by: S. Lorén Trull
I’ve been watching my news feed react this morning to the TMZ release of the video of Ray Rice physically assaulting his now wife in the elevator, and then dragging out her unconscious body. I think we all agree that the video is disturbing, to say the least, and that his actions are atrocious. That’s not up for debate. What I do see are people, women in particular, condemning his wife for “covering up” or “defending” her husband for his actions. I’ve also seen comments referencing Gabrielle Union taking the blame for D Wade’s cheating work its way into this conversation. These women, and others that we see “stand by their man” or apologize for their part in a situation are going to be criticized and ridiculed as the day continues. They will be called gold diggers, or weak, or be chastised for supposedly wanting to continue the lifestyle they have been afforded by their wealthy partners. But what has jumped out at me is the term “new breed.” Both of these women, and countless before, have been called a new breed of woman, implying that women who are allegedly more concerned with their lifestyle than their safety are some new phenomena. I disagree with this train of thought because I think it disregards both the history of women as a marginalized class in our society and the socialization that has stemmed from this marginalization.
Somehow, some way, despite that fact that women make up over 50% of the US population, women’s history is something that is often skipped over or minimally covered throughout our education. Unfortunately this creates the façade for many that women don’t have a struggle to overcome. Some individuals only history lesson on the women’s suffrage movement was the HBO film Iron Jawed Angels, while many others still believe that a room full of white, wealthy, middle-aged men just woke up one day and decided to give women equal rights. The amount of attention given to women’s history in education is a grave injustice to say the very least. And while yes, I believe that we are equal to our male counterparts, our history has not treated us as such. And whether we like to admit it or not, that history has shaped the way we are socialized as a society, as women, and as spouses.
Despite what we may or may not have learned, women have long been a piece of society that were intended for nothing more than to support their families, and specifically their husbands. Wives were once nothing more than a means of procreating and providing farm hands or in house employees for her husband’s business venture. And while we all like to believe that marriage is about butterflies and fairy tales, the reality is that marriage was a financial decision by all parties involved, the husband, the wife and the family of the wife. So a woman staying with a man for financial reasons is a practice that is not only not new but was once the sole purpose of her place in his life. Women were objects, objects without rights. Women were fixtures of society meant for the use of men. As Harriet Robinson wrote in Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement “her husband was her lord and master. He had the custody of her person…. He could punish her with a stick no bigger than his thumb, and she could not complain against him.” We couldn’t own property, we couldn’t receive an education, we had no rights in divorce and it wasn’t until 1920 that women were finally able to vote. We have a long history of being marginalized and playing the role of “supporter” whether by force or choice, and I use the word choice loosely.
In discussing how women handle domestic violence, it’s necessary to recognize this history, women’s history, and how it has shaped the socialization of women. Yes, we have made great strides as women, and yes there are many of us who have progressed far beyond solely filing the traditional role of a wife. But the truth remains, that this long history dictates how domestic violence is handled in our courts, in businesses and more importantly in our homes. This multi-century history of marginalizing women has crept into how we raise our girls, and how we define their role as a spouse and a partner. “Stand by your man” is well known rhetoric and practice for many women, even today. And I think a quick scan of most women’s own romantic relationships would reveal instances where they stayed with an undeserving partner. I know mine would. Part of changing that pattern is accepting where it came from and how we ingrain messages into young women about their role in a relationship.
I don’t write this to discourage women from supporting their partners when in healthy relationships. Nor do I write this to make generalizations about how women do or should handle domestic violence. I only wish to make three points. First, Janay Rice should not be so negatively labeled as a “new breed.” Women staying in compromising situations to support their spouse and/or for financial stability is everything BUT “new.” Second, labeling her a “new breed” ignores the history of women and how that history has shaped our conscious and unconscious socialization of women. Without recognizing our story and educating our society, we may never overcome it. And lastly, as women who “would never stay” we can’t ignore our privilege in learning that lesson. Yes, many of us have learned and embraced that we are equals, we don’t have to stay, and that mistreatment and abuse is never ok. But we must be cognizant that the cycle is bigger than what you or I would do; it’s about reshaping the role of women in American society. And that reshaping can’t be done with us labeling each other as “new” or “different” or “lesser.” The process of redefining our role requires the coupling of the recognition of our history, the redeveloping of how we socialize our young girls, and the rallying of support from EACH OTHER.
With this I say to Janay Rice, you are in my thoughts and the thoughts of many. We do not know your situation, nor do we judge you for it. We as women are here to offer support in the way that you most need it, and we offer it in an effort to break this cycle in your life and the lives of others. We do that without ridicule or labeling, and we recognize that each and every one of us has a different walk, and hope that we can assist with shaping your walk into what is very best for you.