Violence against women: What is — and is not — different this time

June 5, 2014

The 25-year-old gunman entered the crowded classroom early that morning, armed with a rifle and a hunting knife. Before the 60 students could really register what was happening, he’d ordered the men to leave, then opened fire on the women, shouting, “You’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!” By the time he turned the gun on himself, he’d left 14 dead and 10 more injured.

This wasn’t the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014, but rather the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal 25 years earlier. The shooter wasn’t Elliot Rodger, who felt spurned romantically by women, but Marc Lepine, who had been rejected from the engineering school and believed women had taken his rightful place. “I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker,” Lepine’s suicide note read.

Over the past weeks and months, the national conversation has regularly and urgently turned to violence against women — violence in classrooms, in dorm rooms, in the U.S., and around the world. There was the kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian girls from their school, the announcement that 55 American colleges were under investigation for mishandling allegations of sexual assault, and the rampage in Isla Vista by a shooter who left behind a misogynist manifesto. 

With each new outrage, the online world has lit up with the same dual-threaded response. First, a wondering about how things have gone so terribly wrong. As Richard Martinez said at the memorial service for the UCSB victims, including his 20-year-old son Christopher: “How many more people are going to have to die in this situation before the problem gets solved? Any of us who grew up in the ’50s, ’60s know that life doesn’t have to be like this,” he said, speaking of gun violence in general. “Why should it be like this for you people who are young now?” 

A second, entwined, response to the cascade of recent events has been to proclaim that perhaps this time things will finally change. Maybe the spotlight on the kidnappings in Chibok, or the report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, or the six dead in Isla Vista will do what so many other incidents have not. As Sophia Kercher, a UCSB alum, wrote in Salon, of another infamous day on that campus — the day in 2001 when a freshman named David Attias ran down a swath of pedestrians with his black Saab, also out of a frustration with women: “There are so many that we have started to tune them out. It’s natural to try and forget; biologically our brains repress hurtful memories. But perhaps a tide has turned. Perhaps we will not forget this one.”

These two reactions raise two sets of questions. First, are things different now? Are men more violent, women more vulnerable, society more likely to accept both those things? Is Martinez right? Are these horrors that were unimaginable in some better, safer, more civil past?

The stories of Lepine and Attias — and the murders of 13 women by the Boston Strangler in the early ’60s, and eight nurses by Richard Speck in 1966, and, for that matter, the rampage of Jack the Ripper in the 1880s — suggest not. The nationwide Take Back the Night marches of the 1970s and ’80s make it clear that campus sexual assault is not a symptom of this decade. And it goes almost without saying that women and girls have been vulnerable in Nigeria and around the world for generations. 

 “I certainly don’t think that the kind of violence or the amount of violence or the particular nature of violence is all that different from what we have seen before, and over and over again,” says Geneva Overholser, who, as editor of the Des Moines Register, challenged the practice of withholding rape victims’ names in 1989, because, she said, it magnified the stigma. On her watch the Register won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for a series on the effect of a rape on one — named — woman. “Violence against women has, alas, been constant and recurring and drearily predictable.”

Yes, Overholser and other women of earlier eras say, this indeed looks to them like yet another “moment” in the history of violence against women. There have been many moments — times when events align with zeitgeist and focus public attention. These, too, are predictable. Each generation rediscovers the outrage when it becomes personal, when a tragedy is so atrocious as to awaken it anew. Generalities are thrown around, about how society has sunk to a new low and how the cause can be found in the particulars of the times, but it feels brand new. “This latest attack has started a national conversation on violence … from a new generation of women,” Joetta L. Carr, a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Western Michigan University, who wrote the “Campus Violence White Paper” for the American College Health Association in 2005, said in an email interview. 

But while the coalescing events of recent weeks and months may not be new, they are different, agree those who have been confronting the violence against women for decades. Mostly that is because the cultural backdrop has changed. Some of the differences are ones that seem to amp up the violence — more violent video games, more guns — while others have worked to dial it down. Incidents of domestic abuse and battering have decreased 64 percent between 1994, after the Violence Against Women Act was passed, and 2004, notes Esta Soler, president of Futures Without Violence, and one of the early advocates for that legislation.

That in turn has allowed the spotlight to move to college campuses, agrees Bonnie Campbell, appointed to lead the first Office on Violence Against Women by President Bill Clinton that was created by the VAWA. “As progress is made in one area, it allows us to focus attention on others,” she says.

Also different in 2014 is the reach of and response to catalyzing news. The “December 6 Massacre” in Montreal was covered heavily in parts of Canada, but not many other places, and certainly not the way it would be in today’s 24/7 news cycle. The women on the Ecole Polytechnique campus, in fact the women of Montreal as a whole, responded to the attacks by turning inward, says Melissa Blais, a sociology graduate student at the University of Quebec in Montreal, who has written extensively about the killings. Leaders of Canada’s burgeoning feminist movement, she has said, “chose to be silent to avoid further attack.” There were certainly no national vigils, and obviously no hashtags. No #yesallwomen. No #bringbackourgirls. No #notonemore.

Which leads to the second question: Will all this difference bring real change? Most of the leaders interviewed for this article thought not, at least not in the dramatic “finally THIS will be the one” declarations that follow these events. “Change happens, but it is incremental,” says Campbell. “We’ve been down all these roads before. Maybe we learn a little each time.”

Some, though, hold out hope. “I do think miracles happen,” says Overholser. “Lord knows we all knew that sexual harassment was commonplace, then came Anita Hill and it did become a tipping point.” Look at Stonewall and its transformation of the gay rights movement, she says, or the way the O.J. Simpson trial paved the way for the passage of VAWA in the first place.

“There can be tipping points,” she says. “Maybe this will turn out that way.” 

  • Society & Culture
  • Cultural Groups
  • violence against women
  • Marc Lepine
  • Geneva Overholser

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