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Feminist Activism for the College Grrl
By Brooke N. Benjestorf

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month!

Purple is the official color for October, and it has nothing to do with Halloween. October is officially National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

The training handbook from Bellingham’s Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services defines domestic violence (DV) as a pattern of assaultive and controlling behaviors that an adult or adolescent forces upon another adult, adolescent, or child in their family. “Family” can mean anything from traditional marriages and extended groupings of blood relations, to unmarried heterosexual couples, gay couples and extended groups of people unrelated by blood who define themselves as family. DV includes physical (including but not limited to acts such as pushing or shoving, slapping or biting, and the use of or threat of use of a weapon), sexual (including but not limited to telling anti-woman jokes or making demeaning remarks about women, sexual criticism, insistence on unwanted and/or uncomfortable touching, and rape) and emotional abuse (including but not limited to ignoring feelings, ridiculing or insulting, humiliation, and manipulation).

It is really important to recognize that domestic violence is not about passion or stress or even necessarily anger. It is about control and power, it is about one person attempting to dominate another person in order to keep them submissive to their every whim. The idea that DV is about a momentary loss of temper or any of the other convenient excuses that society feeds us are just myths perpetuated by the status quo that only contribute to the eternal continuance of the problem. Once we start focusing on what is really behind domestic violence, we are in a better position to combat it. This realization can be daunting, however. It is much more difficult to change the attitudes and beliefs of a culture that dominates and suppresses woman than it is to throw angry men who beat their wives when they’re stressed out into anger management.

Another social hang up that prevents feminist activists from making progress in the domestic violence movement is that ridiculous and pestering question, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” It is much more productive to focus on, “Why does he abuse?” But of course, what can one expect from a society that holds women accountable for all forms of pain and abuse that we suffer. This question, “Why does she leave?” is equitable to asking rape victims if they were wearing a short skirt. It is irrelevant. In fact, it is incredible dangerous for women to leave domestic violence relationships because the risk of being killed by their abuser shoots up a remarkable 75% when they try to leave (http://www.ncadv.org, 2000).

It is essential that activists remain cognoscente of the issues surrounding domestic violence, of which there are many. First of all, there is no one type of abuser. The media has done a number on our consciousness in society as we often stereotype batterers as poor, uneducated, drunk, and living from rural areas. The “Alabama Man” stereotype hurts the DV movement because it enables abusers who don’t fit the stereotype to get away with violence.

Also, domestic violence can occur in any type of relationship, gay or straight, and in same-sex couples, abuse can manifest in unique forms such as the threat of “outing” someone. It is also difficult for law enforcement to discern at first glance who is the abuser and who is being abused in same-sex couples, which complicates things endlessly. There are also some institutionalized barriers that make it even harder for some people to get out of domestic violence relationships. People of color have a righteous tendency to distrust the judicial system, which has proven to be consistently biased against them. Immigrants often face barriers due to their immigration status, or even simply due to the fact that they don’t speak English. DV is never an easy issue to navigate, but these factors serve to intensify the complexity of the problem.

National Domestic Violence Awareness Month started on the first Monday of October in 1981 when the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence observed the first Day of Unity. The Day of Unity is organized to unite advocates and services across the nation, mourn victims of domestic violence homicide, and celebrate survivors. The Day of Unity eventually grew to be a week long, and nowadays it is an entire month of events across the country that serve the purpose of exposing this retched problem.

This month Bellingham, WA was flooded with events illuminating domestic violence issues. The first event to kick off the month was the “Building Allies Against Violence” opening vigil which aimed to provide education and ideas for ways that we can all unite to support domestic violence victims and survivors. The vigil featured rousing and passionate speakers, music, and the presentation of the Second Annual Domestic Violence Outstanding Achievement Award. It is essential that the domestic violence community honor the people who dedicate their lives so ardently to the cause. Working with victims/survivors of trauma is extremely emotionally strenuous. There’s even a name for those whose lives are so deeply touched by their work that they are strongly emotionally affected: vicarious trauma. In addition to honoring dedicated activists at the opening vigil, the Lummi Victims of Crime and the Nooksack Tribe sponsored a Vicarious Trauma Victims training for those working in the field. It is so important that as part of this movement, we are working to support one another as well as victims/survivors, or our movement will wither and lose its strength.

One huge factor that helps women working the DV movement to keep the faith is the presence and dedication of male DV activists. This year, before the opening vigil, Western Washington University’s Men Against Violence group organized a silent protest for male feminists to show support for the cause. The men stood holding signs that said things like “Domestic Violence is Everyone’s Problem,” and “My Hands Are Not For Hurting.” The same group also organized a community service effort for one of the shelters in town. It is so invigorating to see men supporting the feminist movement. I see them as secret agents working to infiltrate the “enemies” side. Not that men are the enemies of feminists, but men have much to lose from the success of feminism, and people in a general way are resistant to change that entails a loss of power on their part. This is way it is so helpful to have men relating to other men on how feminism benefits us all.

We had a few events in Bellingham this month that were particularly creative, which is always refreshing in activism. The first was a Women’s Art Therapy Potluck, which enabled women to experiment with the use of art therapy as a healing mechanism. This event is connected to an art show that was on display at Western Washington University’s campus through the entire month. The gallery is titled, “A Dress Speaks—Trauma Survivors’ Art Show.” The display features eight dresses created by trauma survivors as coordinated by facilitator/artist/art therapist Bennč Rockett that depict each artists’ experiences and healing. Events such as art galleries are great because they tend to attract a broader audience than workshops or lectures, which allow the education and advocacy for Domestic Violence Awareness Month to reach just that many more people.

A huge aspect of Domestic Violence Awareness Month is fundraising. Because the month is nationally recognized, it allows for greater opportunities for fundraising than other times of the year, so it essential that activists take this opportunity. Fundraising can be as simplistic as a drive of some kind (on my campus we do a cell phone drive for which the organizations we donate to have a system for translating the phones into money), or as elaborate as a huge event. This month in Bellingham, a locally owned Tex-Mex restaurant called the Pepper Sisters hosted a coffee, tea and pastry tasting event to raise money for Project SAFER, which is LAW Advocates’ program the provides free direct legal representation for low-income women in domestic violence situations. If organizing isn’t your thing, but you still want to be involved, the easiest way to show your support for Domestic Violence Awareness Month is to donate to a local shelter or other DV organization. Funding is rough in a general way for these services, and your money is always needed and will always be used for a good cause. Plus, it’s a tax write-off!

If you are an organizer, it may be beneficial for you to check out the website for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (www.ncadv.org). On the website, you can checkout some guidelines for organizing around Domestic Violence Awareness Month in your community, as well as gather some ideas for events such as a ribbon campaign, library displays, and even a chili cook-off.

Finally, addressing DV issues does not need to exist within the confines of Domestic Violence Awareness month. For example, I am currently in the process of organizing an on-campus march to address the role of systematic violence in all forms of oppression. Domestic violence is just one manifestation of systematic violence. There is also sexual assault, hate crimes, and more. Systematic violence is what keeps some people in this society submissive and others dominant. As Gloria Steinem once said, “After all, it takes violence or the threat of it to maintain the dominance of any group of human beings over another.”


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Brooke N. Benjestorf is a senior at Fairhaven College, an interdisciplinary concentration design program at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. Her chosen concentration is Feminist Activism and it includes study in writing, film, women’s studies, and social change. When she is not being a feminist activist extraordinaire she loves to hang out with her girlfriends, make art, and take good care of her dog (her best friend), Paytah.

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