Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Remembering Del Martin

“When you add our society’s propensity toward violence with ageism and sexism, you have a dangerous situation.”

Del Martin, 1995

The flags at San Francisco’s City Hall flew at half-mast on August 28 in memory of Del Martin, a pioneering figure in the fight for the rights of women, lesbians, survivors of domestic violence, and the elderly. Her seminal book Battered Wives, published in 1976 and updated in 1981 (Volcano Press), has been acclaimed as the first to explore domestic violence in the United States. In it, Del made the case that domestic violence wasn’t grounded in interpersonal dynamics but rather, in historical attitudes toward women, economy inequalities, and inadequacies in the legal and social service systems. Just two months before her death at the age of 87, she was still making history. She and her partner, Phyllis Lyon, were the first gay couple to be "remarried" when the California Supreme Court declared marriage for same-sex couples a fundamental right. Their earlier marriage, along with thousands of others, was nullified four years ago.

In the mid 1990s I interviewed Del for nexus, a publication for affiliates of the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. At the time, she was serving on the Advisory Committee for the San Francisco Consortium for Elder Abuse’s “Developing Services for Older Battered Women,” a pilot project funded by the Administration on Aging (DHHS) to explore the link between elder abuse and domestic violence. Her insights and advice are as relevant to our field today as they were when we spoke 13 years ago.

Domestic Violence Activist Speaks out on Elder Abuse
The domestic violence movement has always been a grass roots, self help movement. In the early days, many feminists who had given up on the system got involved. To a great extent, it was women who had left abusive relationships who ran the shelters and led the movement. At one point, we even had an underground railroad to send women who were leaving abusive relationships to other states with other identities. Some women would go from state to state to get away from abusive men. Just leaving a relationship doesn’t mean a woman is free.

The concept of support groups came from the women’s movement. Earlier, when we talked about support groups, we discussed whether women who were not able or willing to leave abusive relationships should be in groups with women who had chosen to leave. My feeling is that it’s wonderful for these women to interact with others who have made it. Somebody who’s had the same experiences is going to be more effective than a professional who knows the concepts but who doesn’t have the personal involvement and understanding.

The feminist viewpoint is “we don’t want to compete, we’ve got to work together to accomplish anything.” When California first allocated funds for starting a pilot project in domestic violence, we said “okay, we’ll take the money but we would like to split it up and use it in various locations.” We didn’t want to compete for money, we wanted to work together. The state had never heard of that before. Ultimately, six pilot projects were initiated.

Domestic violence programs have long recognized that some of the worst cases of physical abuse involved elderly victims. Domestic violence against the elderly is more difficult to address because it’s complicated by dependency issues and having to deal with pensions or Social Security. I have also thought about how difficult it is to reach the frail elderly who are at the mercy of their caretakers. Those are the ones I am really worried about.

Victims need to know that they are not alone. Older, abused individuals often think they are the “only one” and remain silent. Because I am a lesbian, I understand the “only one” belief very well. But the only way you can do anything about a problem is to talk about it and discuss what you are going to do about it. You may not do anything immediately; I know from experience that people will write down the telephone number of an agency and call a couple of years later. This has been true in both domestic violence and outreach to lesbians. I think the point is, if you don’t do anything, there may be an escalation of violence.’’

We also need to get more information out to the media-TV and print in particular-because there are so many people who cannot be reached any other way. There has been more media attention to domestic violence lately and we need to keep pushing it. It may sound cynical, but elder abuse is another angle, and the media is always looking for “another angle.” When my book came out, it got a lot of attention but the hardest thing was to maintain the focus on domestic violence. People from the media would say they had already done one program on it. Well, one program does not do it. It is a continuing problem. We need to identify people at the stations who will cover the issue.

My kick right now is the urgency of political awareness and involvement at the national level. Service providers need to be keyed in politically. If they don’t have political clout, they are vulnerable. We also need to be involved at the state level. In California, the Alliance on Domestic Violence held trainings years ago on how to influence legislators. One of our goals was to help legislators understand the connection between child abuse and spousal abuse. People should get lists of senators, members of congress, and committees, and make contact when issues come up.

We also need to change societal values. We need to raise everyone’s consciousness about ageism, which is rampant, and violence. We’ve tried to get rid of guns in the home because we know that they are more likely to be used on people who live there than to defend the home. When you add our society’s propensity toward violence with ageism and sexism, you have a dangerous situation.