman an honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls.
Not long after, Wonder Woman was stripped of the title, thanks to a petition that amassed more than 44,000 signatures calling for a non-fiction ambassador whose brand wasn’t that of an “overtly sexualized image,” which was also “culturally insensitive in many parts of the world.” It’s hard to determine which of these diametrically opposed viewpoints took precedence in the public arena’s outrage — if Wonder Woman was a degrading representation of the objectification of women, actually objectifying her by claiming her clothing too sexy for public consumption feels almost hysteria-inducing.
As we discussed the reality of a more equitable world, our fear and fury laboring under the weight of a hashtag that had inundated our timelines, it felt almost impossible to believe that time would ever come.
This is what it means to be a woman in America in 2017. An America where a female friend and I could be sitting in her kitchen, discussing the tortuous path to a world where women’s bodies aren’t commodified, legislated, raped, or murdered, only to discover the very notion is so far out of the realm of believability that we can only stare blankly at one another in depressed, unsurprised silence.
If this sounds like a hyperbole — or “female hysteria” if you’re an asshole — it might also surprise you to know that in 2015, according to an annual report from the Violence Policy Center, Maine was ranked ninth in the nation for the per capita rate at which men murdered women.
Statistically, nearly half of Maine’s of homicides are linked to domestic violence. While the number of murders in Maine remain relatively low, that’s 20 percent higher than the national average, according to data from the Department of Justice.
This might account for some of the urgency found in the language of last year’s biennial report, On the Path to Prevention, from the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel, a statutorily mandated entity formed in the late nineties and housed under the Office of the Attorney General. The position is currently held by Janet Mills, who wrote the foreword and recently successfully sought permanent funding for a Panel Coordinator position. On the Path to Prevention chronicles the Panel’s review of 16 cases in which the homicide was linked to domestic violence, and investigates the factors surrounding the case that escalated the violence into murder.
The report’s grisly details dissect the relationships between perpetrator (two of whom were female, fourteen of whom were male) and victim, whose ages ranged from 10 weeks to 81 years old, as well as the factors leading up to the homicide. It is easy to see how the Panel’s mission — which is to “engage in collaborative, multidisciplinary case reviews of domestic abuse-related homicides for the purpose of developing recommendations for state and local government and other public and private entities in order to improve coordinated community responses to protect people from domestic abuse” — necessitates the level of detail found in the report, but it’s a viscerally upsetting read nonetheless.Maine isn’t the only state to employ this method for developing recommendations — Fatality Review Panels can be found throughout the country — but the Maine Panel, comprised of 21 women and four men, is one of the leading panels in the U.S., so much so that they were invited to present at the National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative Conference on their methodology and processes.
This could be a contributing factor as to why Maine did not appear on the top 10 states of the Violence Policy Center’s 2015 or 2016 reports.
(It's worth noting that Mills's foreward focuses not on the dead women murdered by their male partners or former partners who comprise nine victims in the 16 cases reviewed, but rather the children who are adversely affected by the violence experienced in their homes. "A child without a safe and loving home is a child adrift, left insecure for life." Rather than giving dignity to the women as multidimensional beings, the Attorney General laments the loss of a child's mother — no woman is mourned simply for herself.
I checked previous reports, including 2014’s Building Bridges Towards Safety and Accountability to End Domestic Violence, as well as reports from 2010, 2008, 2006, and 2004, some of which were written by Mill’s predecessor, former Attorney General G. Steven Rowe, and not a single foreword contained the word “women.”
In part, this is due to the reports’ focus on all manner of domestic violence, which is separated into two categories, intrafamilial homicide and intimate partner homicide. It’s a deliberate choice to convey that domestic violence is not only visited upon women, but in its bid to adhere to political correctness, an important opportunity to advocate explicitly for women is missed.)
A few weeks ago, a former colleague of mine, Erin Gloria Ryan, was interviewed on The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, a satirical show that premiered earlier this year on Comedy Central. Ryan, whom I met while she worked at Jezebel, pointed out that many of the men who are being outed during this glorious purging of serial rapists and assaulters chose their victims based on a lack of power. But the growth of what Ryan dubbed the “me too moment,” and the growing empowerment of women seeing their private experiences reflected publicly on every social media platform, has led to a kind of power most victims never dreamed they would hold. And, as more previously untouchable men topple under the weight of public exposure, the shift has left many, including Ryan, cautiously optimistic that it might be permanent.
Unfortunately, the insidious nature of these allegations is that they never exist in a vacuum — the cultural collusion that must take place in order for women to remain victims of this kind of violence permeates every level of our society. The connection between domestic homicide and the secret predations that have systematically undercut the ability of women to claim their power remains a sickeningly entrenched narrative in American society, as well as our legal and political systems. Is it so hard to wonder why a future led by powerful women is impossible to imagine when these shocking behaviors have been “open secrets” for so many years? When a man who has bragged on tape about sexual assault is president? When our only means of defense in these realms is the “whisper network,” in which women quietly warn one another away from men who might do them harm.
In Maine, despite the Review Panel’s mandate to churn out reports every two years, women continue to fight for incremental changes in the status quo. In May of this year, Republicans blocked even the possibility of a voter referendum to enshrine gender equality via an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution. A current bill to create a “victim’s bill of rights” has met with staunch opposition, including a blistering editorial in the Bangor Daily News, which framed the amendment as an out-of-state billionaire’s agenda with too many problems to be of actual use.
While it’s true that Henry T. Nicholas, a billionaire from California, is the money man behind the campaign for Marsy’s Law, named after Nicholas’s sister who was stalked and murdered by her ex-boyfriend, the logic behind denying victims protections through a constitutional amendment seems shaky. The BDN’s editorial — which was published with no byline, by the way — essentially argues that the state would have difficulty complying with an amendment that protects victims’ rights, due to the state’s inability to meet the current legal requirements, which are not enshrined in the constitution. Their proposal is to create a fund that ensures victims are rewarded restitution that is owed, a legal obligation the state already faces, but has trouble carrying out.
Why not both?
Is it too much to ask that women, who would obviously benefit most from this law, be protected by all the powers at our disposal after years of systemic marginalization and abuse? Shouldn’t we be implementing laws and policies at every level to protect women now that the veil has been lifted on a furtive culture that has stunted the power and progress of women at every turn?
DrewChristopher Joy, Executive Director of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center (SMWC), is working on one of those levels. It’s one of the reasons that their current campaign for earned paid sick leave includes a stipulation that would allow Portland employees to take paid time off to care for themselves or family members who have been victims of domestic abuse, stalking, or sexual assault.
“Our campaigns have always been intersectional because we know that there is a direct impact of gender on a person’s ability to get work, maintain work, and get to work safely.” Joy says the current state labor law, which guarantees victims’ time off but doesn’t guarantee compensation, doesn’t do enough. SMWC also plans to relaunch their hotline, where members can report abuse from employers, including sexual harassment, early next year.
The connection between a seemingly simple campaign for paid leave and the revolution of women’s power may not seem obvious, but one recommendation On the Path to Prevention makes it clear: “Employers, supervisors, and co‐workers have the opportunity to engage in protective actions when framed by a comprehensive workplace response to domestic abuse. Employers who institute workplace domestic abuse policies foster a workplace culture of safety, and identify response strategies that increase safety and support for victims, as well as identify measures of perpetrator accountability.” The ability to take time off without a financial burden for the victim could literally save lives in Portland.
The growing visibility and education around everyday abuses of women in this country — particularly women of color; queer, femme, non-binary and trans women; and women living in poverty — are creating a strengthening vortex where powerful men with hidden proclivities for violence or misconduct must be starting to tremble at the edge. But this moment comes only after years of enabling, secrecy, and money created a culture that prioritized money over women’s bodies.
While Olivia and I continued to pick half-heartedly at the carcass of a truly superb dinner, I noted with dark humor that in her aromatic kitchen, we’d managed to pass the Bechdel test, a rubric meant to expose the structural inequalities of gender representation in the film industry. The test dictates that at a bare minimum, a film must have two named female characters who converse with one another about something other than a man. For such a simple scale, little more than half of last year’s top-grossing films passed the test.
But then I remembered that this year, women made more movies, dominated box office earnings, and amassed more praise from critics than ever before. Women just helped the Democratic Party win seats they ran for because their opponents were toxic masculinity personified. Black women, in particular, voted overwhelmingly for progressive candidates — their votes ensured our continued march toward a less apocalyptic future. And women, who comprise the majority of the Domestic Abuse Homicide Prevention Panel, have made recommendations at the expense of their own mental health, by reviewing grisly reports every month, that have created a safer Maine for other women.
Perhaps the “whisper network,” which operated in selective secrecy for so many years but has now gained public attention, is ready to become the shouting revolution. Maybe a future where women are free to pursue their passions without threat is almost visible.
- Published in Features