Cultural Ascriptions Displayed by Restraining Order Court Representatives: Implicating Patriarchy and Cultural Dominance

Article excerpt

This qualitative study analyzes cultural ascriptions about women plaintiffs that emerged in interview responses from court representatives in the context of a Restraining Order courtroom in a Midwestern city. The judges, attorneys and court advocates' responses categorized women plaintiffs through individual and intersecting group ascriptions related to sex, race, ethnicity, and class. The cultural ascriptions displayed by court representatives implicate systems of patriarchy and cultural dominance at work in the Restraining Order Courtroom.

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Violence against women is the most pervasive human rights abuse today (Johnson, 1998), and domestic violence has historically been a hidden social problem in the U.S. and throughout the world (Grana, 2002). The overwhelming majority of cases in the U.S. involve female survivors of domestic violence who are battered by intimate male partners (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1997), and domestic violence is "recognized as the consequence of specific, gendered power relations that both discursively and nondiscursively situate women as 'other' and marginalized" (Mumby, 1997, p. 22). One part of a safety plan for a survivor of domestic violence is the legal option of filing for a Restraining Order against a perpetrator.

The Restraining Order (RO) courtroom is a legal institution in which women seek Temporary and Permanent Restraining Orders, legally binding documents barring a defendant from harassing, molesting, stalking, or contacting a plaintiff in any manner. Pursuing a Restraining Order can be a challenging as well as risk-taking activity for many women plaintiffs (Myers, 2002). It takes much courage for women to publicly communicate about their personal lives (Campbell, 1989) especially when women's and men's versions of accounts vastly differ (Houston & Kramarae, 1991).

The courtroom system is designed with the intention of protecting the appearance at least of fair procedures for all who seek justice ensured through particular roles such as judges and attorneys exercising their authority and higher status to interpret the law, enforce procedures, and represent plaintiffs and defendants. Judges and attorneys monitor, interrupt, or encourage testimony; sanction violations of courtroom norms; make public judgments about plaintiffs and defendants and their conduct; provide or limit access to resources; and ultimately decide or influence the outcome of the court hearing. Hence, courtroom representatives' views of women plaintiffs are critical to how they interact with, and make vital decisions about safety plans for women.

Higher status individuals in public settings may relate to others of lower status through the use of cultural ascriptions, oversimplified and overgeneralized group categorizations that reproduce patriarchy and cultural dominance (van Dijk, 1993). How the participants in the Restraining Order courtroom implicate patriarchy, exercise privilege, and reinforce dominant cultural ideologies in their discourse warrants attention from communication scholars. Research centralizing issues about women is crucial "to demonstrate how patriarchal power has been enacted and sustained in organizing contexts that marginalize women's interests" (Townsley, 2003, p. 620). Consequently, in this study we want to better understand and critique the ways in which courtroom representatives (judges, attorneys, and advocates) view cultural group identifications of women plaintiffs in the Restraining Order court context, and how patriarchy and ideologies of privilege are implicated in their discourse.

In order to engage feminist and critical perspectives relevant to this project, we examined the forms of the cultural group categorizations that emerged in interview discourse from several judges, attorneys, and advocates to identify and critique underlying dominant ideologies and patriarchy implicated via cultural ascriptions of women plaintiffs. …