It was the sort of violence that few people reported or even talked about but that millions of individuals experienced: the battering and abusive treatment by a spouse or partner. Survivors were terrified to speak out and hesitated to call police – at least, not until they realized that they could possibly be killed. Though we have made great strides in recent decades with efforts to protect victims and their children — the threats, battering, choking, raping, stalking, and killing continues. There were few reliable national statistics that would show the prevalence of domestic violence at the time but battered women’s advocates believed that intimate partner violence was prevalent.  

Since then, mandated data gathering has proven them correct. Of course, the United States is not alone among nations in confronting interpersonal violence, it is one of many horrendous types of violence aimed primarily at women around the globe and at rates that greatly outpace our own.  

 Domestic violence has existed for millennia mostly targeting women, but also a fair share of men and among LGBTQIA+ partners experience interpersonal violence. Wife beating was protected under law in early Roman times as wives were viewed as property of their husbands, a practice that was carried forward for hundreds of years, adopted in British Common Law and later expressed in the laws of the American colonies and then the new democracy of the United States. 

Fortunately, the Temperance, Social Purity and Suffrage movements of the last half of the 1800s and early Twentieth Century shined a light on the plight of battered women. Violence was blamed on a husband’s excessive drinking in which the family was put at risk from drunken rages and squandered paychecks.  The conviction that women’s influence was vital to address such social problems and could be best aided by having the vote began to grow. 

But it wasn’t until the advent of the modern feminist movement in the 1950s and 1960s encouraging activists to publicly discuss domestic violence and call for measures to protect women that awareness began to spread. At the time, most people assumed that spouse battering was rare – so few survivors spoke out publicly.  Battered wives sought help from ministers and priests but were to be better wives, be more obedient or just pray for their husbands to stop beating them. Many just suffered alone, sometimes telling family members and close friends. Some were murdered. 

NOW Activists Helped Establish Shelters 

Not to be forgotten is the important fact of modern feminist history that the National Organization for Women was THE main organization that formed in the late 1960s to advocate women’s equal rights. NOW was frequently in the headlines through the 1970s with marches, litigation, public statements by leaders. Not only did we win many battles, these successes showed women we could win. NOW activists exposed many injustices in the early days by marching, lobbying, demonstrating, suing and making noisy news about our work to advance women’s rights. 

The history of efforts to end domestic violence and sexual assault begins where many of our campaigns have started: at the grass roots. Survivors of violence, joined by NOW members (some of whom were also victims), took it upon themselves to establish modest local programs for other survivors and their children who desperately needed to escape from their abusers. The first shelter for battered women in Pasadena, California in 1964, known as Haven House, was sponsored by Al-Anon. As a grassroots movement these efforts spread quickly across the country, growing to over 250 shelters by 1979. Some 700 shelters were serving 91,000 women and 131,000 children by 1983. 

Pennsylvania organized the very first statewide coalition against domestic violence in 1976 and became the first state to pass legislation providing orders of protection for survivors. That same year, Oregon became the first state to mandate arrest in domestic violence cases – one oft-cited reason was that victims were reticent to press charges for fear of retaliation. And, in many cases, battered women were dependent upon their partners for a home and financial support. The argument against mandatory arrest continued for years, but at least law enforcement began taking domestic violence seriously.  

Shelters provided direct services and counseled survivors in a sense of personal empowerment that proved effective. Support came from private donors as well as city, county and state sources.  Doubtlessly, many women’s lives were spared by the escape that shelters offered, and many children gained a measure of safety. 

 The feminist model of speaking out, organizing, marching and lobbying for women’s rights helped propel the Battered Women’s Movement.  Feminist activists demonstrated to survivors that speaking out and asserting one’s right to safety could be their ticket out of a dangerous situation. Of course, that route did not work for all victims of violence, but it did give hope.  

The modern feminist movement, overlapping with the Battered Women’s Movement, heightened public awareness and concern about the toll of domestic violence –as well as sexual violence — bringing these to the attention of civic leaders, lawmakers and healthcare professionals. 

In 1978, The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights sponsored a consultation on Battered Women in Washington, D.C.  The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) is formed during the Commission meetings which were attended by over 100 women representing national organizations. Feminist activists laid the groundwork for this pivotal event, including filing incorporation papers for NCADV in Portland, Ore. A National Clearinghouse on Marital Rape was established in Salem, Ore. Marital rape was legal in 44 states, cohabitant rape in 13 states and date rape in five states. 

In 1980 Missouri adopted the Adult Abuse Remedies law, giving battered women civil protection; the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence is founded. 

A Critical Turning Point 

In 1984, the Duluth Project in Minnesota was formed to create a coordinated criminal response to domestic violence. That same year, the U.S. Attorney General established a Task Force on Family Violence and conducted hearings around the country to learn more about the extent and nature of the problem. The A.G.’s report persuaded Congress to pass the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA). 

That same year Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) was passed as part of the Child Abuse Amendments, under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) and is the primary source of federal funding for domestic violence services and shelter for victims of family violence. This grant-based effort is overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with several other federal agencies. Today, FVPSA assists over 2,000 domestic violence organizations who in turn assist more than a million survivors of violence, women and abused children. 

In 1985, an important case in was heard in federal court which concerned a woman suing the police for failure to protect her from a violent husband who left her scarred and paralyzed. She was awarded $2 million. That same year the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report naming domestic violence as major health problem for women. 

The very first National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October is observed in 1986. NCADV carried out a national fund-raising campaign to establish the first national toll-free domestic violence hotline that served their network of shelters. 

U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop announced in 1989 that domestic violence is the number one public health risk to adult women in the U.S. The number of battered women’s programs continues to grow to 1,200, providing safety to more than 300,000 women. 

In 1990 advocates began to lobby Congress to develop a bill that would greatly expand support for VAW programs and provide major funding. They rallied supporters across the country to contact lawmakers and tell them why federal help was needed.  At the time, several of the national women’s groups in Washington were reticent to back a bill that would have a significant price tag and did little to support the bill’s passage.  Additionally, some in the civil rights community expressed doubts that such legislation could receive broad congressional support.  A certain amount of misogyny was observed among our supposed allies. 

The Road to VAWA 

Then Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) introduced a bill in 1990 and conducted hearings to learn from survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, plus experts who had studied these crimes. As the Sen. Biden recounts it, he wanted the Violence Against Women Act to protect women and to protect women’s rights. He introduced his bill when few in Congress wanted to work on the issue, said. Over the next three years, then-Senator Biden held hearings in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to hear from survivors talking about their experiences with domestic violence and sexual assault. Experts presented special reports for the committee. 

By 1993, the senator had heard enough, he prefaced introduction of the legislation by saying, “Throughout this process, I have become convinced that violence against women reflects as much of a failure of our nation’s collective moral imagination as it does the failure of our nation’s laws and regulations.” 

The proposed Violence Against Women Act faced stiff opposition from the George H.W. Bush administration, then Chief Justice William Rehnquist and many conservatives in Congress.  Several critics insisted that this was an issue best left up to the states. 

1993 was a pivotal year in that Violence Against Women was identified as a human rights violation by the United Nations at it International Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. The World Bank recognized battering as a significant problem because of health costs incurred. No doubt, these developments helped build momentum for the Violence Against Women Act. 

NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, with its D.C. office on Capitol Hill, took a lead role in lobbying members of Congress for legislation addressing domestic violence, and worked with NOW to help energize the grassroots. At one point, more than 2,000 member organizations joined the newly formed National Task Force to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. Additionally, NOW’s chapter activists provided critical support; many chapter leaders contacted the members of their Congressional delegation to tell them about problems of domestic and sexual violence against women in their communities.  

Advocates walked the halls of Congress, phoned and wrote to lawmakers, held press conferences, cornered reluctant senators to convince them that federal support for local programs was essential. But it was a nationwide grassroots activism that made the difference and that’s where NOW activists and their allies made a difference.   

NOW LDEF Vice President for Public Policy Pat Reuss worked hard to over overcome opposition by Republicans. She built relationships with the likes of Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), both of whom joined Democratic leaders like Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in a press conference advocating for passage of the Violence Against Women Act. This sort of partnership was seldom seen on Capitol Hill. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), one of the Senate’s most powerful members joined in; Kennedy want to have the domestic violence hotline added to VAWA, with more funding to enable an effective national outreach. It was only through an adroit lobbying effort that the opposition to a ’Big Ticket’ bill for women would wither away. 

In 1994, the table was set for Congress to consider voting for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), what we have come to know is a ground-breaking law which changed attitudes and behaviors, reshaped long-held notions about marriage and relationships, made domestic violence unacceptable and improved prosecution of sexual assault.  As intended, VAWA has saved countless lives, prevented serious injury, protected vulnerable individuals and given survivors hope for a better life.  

But this isn’t the end of the story, more dramatic moments are yet to be told with NOW as a major player in coming battles. Our history with VAWA is proof that women organizing, taking action, building political power and pursuing legal action can change the world.