Violence at Home

Like other feminist educators, I encourage women to write autobiographically as a way to break their silences about violence. Initially this is both painful and difficult for many. Melody, for example, writes, “I have struggled with the question of writing autobiographically. I have, like most women, experienced many forms of abuse - educational, institutional, having to witness the objectification of women, loss of power in relationships and an abuse of power in work situations.” However, Melody goes on to name herself as a survivor and an activist rather than as a victim, and in doing so reclaims her experiences as important and empowering. She also recognizes that the abuse she has suffered is complex, takes many forms, and has impacted upon all parts of her life.

“As a child I was punished for speaking up - revealing the location of the whisky bottle.”

For some women, individual disclosing of childhood abuse is a starting point for their writing. Often students draw on the work of feminist researchers to help them make sense of their experiences. Wendy, for example, described her childhood abuse in terms of “silence” after first reading Women's Ways of Knowing.1 She writes: “As a child I was punished for speaking up - revealing the location of the whisky bottle - made to stand at attention for hours into the penetrating glare of an angry monster. [I was] using silence to hide the shame of sexual abuse.” She then goes on to describe how as an adult she learned to acknowledge and cope with her childhood abuse by adopting other “ways of knowing” and in doing so regained her self- esteem.

Not all of the violence women speak of has occurred in the past. Violence is ongoing as women struggle with non-supportive and, in some cases, abusive partners and family members. I have also discovered that women can be exposed to violence through the experience of their daughters. Janet writes, “I have a personal problem that has consumed me emotionally. In 1992, my 16 year old daughter was sexually assaulted by the owner of the store where she worked part-time. She went through a lot of traumatic behavior as a result and straightened herself out in 1994. She charged him [and now] Terra and I re-live the pain through every step of this tedious legal journey.” In supporting her daughter, Janet describes how she was drawn into system which served to victimize her daughter a second time. As a result of the stress, Janet found she lacked the necessary energy and concentration to focus on her school work, and regretted this deeply. During this same period she experienced increased demands at work, and found that her professional development and learning initiatives were neither neither recognized nor supported by her employer.

Violence at Work

Through examples like Janet's, I have learned that woman frequently experiences their workplaces as violent. This is true especially during the economic downturn in the nineties... where phrases like downswing and restructuring obscure the outcomes of policies that discriminate against and serve to disadvantage women. It is not uncommon for my students to write about their work environments as intolerable, “where an alarmingly high percentage of employees are on anti-depressants, and several more have taken stress leave.” Women also write about their fears of being laid-off and the hardships they endure as a result of crushing work loads caused by layoffs and added job responsibilities.

Harassment is another form that workplace violence assumes. Bonnie, for example, writes of an experience in which “the harassment is so bad at work that I am off on sick leave, vacation and exchange time. I am working very hard to find a new position since I am unable to return to the college system.” As a result of stories like these, I have become increasingly concerned about how frequently women decide that resigning from organizations is their only option in dealing with workplace violence. Clearly organizational cultures and policies are neither addressing nor redressing problems of harassment and discrimination.

I have learned that it can be difficult for these women to cope effectively with violence related to their workplace when it is their students and clients who are struggling with it. Nancy, while facilitating a self-help group, observed that “My middle-class glibness had assumed that our group would supplement counseling that these women would be receiving. I've quickly been reminded about the two-tiered health system as it relates to mental health services. If they can find $60 an hour, women can get counseling within a week. But all the women are low income. Thus the group is the primary support system for them right now.” In this case, Nancy notes that a two-tiered health care system denies health care services and counseling to women with low and subsistence level incomes, thus perpetrating the violence they experience.

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