A Tribute to Susan SchechterThe Visions and Struggles of the Battered Women’s Movement

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  336 Past and Present A Tribute to Susan Schechter The Visions and Struggles of theBattered Women’s Movement Fran S. Danis University of Missouri–Columbia The battered women’s movement lost a great leader and visionary when Susan Schechter diedof endrometrial cancer in 2004. Schechter’s legacy reminds advocates for battered women of how efforts to develop safe places for battered women began,the context of those times,howfar we have come,and how far we still have to go. Her pioneering work in the area of the over-lap between child maltreatment and adult domestic violence and services to children who areexposed to domestic violence has left the social work profession with a challenging agenda thatmust be met to create safety for all women and children.  Keywords: battered women’s movement; children exposed to domestic violence; domesticviolence; the Greenbook Initiative W hen Susan Schechter died on February 3,2004,of endometrial cancer,violenceagainst women activists from all over the country joined her family and friends inmourning her loss and celebrating her contributions. How does one add to the chorus of people and organizations who have already so passionately and eloquently expressed theprofound loss of this feminist social work activist? When first asked to write this tribute,Ithought about the people who worked directly with Susan and are perhaps more qualifiedthan I to talk about the impact of her life on the battered women’s movement and,moreimportant,on hundreds and thousands of abused women and children who have benefitedfrom her work. My experiences with Susan were limited to an exchange of e-mail mes-sages,meetings at conferences,her inscription in my copy of her landmark book,and myinsistence that people recognize the second “h”in the spelling of her last name. Despite mylimited personal involvement with her,this tribute is not an unbiased study of her body of work. This tribute is from a grateful admirer of her writings and her ability to think criti-cally about the responsibilities of the battered women’s movement to listen to the voices of abused women and their children and to be responsive to their needs.As a member of the vanguard of the battered women’s movement,Schechter was bothits historian and visionary,documenting the feminist roots of the antiviolence movement inher book, Women and Male Violence:The Visions and Struggles of the Battered Women’s Movement  (1982) and extolling advocates to do more. She helped establish the first domes-tic violence shelter in Chicago and then created AWAKE (Advocacy for Women and Kidsin Emergencies),the nation’s first domestic violence program in a children’s hospital inBoston. Her experiences in Boston solidified her resolve to bring the child protective anddomestic violence systems together to address the co-occurrence of child maltreatment anddomestic violence (Ganley & Schechter,1996; Schechter & Edleson,1995,1999). Her Affilia:Journal of Womenand Social Work Volume 21 Number 3Fall 2006 336-341© 2006 Sage Publications10.1177/0886109906288899http://aff.sagepub.comhosted athttp://online.sagepub.com Author’s Note: The author acknowledges the helpful feedback of Jeffrey Edleson on an earlier draft of this article.  Danis / Tribute to Susan Schechter337 most recent work investigated the intersections of domestic violence,early childhood edu-cation,and poverty (Schechter & Knitzer,2004).Along the way,Susanreceived her MSW from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Shewas appointed to the National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women by formerAttorney General Janet Reno and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human ServicesDonna Shalala,and she served on the board of the Family Violence Prevention Fund.Schechter was honored with a National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators’Leadership in Public Child Welfare Award. At the time of her death she held the position of clinical professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Iowa.Susan was particularly good at giving voice to the women,adolescents,and childrenwith whom she worked. It seems fitting to use this tribute as a way to share her voice withthe feminist social work community and to start with the story of the first days of the bat-tered women’s movement,filled with passion,purpose,and commitment,and ending witha glimpse into her vision for the future. Before the Battered Women’s Movement It is hard to believe that it was almost 25 years ago that Susan’s book was published. Itfeels like both a short and a long time ago. It is a long time because so much has beenaccomplished since then. And it seems like a blink of the eye because for those of us wholive the movement,it was just yesterday. What was life like for abused women who wereseeking help because of abusive partners before the battered women’s movement? Thepolice told women that they could not do anything unless their husbands and boyfriendsseverely injured them. Women who left abusive partners were denied welfare because theywere still legally married. Judges asked women,“What did you do to provoke him?”Clergytold women to try harder,pray harder. Clinical social workers considered the masochistictendencies of women and recommended marriage counseling for relationship problems.Physicians and nurses looked the other way and did not ask women how they got theirinjuries. Friends and family members told women,“Work it out. Figure out what pleaseshim and stick with it. After all,children need their fathers.”Although there are still places in this country where women who are abused are givenmany of the same messages,there is now widespread recognition that violence perpetratedby an intimate partner is unjust and inexcusable and has lasting physical and emotionalconsequences. The second wave of feminism of the 1960s and 1970s formed the basis forthe societal change that would make the founding of shelters and safe houses for batteredwomen a reality. Susan Schechter (1982) believed that it was the fundamental assertion of the feminist movement that “women had a right to control their own bodies and lives”(p. 29).In her reflection on her chapter in Violence Against Women:Classic Papers ,Susan (2005)stated, In deciding to write Women and Male Violence ,I hoped to tell a story about feminist,grass-roots organizing and about the hard work required to build organizations,change law andsocial policy,and at the same time sustain a social movement. I wanted to brag about and doc-ument the accomplishments but also describe the hard,complicated work almost invisibleunderneath our new buildings and laws. It felt urgent to preserve this untouted knowledge thatI could find nowhere. I also wanted to extend a feminist exploration of theories about violenceagainst women and open up debates about strategies,tactics,and future political directions.Even in 1980,I feared that the larger feminist spirit that guided the effort might slip away.  Through the book,I hoped to create a text,a living feminist reference point for the next gen-eration. During the 1980s and even sometimes today,I still hear that I succeeded. (p. 218) Susan captured the internal and external struggles that were involved in establishing safeplaces for battered women. Internally,our struggles included the struggle between creatingsocial services or vehicles for social change. Should our services mimic the mainstream,orshould we develop something new and different? We struggled not only with how best todeliver services but also with how best to develop our organizations. Even in 1980,whenSusan was writing her book,the struggle between grassroots collectives and hierarchicalprofessionalism had already been lost. Today,few shelter programs in this country are runaccording to a feminist collective model.Susan also feared that as shelters became more professionalized,the voices of batteredwomen would not be heard except in specifically defined situations. Sad to say,she wascorrect about that one as well. Today,the voices of battered women are often confined toone or two seats on a board of directors that are reserved for formerly battered women.Arbitrary rules about when former residents may be eligible for volunteering may be evenmore common.Shelters are a place where the intersectionality of gender,race,ethnicity,class,and lan-guage all come together. Susan recognized that shelters are unique congregate livingsituations in which women of diverse backgrounds live together. The internal struggles of shelter staff to help themselves and their residents overcome their own stereotypes of eachother continue to be with us. Although there are still shelter workers who may argue the“color-blind,we treat everyone the same”position,the battered women’s movement hasworked hard to give women of color,lesbians,and women with disabilities meaningfulvoices and opportunities for leadership. The recent reauthorization of the Violence AgainstWomen Act also continues to expand our focus on the needs of immigrant and refugeewomen.Although our internal struggles were many,the external struggles of the movement revolvedaround gaining credibility and legitimacy. Many programs traded their “radical”nature forprofessionalism and institutional formality. I have actually heard shelters referred to as “tra-ditional”domestic violence programs. The second big issue was the ambivalence of societalinstitutions,such as the criminal justice system,to get involved. After a few well-chosencourt cases,coupled with mandatory law-enforcement training and new criminal laws,law-enforcement agencies now brag about having a “coordinated community approach”to domes-ticviolence. However,in many communities,not all the players come to the table,and inmany rural communities,there is still widespread denial that domestic violence exists. Our Current Struggles We have added a few services that were not mentioned in Susan’s historic book.First,we have recognized that a small fraction of battered women come to shelters for ser-vices. Most domestic violence programs help more women at outreach centers and at courtand medical advocacy programs than they shelter in their facilities. School-based educa-tional programs and services that are targeted to both children who are exposed to domesticviolence and teenagers who are experiencing dating violence form the core prevention work.In recognition of the unwillingness of state,local,and federal governments to address thelack of affordable housing,shelters are building their own transitional housing complexes. 338Affilia:Journal of Women and Social Work   Personnel at mental health clinics no longer ask about the masochistic tendencies of batteredwomen—they now talk about trauma (although they still seem reluctant to acknowledgepublicly where most traumas srcinate)—and we are finally recognizing that to createsafety for women,we must create safe men. The role of men in the movement has beenexpanded from doing repairs around the shelter to repairing the misguided notions of whatit means to be a man in our society. We have alsobecome better at recognizing the role of poverty in keeping women in abusive relationships. Domestic violence programs and statecoalitions have a better understanding that cuts in child care and welfare programs aredirect assaults on the economic survival of women who have been abused.All these accomplishments are not without their share of unintended consequences. Oneof the most potentially damaging unintended consequences has been the reaction of somechild protection programs to learning about the effects of children’s exposure to batterers’violence and oppression. Although advocates for battered women wanted the world toknow that homes in which children were exposed to violence were not healthy environ-ments in which to raise children,they did not foresee the difficulty in changing such prac-tices. In some cases,this information was used by institutions to assault women further bycalling into question their ability to be good mothers. Some child protection agencies beganusing the adverse effects of exposure to domestic violence as justification for removingchildren from their homes even if the children were not the targets of the violence. In situ-ations in which child abuse and adult domestic violence overlapped,some battered womenwere labeled “passive abusers”and were successfully prosecuted for the abuse of their childreneven if they did not personally assault the children and felt powerless to stop the abusersfrom hurting the children. Women often described impossible choices of saving one childat the expense of the lives of their other children and themselves.Susan,along with Jeff Edleson,had the courage to wade into the contentious relationshipbetween the domestic violence and child abuse systems to help each identify new ways of col-laborating to keep both mothers and their children safe while holding abusers accountable fortheir violence (Schechter & Edleson,1995). The guiding principles and recommendations of this work,undertaken on behalf of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judgesand referred to as “the Greenbook,”is a model for multiagency coordination and representsone of the most important contributions of a social work perspective to the movement(Schechter & Edleson,1999). Unlike other models that collect dust on a bookshelf,theGreenbook Initiative is tracking the outcomes of the implementation of these recommenda-tions across six county demonstration sites throughout the United States (National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges,Family Violence Department,2006). A Vision for the Future of the Movement At the time of her death at age 57,Susan’s vision for the future of the battered women’smovement continued to be centered on the needs of children for the emotional and physi-cal support of mothers who are free to keep their children safe and secure. Building on thesuccess of the Greenbook Initiative,she focused on creating collaborations among domes-tic violence programs and agencies and organizations that address child welfare,earlychildhood education,and poverty. Strengthening the focus on early intervention for young vulnerable children and their familiesis especially critical because,in the absence of specific attention to early intervention services, Danis / Tribute to Susan Schechter339  community providers are more likely to believe that their only alterative,and/or obligation,isto refer a family experiencing domestic violence to Child Protective Services (CPS) or to thepolice. Such referrals become the default option. CPS certainly has an important role to playfor those children at serious risk of harm. If Child Protective Services,however,is the onlyassistance available,many families will avoid seeking services,fearful that their disclosure of violence will lead to the removal of the children. (Schechter & Knitzer,2004,p. 9)We need a public policy agenda on domestic violence and poverty. Our common public policyagenda must articulate that battered women—whether they stay in their relationships or leavethem—should have access to housing,jobs,and economic supports for their families. Thesebenefits and supports will remove barriers that keep many women trapped in abusive relation-ships. These resources also will help battered women who stay. A job,decent housing,andchild care might make a woman’s life more bearable. A job for her partner might make himless violent and thereby help her....Housing and economic justice advocacy will be short-sighted if it tries to help only the “good”battered women who leave. All people deserve therelief that good jobs,public benefits,and decent housing bring. (Schechter,2000,p. 10) Susan’s vision of the future also revolved around helping domestic violence programsbuild stronger,better collaborations with other organizations. Concerned that the batteredwomen’s movement was overly concerned with protecting its own turf,she said,in a speechto domestic violence service providers,the following: We want a world in which,wherever a battered woman goes,someone is prepared to help....Atthe state level,appreciate that there are now professional associations that want to help,that wanttheir members to do something. Work with them. Develop a cadre of doctors,nurses,and socialworkers who want to educate and develop policy with their peers. Let them speak for us. We haveto admit that we don’t know their work like they do—let them train their colleagues. We wouldnever let them tell us what to do—what right do we insist that they have to do it our way?...We no longer have to feel like outsiders with enemies at our gates. We have changed theworld. That is our great gift and our victory. Now we have to catch up to the world that we havecreated. (Schechter,1999,pp. 11-12,14) A Challenge to the Social Work Community Social workers have a particularly important role to play in carrying out Susan’svision of safety and economic security for all families. As a profession,we can and mustdo more to join with the battered women’s movement to develop well-thought-out socialand institutional policies and programs that seek to prevent abuse. Social workers in thechild- and family-serving fields of practice,such as child abuse and neglect,school socialwork,and early childhood intervention,must learn about the complexities of domestic vio-lence,its effects on women and children,and strategies for increasing safety,security,andresilience. Social work educators must also prepare future professionals for the cross-cutting issue of domestic violence. One guest lecture is not enough. Social workers needgood clinical skills,but they must also be good collaborators,organizers,and advocates.Who better to bring all the different fields together to discuss safety and economic securitythan professional social workers working as allies with leaders from the battered women’smovement?It is hard to write an ending to this tribute to Susan. Two years after her death,we stillmourn her,we still wish we could hear her voice,read her words,and wonder where she 340Affilia:Journal of Women and Social Work 
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