Carol A. Hand
Recently, I have been reflecting on the issues affecting women. As someone who has survived physical abuse, sexual assaults, and rape as a child and young woman, it’s obvious that my status as a woman in the US has influenced my life in profound ways. Yet the violence of these experiences has not broken my spirit – it has only made me stronger and more determined to speak out about all types of oppression. The fear of censure for speaking out doesn’t frighten me. I have survived being called me a “bitch” and a “whore” for quietly but tenaciously standing my ground . But I can’t ignore the certainty that my spirit would wither if I remain silent when witnessing injustice.
As Hemingway (a white man) observed – “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
Yes, my experiences have taught me to read people’s character and put up boundaries, but I still deeply grieve as I witness the violence women endure. A recent photo of the view from my back door was one of the inspirations for writing about women’s issues today.
Photo Credit: The View from My Backdoor – August 28, 2014
From my perspective, this photo is not about an unmowed, garbage-strewn lawn. I didn’t mind seeing the tops of the flowers bending under the weight of the hundreds of bees that were feeding on the blossoms. Still, the state of the yard reminded me of a mother’s tears as she told me that she felt so alone. Escaping from an abusive husband has meant that she not only has to bear the responsibility of raising children with serious emotional scars, hers and her children’s, she must also deal with the added burdens imposed by an oppressive legal system that has locked them all into ongoing trauma. Her three children, aged 5 to 15, spend alternate weeks with her and their father, a father with a history of emotionally abusing them. Who could possibly believe that awarding joint custody in a situation like this is a wise or humane way to deal with children? Certainly not someone who has willingly carried and given birth to a child.
Photo Credit: Card by One World-One Race – Bend, Oregon
As a mother myself, I know that the point of greatest vulnerability for me is through my daughter and grandchildren. Surviving abuse and assaults has given me the strength to endure and heal from my own physical and emotional trauma, but it has also made me acutely aware of my need to protect my daughter and grandchildren from harm if I can. In my role as a parent or grandparent, I know I am willing to do whatever I can to buffer them. I have no illusions about being a pacifist in that situation. Although I can’t know how other mothers feel when they are forced to watch their children be shuttled to an unpredictable and unsafe setting every other week, I can imagine how deeply the unrelenting pain and sense of hopelessness would cut through my heart.
The plight of my newest neighbor is eerily similar to that of the neighbor she replaced. Also a victim of domestic violence, my former neighbor not only had to deal with the same 50/50 custody decision, she was also harassed by child welfare and police based solely on the (fallacious) accusations of her former husband despite clear evidence of his history of abuse and vindictive tendencies. For both mothers, the children’s bi-weekly stays are fraught with possible exposure to ongoing violence. The houses are close and the backyard without fences. Through the open windows of summer, there’s no way to avoid hearing children yelling, hitting their mother, or crying next door.
I wish I knew how to help. The best I could think of today was to do some internet research on child custody. Although women’s studies was not something I focused on during my education or career, I remembered reading about the backlash of father’s groups to the increasing enforcement of court-determined child support obligations imposed on noncustodial parents, the majority of whom are fathers. This is but one of the many ways women’s struggle for gender equality in the United States has been impeded.
“While American backlashes [against] women can be traced to colonial times, the style of backlash that surfaced in the last decade has its roots most firmly in the last decade…. If we retrace the course of women’s rights back to the Victorian era, we wind up with a spiral that has made four revolutions. A struggle for women’s rights gained force in the mid-19th century, the early 1900s, the early 1940s, and the early 1970s. In each case, the struggle yielded to backlash.” (Susan Faludi, 2006, p. 63)
The dimensions that were most threatening to the patriarchy remained women’s ability to control their own money and their own reproductive decisions. Women made gains in economic, political, and reproductive rights during four pivotal eras: the mid-19th century, the Progressive Era (early 1900s), the World War II years (early 1940s), and the Civil Rights era (early 1970s). Each step forward was met by stiff resistance. Mid-19th century gains that allowed middle-class or wealthier Euro-American women to postpone childbearing years were met with accusations of “race suicide” by religious and political leaders. Women’s successful unionizing resulted in “red-baiting,” characterizing women labor organizers as communists. In 1914, Margaret Sanger began publishing a newsletter to raise awareness about contraception and was forced to flee the U.S. when her actions were criminalized. When she returned two years later to open the first women’s birth control clinic, she again faced challenges from the legal system. In 1920, as women finally gained the right to vote, the Miss America pageant was started, belittling respect for women as equal partners in the nation. Women’s efforts as competent and enthusiastic workers in high-paying positions during the war years of the 1940s proved that they were valuable assets to the paid labor force, yet when the war ended, industry, government, and the media joined forces to put women back in their place. “The 50s backlash didn’t transform women into full-time ‘happy housewives’; it just demoted them to poorly paid secretaries” (Faludi, p. 69).
Photo Credit: Peace Woman Watch
All of these dimensions of oppression continue to affect women’s lives today, yet for my neighbors, the most relevant gains and backlash occurred as a result of new federal child support enforcement legislation. Historically, child support legislation only focused on enforcing financial support for children whose parents who were connected to federal welfare programs (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, and Food Stamps)(U.S. House of Representatives ). It was a way to offset state budget expenditures. In 1981, child support agencies were granted permission to collect spousal support on behalf of custodial parents who were not on welfare, and in 1984, agencies were “required to petition for medical support as part of most child support orders” (Almanac of Policy Issues, 2000, para. 3). As states became more aggressive in their efforts to use the avenues open to them to collect child support for non-welfare families, resistance from economically advantaged fathers grew.
“The so-called fathers’ rights or men’s rights movement began as a backlash against what some fathers perceived as unfair sole custody awards to mothers and the assignment of child support responsibilities to non-custodial dads. Additionally, the expansion of shelters, social services and legal aid for battered women, together with better job opportunities for women, made escape from a violent marriage easier for women, enabling many to obtain a divorce and seek custody of minor children. As with other major societal revolutions, gains made by the feminist movement and women’s bid for equality prompted a backlash by men who felt threatened by changing roles.
“Certain social developments are credited with fueling the growth of fathers’ custody advocacy groups. One key development was stronger government enforcement of child support orders, beginning in the late 1980s. State enforcement programs pursued parents who were negligent in paying child support, issuing orders to garnish wages or taking other actions to assure support payments. Prior to stronger enforcement efforts, many families headed by mothers barely survived when fathers failed to pay child support over many years. When child support orders were more widely enforced and when payments began to be ordered through the courts or other government programs, some fathers objected and found a way to avoid these payments. Their solution: switch custody of minor children from the mother to the father.
“Summaries of more than 150 studies of child custody cases in numerous states compiled by the Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence reveal that over several decades an alarming trend has emerged. That is, for cases in which child custody is challenged, it is often the father who is ultimately given sole or joint custody of children – including cases where there is evidence of domestic violence and child abuse. The Leadership Council list, Are “Good Enough” Parents Losing Custody to Abusive Ex-Partners?”, includes studies that find fathers are awarded sole custody even though they were not involved in child care activities prior to divorce. In many cases, the accusation by the father of the mother alienating the child(ren) figured in courts awarding the custody to the father.
“The Push for Joint Custody: The fathers’ custody activists claim that both legal and physical joint custody is in the best interest of the child. But it is no coincidence that joint custody drastically reduces the father’s child support payments and other financial obligations (health insurance, day care, etc.). Efforts to make joint custody presumptive by state statute are ongoing around the country for this very reason. In reality, after joint custody is agreed to or ordered by the court, many mothers often have the child or children most of the time, while the reduced child support payment from the father negatively impacts the mother’s ability to support the child or children. Additionally, in many families where the parents are married, time spent with and provision of daily care of the children are not evenly shared by the two parents while they are together. There is no reason to impose a presumption of joint legal and physical custody on families when they have not previously chosen this arrangement for themselves.
“Many women agree to joint custody for fear they will lose custody completely. Threats are often made to mothers that if they don’t agree to joint custody; the father will push to obtain sole custody resulting in the mother having little or no time with the children. As mentioned above in the parental alienation syndrome discussion, it is far too common for loving, protective mothers to lose custody and to even be subject to supervised visitation or no visitation, after trusting in the court system to fairly address custody of their children. So, while it may be a matter of money for many fathers in contested custody cases, it is undoubtedly a matter of love for and protection of the children for the mothers.” (NOW Family Law Ad Hoc Advisory Committee, 2012, pp. 3-4)
My two neighbors were especially vulnerable to the abusive adversarial judicial system because they love their children. They sacrificed their comfort and safety in order to remain a part of their children’s lives. The minimal financial support they were awarded sent both back to school to complete health care degrees. Meanwhile they worked double and triple shifts on the weeks their children spent with their fathers in order to be both nurturers and breadwinners. How can anyone find fault with a neighbor who can’t mow her lawn or pick up the trash from skunk-toppled garbage containers because she worked 88 hours that week? More importantly, how can anyone fail to find fault with the economic, political, judicial and social welfare systems that place women and children in such a precarious position in the first place?
I did develop a friendship with my last neighbor and was able to provide support and encouragement, and of course garden produce, during the most difficult times. I also earned enough trust from her son to be asked to babysit for his beloved pet lizard. But trust takes time to build, and it may not be possible with my newest neighbor given time, work schedules and family dynamics. Although she is alone dealing with her own particular family challenges, she is among thousands of mothers who are dealing with similar situations right now in the United States. Sadly, most don’t have access to the healing power of traditions and ceremonies that honor women’s strengths and life-giving gift.
I thought of my neighbors as I stood in a circle of women during a Grandmother Moon ceremony. Like my neighbors, each woman in the circle carried scars from past trauma, yet each stood in beauty with her commitment to healing and life.
Photo Credit: Sacred Circle Wisdom
Honoring women and children is the hallmark of cultures that honor life.
Almanac of Policy Issues (2000). Child Support Enforcement Program.
Susan Faludi (2006). Backlash: The undeclared war against American women, (15th anniversary edition). New York City, NY: Three River Press.
National Organization for Women Family Law Ad Hoc Committee (2012, Fall). Fall 2012 Newsletter – Special Report.
U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee (2012). Legislative history. Green Book.
Copyright Notice: Carol A. Hand, Cheryl A. Bates, and carolahand, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand, Cheryl A. Bates, and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.