SPECIAL REPORT

THE SPECTRE OF MALE VIOLENCE

A BACKLASH AGAINST ASSERTIVE WOMEN

NORA UNDERWOOD March 5 1990
SPECIAL REPORT

THE SPECTRE OF MALE VIOLENCE

A BACKLASH AGAINST ASSERTIVE WOMEN

NORA UNDERWOOD March 5 1990

THE SPECTRE OF MALE VIOLENCE

SPECIAL REPORT

A BACKLASH AGAINST ASSERTIVE WOMEN

Barry and Peggy Rushton say that they have struggled to hold their marriage together. The couple, who have been married for 14 years, live with their two young daughters in Westville, N.S., about 125 km northeast of Halifax. Barry Rushton acknowledges that, for many years, he expressed his anger through acts of physical violence towards his wife. Three years ago, Peggy Rushton and her daughters moved to a hostel for abused women in nearby New Glasgow. Rushton said that the experience made him realize that what he had been doing was wrong. He recalled, “I thought, there’s got to be a better way of dealing with things than flexing a little muscle.” Rushton joined a support group for men who had assaulted women and learned to control his violence. Still, his wife says that she has not entirely regained her confidence. “After three years, I’m still worried whether I can trust the change,” she said. “It’s still a man’s world out there.”

Sociologists say that for many Canadian women, more than 25 years of feminist activism and resulting social change have not yet fundamentally altered that so-called man's world. Since the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique helped to launch the modern feminist movement in 1963, women have used the political process to change their role in society. They now make up nearly half of the nation’s labor force (compared with only eight per cent 60 years ago) and they are increasingly moving into occupations, ranging from police work to medicine and law, that a generation ago were almost exclusively male preserves. But in spite of the gains that they have made, many women continue to be the victims of male violence.

Indeed, some people who work with sexualassault victims say that violence may be increasing as the advances made by women in society trigger a backlash. “We are seeing more violence,” said Ann Keith, executive

director of a Halifax organization called Service for Sexual Assault Victims. “Women are becoming more assertive, and this has a backlash effect.”

Still, over the past 10 years, violence against women has been increasingly recognized as a problem. A growing network of hostels now provides battered women with a refuge, and changes in police practices and legal procedures reflect the fact that violence against women is a matter of public concern. Said Patricia Marchak, who is head of the department of anthropology and sociology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver: “We are becoming aware of the violence in a new way. Maybe we are at a turning point.”

The spectre of male violence against women was shockingly demonstrated in December, when Marc Lépine went on a murderous rampage in Montreal. For about 20 minutes, the 25-year-old man stalked students at the engineering building at the University of Montreal, singling out women and shooting them. Before he killed himself, Lépine had murdered 14 female students and wounded 13 other people. In one classroom, he screamed, “You’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists.”

Threats: The killings led to an outpouring of grief by men and women across Canada and in other countries. As well, the Montreal massacre resulted in a sharp polarization of malefemale relations in some sectors of Canadian society. Women in Thunder Bay, Ont., held a memorial service for the slain women and invited only women to attend. In the aftermath of the killings, anonymous death threats were made against feminists, and in Montreal a

letter sent to seven hospitals and signed “a real woman” threatened death to male babies. Now, for many women, Lépine’s rampage has become a symbol of an illness that feminists say exists just below the surface in society.

Last week, the issue of violence against women was the subject of a bitter exchange in the House of Commons. In last week’s budget, the federal government reduced or cut funding for five feminist groups and three women’s magazines. Liberal MP Mary Clancy angered Finance Minister Michael Wilson when she said, “I hope the family and friends of the students in Montreal who died because violence against women is accepted in this country accept this.” Declared New Democrat MP Dawn Black: “Violence against women is a crisis in this country. These are the centres that provide the information and support to women.”

More statistical estimates of violence against women are available than ever before. According to Battered but Not Beaten, a 1987 report produced by the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, roughly one million Canadian women are the victims each year of some form of domestic violence, ranging from threats to beatings and murder. Experts who have compiled the results of numerous studies estimate that at least one in every eight women in Canada will at some time be the victim of physical, psychological or sexual violence.

Gains: Experts disagree on why men behave violently towards women.

Some feminists assert that the abuse women suffer at the hands of men is simply part of the uneven distribution of power in society.They claim that, in spite of the social gains that women have made during the past two decades, genuine equality is still a distant goal. And, experts add, those changes have not really affected the underlying power structure in Canadian society.

Said Winston Baker, the minister responsible for women’s issues in the Newfoundland government: “A woman is being looked at as a chattel more than anything else.”

Other experts say that male violence is often triggered by a feeling of loss of control. David Currie, chief social worker in forensic services at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto, says that the violence often comes “from a guy who’s not all that sure of himself or his surroundings. His sense of himself is often weak.” As well, Currie said that, in many societies, children are taught that men should be strong and should not show emotion. Because of that, they do not develop proper outlets for their feelings. As a result, added Currie, “when the feelings build up to a certain level, the guy blows.”

Besides being exposed to physical violence, many women are victims of forms of psychological abuse, which experts say is much harder

to identify. According to Battered but Not Beaten, psychological violence can range from verbal threats to situations in which a man may force a woman to commit degrading acts or attempt to control her by means of physical confinement or by refusing to give her money. “We’re still only sensitive to the real overt kinds of violence,” said Jennifer Mercer, coordinator for the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women in Newfoundland and Labrador. “But that’s just one end of the continuum.”

Many battered women can escape violence only by leaving home. One who in fact ran away from six different homes is Jo-Anne Norman, whose recollections of abuse go back 24 years, to when she was a five-year-old living in Pembroke, Ont. Norman said that her father and

two of her four brothers regularly sexually and otherwise physically assaulted her. The second time she ran away, she met and moved in with a man who became the father of her son, who is now 11. Before long, he became physically abusive. “It was a control thing,” said Norman. “I did everything to please him because if I didn’t, I would have to go back to my dad.” Some critics say that women who are beaten by their male partners are often further victimized by the justice system itself. A study published in December by the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women said that police forces in the province routinely failed to lay charges against men involved in family violence. As well, men convicted of such

assaults frequently receive light sentences. In New Brunswick, more than half of 47 convicted wife assaulters in 1988 received fines of between $100 and $300 or a period of probation. Only 10 were jailed, for periods varying from 10 days to three months. Said Stacey Michener, a counsellor at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre: “Society is really unwilling to believe that men are capable of this kind of violence, so it blames the women. People in power are still primarily men.”

Still, feminists agree that legislative changes in recent years have begun to ensure fairer treatment for women in the legal process. In 1983, Ottawa took the lead by enacting changes to the Criminal Code that made it possible for a man to be charged with raping his own wife. Amendments to the Canada Evidence Act expanded the conditions under which a person can testify against a spouse to include episodes of domestic violence. At the same time, senior RCMP officials met with provincial officials to develop a national charging policy to encourage local police forces to investigate and lay charges in cases of domestic violence.

Violence: Many experts say that, as a result of those actions, and because of changing social attitudes, the approach of the police to wife-beating is changing. Family violence “used to be considered a private family matter, which the public, the police and the church condoned,” said Staff Sgt. Gary Dealy, co-ordinator of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Department’s Family Violence Initiatives program. “A man’s home was his castle,” he added, “but his castle has been knocked down.”

But experts say the real challenge is to find a way of preventing violence from occurring in the first place by altering deep-seated male attitudes. I In fact, there are signs that a growing number of men are beginning to carry I out a fundamental reappraisal of their H attitudes towards women. Indeed, I during the past 10 years, more than o 200 groups have been formed across "■ the country by men, many of whom are interested in supporting the goals of feminists. For attitudes towards women to change, said Anne-Marie Leger, director of Bryony House, a shelter for battered women in Halifax, “men must group together and say, ‘No more.’ ”

For her part, Carol Wambolt, director of Adsum House shelter in Halifax, said that the problem of violence against women will “remain until society takes a stand against it.” Many experts add that that will only happen when there is greater equality for men and women. Violence against women, they say, is a symptom of a more fundamental inequality, one that may take generations to correct.

NORA UNDERWOOD with correspondents’ reports