This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Marie Fortune at the “First National Conference on Battered Women and Justice” in 1988. Rev. Fortune is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and founder and Executive director for the Prevention of Sexual and domestic Violence in Seattle, Washington.
A Feminist Vision of Justice
Alice Walker begins her book, The Color Purple, with this: “You better not tell nobodybut God. It’d kill your mammy.” So Celieproceeds to tell God the truth about her life. In her first letter to God, Celiedescribes the rape by her stepfather. When she cries out in pain, her stepfather chokes her and says, “You’d better shut up and get used to it.” Celie writes, “But I don’t never get used to it.” We are here because we don’t never get used to it. We never get used to the injustice of woman abuse. We never get used to the injustice of woman abuse. We never get used to it because we know it is wrong. We know it is a sin, if you will. Woman abuse is wrong because it violates the right relation between what should exist between a woman and her partner and her community. “Right relation” means a relationship based on trust, respect, safety, mutuality of power, and protection of those who are vulnerable. The injustice of woman battering is the
brokenness done to the body and spirit, and to relationships.
Justice is understood as what is right, fair and deserved. It refers to the healing of brokenness and assurance of protection from this violence in the future. Justice is made when the victim feels empowered and whole again, when the situation has been made right, and when her well-being is assured. Justice is made when the offender also has been made whole by being called into account for the damage that he has caused, acknowledging his responsibility for it, and changing his behavior so that it is never repeated. Justice is not a word that we use comfortably. It is a word which seems to have lost its meaning, and so we seldom use it. Perhaps our hope of achieving what is fair and right and deserved for those who have historically been denied it has waned. In our cynicism, we no longer even envision justice as a possibility, or we have passed justice-making on to the justice system. If it does not happen there—and it frequently does not—it will not happen at all. Yet we long for justice. In our anger at what we see being done to women. In our own experiences of violence. In our frustration at working with the woman who wants to “forgive and forget.” In our despair at working with a woman of color who is unwilling to use the legal system because it has never protected her before. In our feelings of powerlessness when we see batterers go from one abusive relationship to the next. In all of these
situations, we long for justice. But it is a longing unfulfilled—a vision which we come to accept as impossible. It is in the midst of these feelings that I am convinced that we actually long for healing, for restoration, for reconciliation. We use words like “justice” or “forgiveness” in hopes that these are the means to accomplish that which we long for. We long for this healing from very depths of our being, not expecting that everything is going to be made fine again, or just like it was before, but that it will be made right in some way—that the brokenness which resulted from the acts of abuse will be made whole somehow. This is what we long for whether we are victim, friend, helper, or abuser. We long to be made whole again. We long for justice. Most of us here do what we do out of our longing for justice. In describing justice-making today, I will not be telling you anything inside and outside the legal and criminal justice systems because our intuitions about justice have been right. I want to describe, ethically, what we already about making justice. The imperative to make justice from a feminist perspective is based on five assumptions: First, embodiment is a crucial fact of our existence and requires that we take violation of bodily integrity seriously. In other words, our bodies matter and what is done to them matters a great deal. Second, our relationships between and among one another are very important.
Third, people can and should act in the face of injustice, rather than remain passive and silent. Fourth, we must begin with the lived experience of women. Fifth, we must take the side of the powerless and victimized; in this case, battered women. So what does this mean to a victim of abuse? It means that he truth of her abuse is important because it violates bodily integrity and because it shatters any relationship she might have had with the offender and with her community. It means that she AND we can act in response to her abuse. It means that whatever we do begins with her experience and that our job is to take her side and stand by her throughout the process of justicemaking. The goal of justice-making is the restoration of right relationship, whether between the woman and her community, her family or her offender. What is required to make justice? What does it look like to try to restore right relation? I think there is a long list of things that we do and that we can do. The most important one is truth-telling. The silence which surrounds the violence is broken. Truth-telling is not merely a rendering of facts; it is giving voice to a reality. But the truth told also must be a truth heard or it is of no use. Hearing the truth means acknowledging that the violence has occurred. This acknowledgement needs to be spoken simply and clearly: “You have been harmed by this person. It was not your fault. It was wrong. It should never
have happened. We regret that it happened to you. We will do all we can to protect you in the future.” These very simple words mean a great deal to a person who has been victimized. This acknowledgement can come from a friend, from a pastor, from a family member and from the legal system. But it needs to come from somewhere. Compassion is the willingness to suffer with, combined with efforts to alleviate the suffering. Rather than trying to minimize, explain away, or avoid the suffering of others, we need to be present with them. Protecting the vulnerable from further abuse means that we do whatever is necessary to protect the victim and other from further harm. This may mean restraint of an offender prior to and after conviction, or it may mean helping the battered woman change her identity and move to another state. Accountability is the confrontation with the offender, the one responsible for the violence, which hopefully results in his confession and acknowledgment of his responsibility for the harm done. Willard Gaylin, in his book, The Killing of Bonnie Garland, expresses it this way: “…those of us who transgress adequately for our crimes, we are being treated as less than persons…As a tribute and a testament to the aggressor’s freedom, we must dignify him by making him pay for the evil actions he commits. We show our respect by making him accountable.” Restitution, making payment for damage done by the violence, is a concrete means of renewing right relation. Not only does material restitution help pay
for actual expenses incurred as a result of the victimization, but it is also highly symbolic. It’s a tangible sign of an attempt to restore that which was broken by the violence. Finally, vindication for victims is the substance of justice. Vindication refers not to vengeance and retaliation, but to exoneration and justification of those harmed. To be vindicated is to be set free from the bondage of victimization. What happens when there is no justice for the abused woman, no support for her protection, no one to stop the abuser? In the absence of justice for an abused woman, she may choose to use physical force to defend herself. She may choose her life over his. The number of women defendants who have assaulted or killed an abuser are simply an indictment of the failure of the failure of the community—not just the legal system—to have made justice for them. Given the current reality of this failure, what are the ethical issues which a feminist analysis raises around the question of self-defense? Whenever any of us kills another human being, we should be called into account for our actions. But any person should have the moral and legal right to defend themselves in the face of physical threat or terror. Self-defense is the accounting we give when we choose to take a life rather than be killed ourselves. Self-defense is gender neutral. Any person, male or female, should have that right. But within that, we must pay attention to the specificity of women’sexperience when we choose to defend
ourselves against male violence. We need to utilize information about battered women in order to explain and justify an act of self-defense. We need to use a standard of judgment which takes account of women’s experience: What should a reasonable woman do in this situation to protect herself and her children? We need to understand a context that there analogous to that of a hostage held by a terrorist, in which a pre-emptive strike may be the only reasonable course of action. In beginning to address some of these issues, we are working to make justice for battered women who kill and thus face the further injustice of the legal system and the community which tries to shame her. The reality is that here are some major blocks to justice-making in our society, as we all know. One of the primary blocks to justice for all women is the serious distortion of our experience which comes to us from many directions, but particularly comes to us through the media. There is a deep, primal fear of women’s violence—of women using self-defense in response to our victimization. It accompanies an equally strong desire not to see the truth of violence against women in our society. Because of this distortion of our reality, justice is hard to come by. A second factor which makes justice a rarity is the adversarial nature of our legal system. In my naivete, I used to believe that the police and the courts and the judges were supposed to protect the powerless; in this case, battered women and their children. Imagine my surprise when I began to
understand patriarchy. I began understand why our reality, as women, is so distorted and why the system was never intended to protect us. The bottom line is that we can and must struggle to change the system in order to lessen the damage it does to women. But as long as we live in the patriarch, the justice we make will only be approximate. Approximate justice is well our efforts because it lessens our suffering. But it will never be all that we deserve. We are like the persistent widow in the parable that Jesus told: “…in a certain city was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded the people; and there was a woman in that city who kept coming to him and saying’ Vindicate me against my adversary’. For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor regard the people, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.’ And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate the elect, who cry to God day and night? Will God delay long over them? I tell you God will vindicate them speedily.’” (Luke 18:1-8) You bet she will. She holds out for us a vision of a justice that is life-giving, that enables restoration, which creates the possibilityof reconciliation and renewal of right relationship. This is the justice that creates the possibility of reconciliation and renewal of right relationship. This is the justice that we must demand from our churches and synagogues, from
our legal system, from our family, and from our friends. Is such justice possible? You bet it is, because we are making it possible. We make it possible because, like Celiein The Color Purple, we never get used to the violence, and because we never let go of the anger we feel when we see or hear about, or experience violence against women. Such justice is possible because we are making it possible. We make it possible when we make safe places for women to tell the truth about their experience. We make it possible when we hear and acknowledge the truth. We make it possible when we stand with her in compassion as her advocate. We make it possible when we protect the vulnerable from further abuse. wemake it possible when we call abusers to account for their actions. We make it possible when we require that restitution be made to battered women and their children. We make it possible when we vindicate a battered woman speedily, removing the shame which society has laid upon her. We make it possible because, to paraphrase our sister Andrea Dworkin, in our hearts we are mourners for all those who have not survived. In our lives we are both celebrant and proof of women’s capacity and will to survive, to become, toact, to change self and society. And each year we are stronger and there are more of us. Thank God.