Vice President Biden was right when he said that the issue of violence against women transcends politics. It was Biden, himself the master politician, however,who authored the l994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and who spurred its reauthorization by Congress last month.
Despite “putting aside politics” to do the right thing, the VAWA is the perfect example to use when young people ask if it’s really important to vote.
Politics is, of course, more than just voting on seemingly obscure issues and lesser-evil candidates. In a democracy, it is part of the continual renewal of one’s culture, remaking its customs and expectations and keeping them current with the present state of evolving values.
In 21st century America culture, discrimination against women, and the violence that comes with it – both brutal and subtle – is an anathema to all people of conscience and good will. Just as homophobia and racism are intolerable evils, America’s historic permissiveness toward violence against women is a sociopathic character flaw that must be addressed by legal and social sanctions.
Contrary to the old saw that “you can’t legislate morality,” a society can create humane laws that reflect the best values of its culture, laws that stimulate changes in behavior that in turn could lead to a genuine change of heart.
Deep seated cultural changes take time, and lots of it. But since the l960s, American culture has been haltingly evolving away from ancient and loathsome injustices, and it has done so mainly by politics spurred by popular uprising and the creation of new laws. Jim Crow is still a gruesome shadow in some southern states where weasily equivalents of poll taxes oppress African American voters, but the crow is canary-sized in the north, compared to the l950s. And the struggle against misogyny has had important victories despite the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment and the constant assaults on Roe v. Wade.
New laws arise to create new expectations which stimulate new values. Self-government is about the relentless lobbying of politicians by self-empowered citizens who, even without the big money of corporations, can change the norms and standards of their culture. In the long run, moral outrage at injustice and prejudice trumps money in the evolution of gender-based civil rights.
Culture lays the groundwork for how people feel and think and behave at an almost instinctive level. But unlike instinct, culture is always learned. Political lobbying creates a template through which a culture is modified and evolved, despite the persistent inertia of distrust and resistance to changes.
If the VAWA had not been reauthorized, a large number of laws designed to protect women from brutal gender prejudice would have been lost. And the evolution of women’s rights and equality in America would have been setback once again.
It should not have to be said, but the public officials we elect have profound impacts on our lives, despite big corporate media having turned voting into a seemingly trivial and deadly boring hybrid of a tug of war and a fashion show.
If Tom Udall, for instance, hadn’t stood up and opposed Republican compromises to the VAWA, which would have excluded LGBT victims, and removed protections for Native American women and women on college campuses, the VAWA might well have left hundreds of thousands of women out in the cold. Voting does matter.
The reauthorized version of the VAWA focuses on the prevention and prosecution of rape and domestic violence, the two intolerable scourges of American sexism.
Among the many ways the VAWA focuses on the prevention of sexual brutality is through Sexual Assault Services and Rape Prevention and Education programs; giving federal protection to victims of sexual assault in public housing; and helping states beef up their own VAWA strategies.
The politics of gender equality in America continues to struggle against the cultural acceptability of women facing gross wage discrimination, promotion discrimination, and the economic violence of low minimum wages and their impact on single mothers and their offspring. And the rights of physical self-determination are still being contested. Is a fully realized human person who is female of less value than a potential person? That argument rages. And now laws in North Dakota that perpetuate horrible cultural hostility toward women have been passed that ban abortions for almost any reason, including rape and the health of the mother.
This is a clear example of the link between politics and culture. But laws that have a destructive impact on a culture can be changed, just as humane laws can be introduced.
American culture still does not tell young men that rape, under any circumstances, is a heinous crime that will not be excused by blaming the victim. It can be seen in the military and is apparent in the way drunken gang rapes by “good kids” are still looked upon as something akin to youthful folly. America is still not a safe place for women, nor is it a particularly nurturing place. Domestic and workplace violence are still an epidemic, too frequently the rule, not the exception.
But misogyny in America is slowly declining through the heroic actions of self-governing citizens. As anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote “Never doubt that a a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
The role of politics is to make that small group larger.