First in a series

Violence against women cuts across the entire female spectrum: heterosexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender of any race or class.

Domestic violence, bullying, stalking, rape, and sex-trafficking are the most talked about, and perhaps the most dramatic examples of violence against women, but every day there are incidents of verbal abuse, withholding of financial support, unwanted touching, and other types of harassment of and aggression toward women.

“Domestic abuse is a dynamic of power and control,” said Karen Singer, CEO of YWCA-Evanston/North Shore (YWCA-ENS).

There has been progress, particularly in the last decade, in addressing violence against women. Some policies of the Trump administration, however, threaten to eradicate the protections, particularly those for college women, put in place by the Obama administration.

 State and Federal Protections

Until about the 1980s, the typical response of law enforcement to many incidents of violence against women was to blame the victim (“What was she wearing?” “What did she think would happen if she did that?” “Why doesn’t she leave?”). Sometimes law enforcement officers would tell the abuser to take it easy or “cool off.”

Voices from many sectors calling for protection of women against domestic abuse and for certain antisocial aggressions to be considered crimes were finally heeded.

Illinois Domestic Violence Act: In 1982, the Illinois General Assembly passed a Domestic Violence Act that recognized domestic violence as a serious crime and acknowledged there was a problem in the way law enforcement officials responded to it. The Illinois Act also provided for orders of protection against abusers and directed courts to enter orders of protection and provided the means for law-enforcement officials to enforce them. It was amended in 1986 and again in 2015, adding protections for victims of domestic abuse and providing funding for some support services for survivors, such as counseling and shelter.

The Illinois law has an expansive definition of family to include as many types of people as possible who could be victims of domestic violence (750 ILCS 60/102).

The Federal Violence Against Women Act, 1994 and 2013: The federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s with professionals and advocates for women’s rights, was passed as one section of the now-controversial 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

The VAWA acknowledged rape and domestic violence as crimes and provided funding on the local level for rape kits, legal and court fees associated with orders of protection, training for police officers in matters of domestic violence and sexual violence. The Act emphasized the need for a collaborative response to domestic violence among police, prosecutors, social-service agencies, and other groups that provide support for victims of domestic violence. It also authorized funding to implement programs on youth education on domestic violence and community intervention and prevention programs.

In a 2015 analysis of the VAWA, Lisa N. Sacco of the Congressional Research Service wrote “The shortfalls of legal response and the need for a change in attitudes toward violence against women were primary reasons cited for the passage of VAWA.”

She noted, “Senators Joseph Biden and Senator Barbara Boxer highlighted the weak response to violence against women by police and prosecutors” (Congressional Record, June 21, 1994).

The National Network to End Domestic Violence, formed in 1994 to help pass the Act, says of the Act, “The Violence Against Women Act is the cornerstone of our nation’s response to domestic and sexual violence.”

When the Act was renewed in 2013, with added protections, the Network said, “While the initial VAWA improved the nation’s response to violence … VAWA 2013 closed critical gaps in services and justice.” It covered all victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking: Native women, immigrants, LGBT victims, college students and youth.

No Straight Line to Safety

Despite these laws – and there are some who would say because of them – many women do not feel safe. Some fear the abuser; some fear the police. “Sometimes women are afraid to call the police,” Ms. Singer said.

Kristen White, Chief Operating Officer of YWCA-ENS, said, “The intersectionality of violence and race has a disproportionate impact on women of color. 

Women marginalized by race, sexual orientation, or poverty are reluctant to invoke the criminal justice system.

Victims who do not look like the envisioned victim – that is, poor, minority, Lesbian or transgender women, or women who strike out against their abuser – are often not taken seriously as “legitimate” victims, Ms. White and Ms. Singer said.  Ms. White added, “Women such as these possess less economic and/or social power they are often revictimized by the institutions set up to serve them.  This is not on purpose but is a result of systemic inequity that privileges higher-status groups.”

Victims of abuse who are undocumented may have even greater fears about calling the police, lest their status be prioritized over their victimization.

And even those who find the courage to call the police may find it difficult to leave an abusive situation. Financial pressure, fear of reprisals, and concern for the safety of others in the household often drive a woman to stay in an abusive situation.

Ms. White said 95% of women who suffer domestic violence are also victims of financial abuse. “On average a victim attempts to leave their abusive relationship nine times before they actually leave. The most dangerous time for the victim is when they are leaving. They know this, so that is one of the reasons it is hard to leave. Female victims will often prioritize other needs, including the needs of their children or other family members, over their own immediate safety,” she said.

Dr. Beth Ritchie, Professor in the Department of African American Studies & Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says legislation alone cannot solve societal problems. Some anti-violence efforts, including legislation, have harmed women of color, she said.

By drawing the “victim” of domestic abuse as white, well-off, and heterosexual, legislators and others have failed to examine the causes, context, and extent of violence against women of color, particularly poor women. Substance abuse or substandard living conditions can become crimes themselves when a woman in an abusive situation calls for help. These things can become the focus of the investigation, the crime of abuse falls away, and the woman can be arrested because of them, possibly losing her children in the meantime.

And even if there is an arrest of the abuser, sending him to prison can disrupt the family and deprive them of that person’s earnings, driving them deeper into poverty.  

When Dr. Ritchie spoke in Evanston at the 2016 International Women’s Day breakfast, she said the “persistent, pernicious way that domestic violence continues” can be laid at the feet of two nationwide attitudes that need to be dismantled: a prison-nation mentality and “carceral,” or prison-reliant, feminism.

Reliance on law enforcement and the criminal justice system to solve societal problems, she says, has made this country a “prison nation.” … “The law-and-order mentality can harm those already marginalized or vilified members of society,” Dr. Ritchie said.

Faith in the criminal justice system – prosecution and incarceration – as the panacea for violence against women, Dr. Ritchie said, is carceral feminism. It is premised on the ideas that all women are the same and the system will protect all victims of violence. Yet, she said, some laws designed to protect “women” have proven to protect only some women.

In an interview with in 2012, Dr. Richie discussed her book “Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation” and ended with some cautiously hopeful remarks: “I think people are looking with very creative optimism toward more transformative, restorative, real justice programs at the neighborhood grassroots level. It’s been very inspiring to me. But it’s taken a long time …”

Preventing Further Abuse

 YWCA Evanston/North Shore is the only provider of comprehensive domestic violence services in north eastern Cook County. The organization offers crisis intervention, legal advocacy, counseling, housing and employment support and other supportive services to assist survivors of domestic violence, even if they are not ready to leave their abuser.  For those ready to leave the abusive situation, there is emergency shelter and longer-term housing, where the survivor and her children can have a chance to heal and get on their feet.

Shelter and Services for Survivors: Between Waukegan and Chicago, the YWCA-ENS has the only shelter for battered women and their children. The organization offers crisis intervention, legal advocacy, counseling and other support services to victims of domestic violence, even if they are not ready to leave the abuser. For those who are ready to leave an abusive situation, there is the opportunity for longer-term housing, where they and their children can have a chance to heal and get on their feet emotionally, financially and otherwise.

Reframing the Question: Language is important in addressing domestic violence, Ms. White said. “Passive language, such as ‘how violence happens’ leaves out the perpetrator. The question is ‘Why does he batter?’ not ‘Why doesn’t she leave?’”

“Language is critical in how we talk about domestic violence. The words we use tell us how we think about relationship violence,” Ms. White said.  “‘John abused Mary,’ which implicates John as the abuser and the person to hold accountable, has turned into the passive, ‘Mary is a battered woman.’ In that sentence, John has been removed from the equation and Mary is the focus. We must use language that holds the abuser accountable and also does not blame the victim. Unfortunately, many men and women in our community can get uncomfortable when we use active language holding men accountable for gender violence, because those men who don’t perpetrate violence feel defensive about being lumped in with those who do. Because of that, by default we switch to the passive description, taking all men out of the equation. That needs to change.”

Victims of domestic abuse may need to relearn that they are not at fault, that the shame of domestic violence lies with the abuser, and that healing is possible.

The other side of being a victim, is, of course, being an abuser, and the YWCA-ENS has programs to involve males in three separate areas: with youth, teaching them about healthy relationships masculinity; with abusers, holding them accountable and offering counseling and re-direction (some, but not all, court-appointed); and with males who are not abusers, encouraging them to take a public stand against abuse.

Building Healthy Relationships: In partnership with Evanston schools, YWCA-ENS offers programs for students to learn about building healthy relationships.

Ms. White told the RoundTable, “At the schools we provide healthy relationship education that helps students from K-12 explore age-appropriate information about healthy relationships, bullying, teen dating violence prevention, and sexual assault prevention. In District 65 alone, last year we served 3,995 youth from grades K- 7. At District 202 [Evanston Township High School], we served 1,623 students.”

For the past three years, YWCA-ENS partnered with Y.O.U. in conducting a “healthy masculinity” group for ETHS boys, Ms. White said, adding, “We are continuing this project on our own at ETHS this coming school year with the support and encouragement of the administration. … We are also exploring how to adapt our batters intervention program currently serving adult male offenders to serve high school youth.”

Men Taking a Stand: This year, the YWCA-ENS implemented a program that encourages men who are not abusers to talk about the problem of violence against women both in public and in their private conversations. Called “Men Taking a Stand,” the program began in May with a dinner attended by nearly 200 men who agreed to take a stand.

As a follow-up, Antonio Rice and Brian McHugh, both of YWCA-ENS, are coordinating a program in which a group of men will be trained and then develop a Men’s Leadership Team to expand the program.

Alternatives to Violence: Some courts, rather than sending an abuser to prison, allow “diversion,” that is, they send the abuser to a program to help address the underlying problem, such as substance abuse, uncontrolled anger, or mental illness.

Alternatives to Violence, a program offered by the YWCA-ENS and open to all men – both through court referral or voluntary enrollment – provides services to men who engage in abusive behavior, not only to hold them accountable but to help bring about changes in their behavior.

Police and Domestic Violence: Evanston Police Department personnel are trained to handle domestic violence calls – often the most dangerous type of call to which they respond. The Department also has a Victims Service Department, where victims of domestic violence, as well as of other crimes, can be connected to resources to find their way through the trauma and beyond. 

“A domestic-violence call is a high priority,” Evanston Police Detective Tanya Noble told the RoundTable. The 911 operators are trained in how to handle these calls, and the Police Department has a domestic violence response team, she said.

Kelli Nelson, an advocate in the Police Department’s Victim Services division, said one of the priorities is “to get the victim out of the situation. … We ask, ‘Do you need help getting to a shelter?’ and we help with orders of protection.”

Sometimes the victim will not be ready to leave the situation, Ms. Nelson said, adding, “We’re not there to force our agenda but to give the person options.”

Other stories in this series will cover the police response to domestic violence, the Men’s Leadership Program, and sex-trafficking in the North Shore.



The feminist movement, which began in the 1800s when women marched and advocated for suffrage, temperance, and, in some cases, abolition. A second wave of feminism cast light onto gender-specific inequalities and abuses here and around the world. This wave, sought, among other things, to influence legislation that would address violence against women.

Second-wave feminists, who followed original feminist movement for suffrage, temperance, etc., advocated for women’s rights in the workplace and at home. With guides such as Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” Kate Millet’s “Sexual Politics,” and Betty Freidan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” women were able to unmask prejudices that historically led to the inferior status of women. The National Organization of Women was formed in 1966.

This second wave bifurcated. One group sought to – and did – use social pressure to influence legislation, mainstream politics, and workforce environments to secure, among other things, better, though not equal, pay for women. The second, more radical group, saw this country’s political system as too patriarchal to ever grant full equality to women. 

Still, the overarching theme of second-wave feminism is that women are, or can be, or have been victims, and they need protection of the laws and safety nets of support.

Second-wavers have called attention to such things as stalking, bullying, and incest and other forms of rape. It happens that wives are raped by husbands and prostitutes by their clients, they say, and these are crimes.

Third-wave feminists, though, rejected for the most part the idea of woman as victim and expanded the notion of “woman” to include the spectrum of femaleness – Lesbian, bisexual, trans, etc . – as well as women of all races and cultures. They also sought to reclaim hurtful and derogatory language, using such terms as “b—h” and “c—t” on their own terms. 

The intent of third-wavers is to endorse choice, expand the notion of gender and make it into a continuum rather than a binary, and to be non-judgmental, writes Martha Rampton, Professor of History and Director of the Center for Gender Equity at Pacific University in Oregon.  She published “Four Waves of Feminism” in the Fall 2008 issue of Pacific Magazine; it was republished on the university’s website ( in 2015.

As second-wave feminism became quiet in the public forum and retreated into the academic world, Prof. Rampton writes, third-wave feminism took the stage with makeup, lipstick, stiletto heels. These grrls are “strong and empowered, eschewing victimization and defining feminine beauty for themselves as subjects, not as objects of a sexist patriarchy. They developed a rhetoric of mimicry, which appropriated derogatory terms like ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’ in order to subvert sexist culture and deprive it of verbal weapons. … Reality is conceived not so much in terms of fixed structures and power relations, but in terms of performance within contingencies. Third wave feminism breaks boundaries.” says of third-wave feminists:  “The spirit and intent of the third wave shone through the raw honesty, humour, and horror of Eve Ensler’s play (and later book) “The Vagina Monologues,” an exploration of women’s feelings about sexuality that included vagina-centered topics as diverse as orgasm, birth, and rape; the righteous anger of punk rock’s riot grrrls movement; and the playfulness, seriousness, and subversion of the Guerrilla Girls, a group of women artists who donned gorilla masks in an effort to expose female stereotypes and fight discrimination against female artists,” according to the online encyclopedia
In rejecting the victimhood that was in many ways a hallmark of second-wave feminism, third-wavers defend sex work and pornography as exercises of free choice, empowerment, and sexual pleasure rather than another example of gender oppression. They see prostitution as a matter of free choice of employment; a prostitute rents her body, or at least some of its orifices, to a client for a certain time.

In “Third-Wave Feminism and the Defense of ‘Choice’” in 2010 in the journal Perspectives on Politics, R. Claire Snyder-Hall, Associate Professor of Political Theory and Director of interdisciplinary Studies at George Mason University, wrote,Because third-wave feminism insists that each woman must decide for herself how to negotiate the often-contradictory desires for both gender equality and sexual liberation, it sometimes appears to endorse behaviors that appear problematic. Despite media caricatures, however, the third-wave approach actually exhibits not a thoughtless endorsement of “choice” but a deep respect for pluralism and self-determination.  

“The emerging fourth-wavers,” writes Prof. Rampton, “are not just reincarnations of their second wave grandmothers; they bring to the discussion important perspectives taught by third wave feminism.  They speak in terms of intersectionality whereby women’s suppression can only fully be understood in a context of the marginalization of other groups and genders—feminism is part of a larger consciousness of oppression along with racism, ageism, classism, abelism, and sexual orientation.”

Although it is unclear how fourth-wavers will evolve, she says, “The beauty of the fourth wave is that there is a place in it for all –together. … At this point we are still not sure how feminism will mutate. … The political, social and intellectual feminist movements have always been chaotic, multivalenced, and disconcerting; and let’s hope they continue to be so; it’s a sign that they are thriving,” she concludes.  




Present Danger

Programs and services such as those described here  mark the distance law enforcement has come from the days of telling the abuser to “cool off” or blaming the victim for bringing the situation on herself. They also indicate an increasing awareness of the magnitude of the mistreatment of women nationwide.

On the national level, though, the present administration has sounded its warning that some of the progress of the past few decades will be eliminated. 

President Donald Trump is unapologetic about his treatment of women, continuing his decades-long practice of demeaning, insulting or “complimenting” them with gross and inappropriate language. Such an attitude coming from the nation’s top elected official portends a cruder and more hostile environment for the nation’s women.

Further, notwithstanding widespread incidents of sexual assault on college campuses – an estimated one in five female undergraduates is a victim of sexual assault – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Candice Jackson, head of the Office of Civil Rights, are poised to abandon certain protections for victims of sexual assault in schools and universities that had been set in place under the Obama administration.

In 2011, Barack Obama, though the federal Office of Civil Rights, notified more than 7,000 colleges and universities that receive federal funds that they should treat sexual violence against women as forms of “sexual harassment” as covered by Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments. Doing so, his letter said, would help them be able to retain their federal funding.

Ms. DeVos and Ms. Jackson have indicated they believe many accusations of rape and other sexual violence are false, or that they stem from something akin to morning-after recriminations. 

These threats to retreat into the unproductive past signal a greater challenge to bring about changes so that women of all types will be treated equitably and respectfully and can live without fear of violence.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...