Domestic Violence at the Crossroads: Violence against Poor Women and Women of Color

By Sokoloff, Natalie J. | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Domestic Violence at the Crossroads: Violence against Poor Women and Women of Color


Sokoloff, Natalie J., Women's Studies Quarterly


Mainstream feminist theory argues that socially structured and culturally approved gender inequality is causative in understanding domestic violence.1 This approach was far superior to the earlier individual psychological arguments that pathologized battered women's experiences and blamed them for their own abuse. Too, it was an advance over the family systems approach, which ultimately pathologized either the individual (man or woman) or both partners.

But the intersectional or multicultural domestic violence approach challenges gender inequality as the primary factor explaining domestic violence: gender inequality is neither the most important nor the only factor that is needed to understand domestic violence in the lives of marginalized women. Gender inequality is only part of their marginalized and oppressed status. In fact, argues Bograd (1999), gender inequality is modified by its interesection with other systems of power and inequality that affect the lives of battered women. And one's experience as a battered woman is realized only in relation to other social locations or intersectionalities in society of race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and immigrant and disability status. As Bograd states: "Intersectionalities color the meaning and nature of domestic violence, how it is experienced by self and responded to by others; how personal and social consequences are reproduced, and how and whether escape and safety can be obtained" (p. 276) .2

In the multicultural domestic-violence literature, two sometimes conflicting objectives emerge: giving voice to battered women from diverse social locations and cultural backgrounds while still focusing on the structural inequalities (i.e., race, gender, class) that constrain and shape the lives of battered women, albeit in different ways. The first has been described as the "race/class/gender" perspective, whose focus is on multiple, interlocking oppressions of individuals and difference; the second has been described as the "structural" perspective, requiring analysis and criticism of existing systems of power, privilege, and access to resources (see Andersen & Collins, 2001; Mann & Grimes, 2001). My work honors both of these perspectives and demands both "difference" (including culture) and "structural inequality"-as well as culture-to understand the diverse experiences of battered women typically on the margins of U.S. society.

How a Multicultural or Intersectional Analysis Can Help to Understand Marginalized Women's Experiences of Domestic Violence Without Further Disempowering Them

For years we have heard that domestic violence cuts across all classes, races, and ethnic groups. To be sure, there is truth in this statement. Yet multicultural scholars challenge this uncritical view by arguing that poor women of color are the "most likely to be in both dangerous intimate relationships and dangerous social positions" (Richie, 2000, p. 1136). Beth Richie argues that the anti-domestic violence movement's avoidance of a race and class analysis oi violence against women "seriously compromises the transgressivc and transformative potential of the antiviolence movement's potential [to] radically critique various forms of social domination" (p. 1135). The failure to address the multiple oppressions of poor women of color jeopardizes the validity and legitimacy of the anti-domestic-violence movement.

One dilemma is the problem of how to report race and class differences in domestic violence prevalence rates. This literature indicates that there is tremendous diversity among women regarding the prevalence, nature, and impact of domestic violence-even within ethnic, racial, religious, socioeconomic groups, and sexual orientations (Hampton, Carillo, & Kim, 1998; West, 2004). Several studies indicate that Black women are severely abused (West, 2004) and murdered at significantly higher rates (Hampton et al., 1998; Websdale, 1997; West, 2004) than their representation in the population. …

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