The Economics of Domestic Violence
“Why don’t you just leave?” asked numerous acquaintances of mine in my living history group when I came to events after serious, abusive tongue lashings from my alcoholic boyfriend at the time. To them, it was irrational that I was tolerating his abuse — mostly verbal, but sometimes physical, depending on how much he had to drink that night.
Why women stay in abuse is a mystery to most people who have not lived it. But speaking to my own mother on the subject and comparing our experiences, a single common denominator showed up: women stay in abuse out of economic necessity.
It is a cruel fact that women are underpaid in the work place. Single mothers are put in the catch 22 of needing care for their children while at work, yet not making enough to pay for housing, utilities, food, and basic clothing – let alone childcare. Employer attitudes still regard female incomes as supplementary to male incomes; we seem stuck in a 1940s and 1950s idea of why women work and how children are provided for.
A lot has changed over the past few decades. Women now have the right to vote, marry later, divorce when they feel they need to, and raise children all by themselves. In other words, we are much more independent of men than we used to be. Now, instead of working to supplement a husband’s pay, we work to support ourselves and any children we might have – without a man paying most of the bills.
Our pay rate has not kept up with the changes.
The result: we do not have enough money from our jobs to pay for the necessities needed to live on our own without men. When the men in our lives become abusive, women are put into a horrible conundrum: live on the street, starve, or tolerate the abuse. For every single person I know, the first two are not an option. Are there shelters for women trying to get away? Sometimes, but as I found out first hand, they have rules that can be very discriminatory. In 1998, I was trying to get away from a violent relationship I had tolerated (for economic reasons) for three years. I asked a nearby pet store I was volunteering at to please take care of my birds for a few days because the shelter would not admit them and I did not trust my boyfriend at the time not to kill my birds. When I arrived at the shelter, they refused to help me. Why? Because I was an incest survivor from childhood and they worried I might somehow harm the other residents with “my emotional baggage.” Incredibly, the other reason they denied me: I had been raped by another student my senior year as an undergrad after accepting a ride from him during a harsh Nebraska blizzard; the weather was too deadly to walk the mile home from campus and public transit had stopped hours before. You would think a battered woman’s shelter would not blame a woman for being raped; this one did!
The idea a shelter might refuse women trying to leave is probably inconceivable to most people.
That puts us back to the original problem: if you cannot afford to leave because your job doesn’t pay enough for housing, food, and utilities, let alone any child care you have, and if shelters are not an option, what does a woman in an abusive situation do?
The answer is exactly what most women have to do: TOLERATE, WAIT, and LOOK FOR WAYS TO SAFELY LEAVE. In the meantime, many women die from the abuse or are injured for life.
I have been fortunate in that my patience, persistence and intelligence in the heat of the moment have paid off for me. In each case, it took years to find that window out; but inevitably I found it, though often at serious financial loss, particularly when getting out has meant running up high credit card balances put on food, housing, and utilities.
I am still over $10,000 in debt from the last situation. It could have been worse; I could have lost my life.
Money drives domestic violence. Never think otherwise. The women with the highest net worth are the ones who spend the least amount of time in unhealthy and abusive relationships. The work place is our first line in the sand against domestic violence. Women need equal pay and better pay! The 19th century is over; let’s earn 21st century wages!