EVANSTON — At the October event in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, Tiffany Eskelson-Maestas with the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault spoke of the past, present and future of violence against women during her keynote speech and Kayne Pyatt, chair of the 19th Amendment Committee, received some well-deserved recognition.
Angie Fessler, Uinta County SAFV Executive Director, opened the event, which included the keynote and a luncheon, by recognizing Pyatt for her role in the birth of SAFV. Fessler said Pyatt was one of the founders of SAFV in Uinta County.
“On a Sunday morning in 1981, Kayne invited a few friends to her home to discuss the problem. . . Over coffee and doughnuts, this handful of dedicated people decided to form a board and establish the Sexual Assault and Family Violence (SAFV) Task Force of Uinta County,” said Fessler.
Fessler then presented Pyatt with a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition not only of her role in founding SAFV, but also her continued and ongoing presence “working tirelessly to help us in our effort to increase awareness and to educate,” said Fessler, as she and fellow SAFV advocate Kelly Ivers presented the award to a visibly emotional Pyatt.
During the keynote speech, Eskelson-Maestas gave a passionate presentation about the history of violence against women and the movement to prevent such violence, pointing out the huge changes that have occurred over centuries, as well as the work that still remains to be done.
Eskelson-Maestas pointed out that attitudes toward violence against women, which include not only sexism but racism and other biases, are not only individual problems but problems with societal and cultural norms that have allowed such attitudes to not only exist but, at times, flourish.
“There was an individual by the name of Lord Hale, who in the 1500s set forth principles determining the contemporary law of rape. He stated that when women married, they gave themselves to their husbands through the contract of marriage and could not withdraw that consent until they divorced,” said Eskelson-Maestas, noting, “Further, the husband couldn’t be guilty of raping his wife.” She said this principle was upheld in court cases some 400 years later and continued to be upheld “through relationship, community and society for nearly 500 years, and in some form is still ingrained in today’s attitudes and beliefs.”
Advertisements in popular magazines, such as “Ms.” and “Vogue,” in the 1970s made light of abuse against women and domestic violence with depictions of models being beaten but noting that the models’ clothing “could really take the heat.”
As examples of how such principles are still ingrained today, Eskelson-Maestas referenced a political figure comparing rape to cold, foggy weather by saying, “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it,” and another saying many women enjoy abusive relationships. Both comments were made in recent decades, with the comment about women enjoying abusive relationships uttered in 2013.
Such attitudes continue to pervade common beliefs about sexual violence and abuse against women, said Eskelson-Maestas, manifested in victim blaming and disbelief when women report being assaulted or abused.
In the 1980s, when organizations like SAFV began to grow throughout Wyoming, the number of reports increased exponentially, as women for the first time had resources and places to turn for help. Eskelson-Maestas noted that violence service requests in Wyoming grew from 2,100 in 1982 to 18,000 only two years later. Similarly, sexual assault service requests went from 460 in 1982 to 4,500 in 1984.
The importance of women speaking up and insisting on social change cannot really be overstated. Women organizing at the grassroots level was not only a key factor in the passage of the 19th Amendment, but also in the passage of the Victims of Crime Act in 1984 and the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 and its regular reauthorization since that time, said Eskelson-Maestas.
“This is all reflecting not whether women should participate in public life, but how — literally, a change in cultural norms,” she said.
Although there have been huge strides in addressing violence against women, said Eskelson-Maestas, there is still work to be done, including the way gains for women have not been equitable and have often created negative consequences for people “living in the margins,” including black women, indigenous women, women of color, women with disabilities, LGBTQ women, poor women and more.
“Although this movement may have set out to be about all women,” she said, “it doesn’t mean it’s been inclusive of women’s diversity.” She noted, “There is high prevalence of being subjected to these types of violence among women who are marginalized.” She said the movement involves deep thinking about the notion of “nothing about us, without us,” and ways to ensure that all women are represented in developing solutions.
As the women’s movement continues, solutions will continue to come from the grassroots and changing cultural norms. Eskelson-Maestas said the movement has gone from recognizing problems to finding ways to help victims to risk reduction to prevention. “We’re thinking about where more meaningful change can have impact in the way we implement primary prevention beyond individual and relationship circles, to community strategies. Most are moving away from risk reduction efforts to full-on primary prevention so that we can stop the violence before it even begins, instead of asking women and girls to prevent it themselves.”
As has been the case for hundreds of years, perceptions about violence against women will continue to influence changes in attitudes, policies and processes. Eskelson-Maestas said, “As individuals, connecting in relationship, living in community and having access to societal norms, your perception of why and how violence against women exists will give influence to the vision and solutions for tomorrow. The way you understand violence against women will lead to how you support them in your community and within your relationships with them. Your understanding will also either limit or expand how you are part of the solution.”