Battered Women: The Sequel

As a followup to my last post on this topic, I wanted to consider this passage from Linda Hirshman’s post. She’s discussing Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of a memoir about her abusive relationship:

“It is difficult to understand why she stayed in this awful relationship, given that she was not risking starvation and had no children with her abuser. Which is why, no matter how many times Steiner and Marcotte and the others tell them not to, people keep asking the question. And it’s terribly important to do exactly that. Asking why women participate in destructive relationships is a mark of respect. The amazing thing is that, four decades after the birth of feminism, we are still arguing about it.”

Is it “terribly important” to keep asking why women stay in abusive relationships? And is it true, as Hirshman says, that “the current love affair with understanding stops feminists from calling victims on taking responsibility for their own well-being”? I want to break this topic down into several parts, which I will consider below the fold.

First, are battered women responsible for their actions, in the sense that they can be morally praised or blamed for making them? I assume that some are not. There are people who are so crazy, or so cognitively disabled, that they are not responsible for their actions, and it would be odd if none of them had ever been battered. Moreover, while I am not up to speed on battered women’s syndrome, it has always struck me as plausible that some women who have been severely beaten might develop PTSD; in this case, abuse might prevent them from being fully responsible for some of their actions. That said, I also think that most battered women are responsible for their actions, and that the idea that they are not is, as Hirshman says, insulting.

Second: suppose that battered women can be held accountable for their conduct, and assume, for the sake of argument, that staying with an abuser is the wrong choice. (I think it generally is, but consider the heroin addict in my last post: it’s not obvious that she was wrong. But I’m going to disregard such cases for now.) Does it follow that they should be blamed for staying?

If you think that someone should be blamed whenever she makes the wrong choice, then it would follow that she should. However, it’s not obvious that we should blame people for every wrong choice that they make: for every single lapse from perfection. To blame someone, one might think, you need to say more than that she did something that was not the right thing to do; you need some standard of what’ are reasonable levels, and types, of mistakes, and you need to think that this mistake fails to meet it.

As an analogy, consider a math test. Any wrong answer on a math test is, well, wrong. Any wrong answer that the person taking the test could have gotten right (in some sense in which a ten year old couldn’t prove Fermat’s last theorem) reveals something non-optimal about that person’s math skills. But not every wrong answer should make you blame that person. Getting a question wrong that was genuinely at the limit of that person’s capabilities might not. Failing to get every single answer right on a test with a million questions might not. Even mistakes that that person would never normally make look different if she was drugged or badly sleep-deprived while taking it.

If you think that the same is true of life — that while any wrong choice is wrong, blame requires not just having made a mistake, but having made a mistake that makes it appropriate to criticize the person, as opposed to simply concluding that she is not infallible — then one might think that even on the assumption that staying with an abuser is the wrong thing to do, it does not follow that people should be blamed for doing so. That would depend on what kind of mistake it was, and what making it shows about the person who stays.

One of the points of my last post was to try to explain why leaving an abuser is genuinely difficult, even in the absence of things like being afraid that he will come after you and kill you, or poverty, or something like that. If asking why women leave means doing one’s best to try to understand it from the inside, and paying attention to the stories of people who have done it, then I am all for it. And I think that if you understand why it is so hard to leave, staying looks less like a stupid choice for which we should blame people, and more like an understandable failure to do something very difficult, which should make us thank our lucky stars if we have never had to go through it.

This matters because it means that it is possible to think that battered women are, in general, responsible moral agents, while also thinking that it would be wrong to blame them if they do not choose to leave, even if you think that that that would be the right choice to make.

Third point: it is wrong to blame people when they are not, in fact, to blame. But blaming someone can be wrong even if that person is to blame. Consider an analogy. Suppose you walk into the street without looking, and are run over by a bus. I see you lying there, bleeding, but rather than calling 911 or getting out my tourniquet, I lecture you on how dumb you were to walk into the street without looking. What I say is true: it was dumb. But its truth does not mean that there is nothing else wrong with my saying so, just then. It is callous and heartless. I should help you out, not lecture you. Saying something is an action, and like any action it can be the wrong thing to do in some circumstances, even if what you say is true.


Having broken down this question, I can now say what I think about holding battered women responsible for staying with their abusers. First, I think that battered women are, in general, responsible for their conduct. Second, also in general, I do not think that they should be blamed for staying, even if one does not express this blame. Leaving is very difficult, even in the absence of fears for one’s safety, poverty, and the like; and failing to do something very difficult does not, generally, warrant blame.

The question what one should make of Hirshman’s decision to write as she did is trickier. While I took Hirshman’s question seriously (which is why I tried to answer it), her article also bothered me. What follows is an attempt to explain why.

It seems fairly clear to me that it is not helpful to battered women to tell them that they should ‘take responsibility for their own well-being.’ Battered women are not, in general, under the impression that they are not responsible for their actions. On the contrary: while there are exceptions, a lot of battered women I have known tend to believe such things as: that it is their fault that they were beaten. Moreover, most already think that they were stupid to stay. They don’t need other people to tell them this, or even to suggest obliquely that they ought to recognize their own “bad choices”, any more than an anorexic needs lectures on the dangers of obesity.

I do not think that Linda Hirshman wrote her piece with an audience of battered women in mind. But that raises the question: who did she write her piece for, and why did she write it? Here I think it might clarify things to consider a couple of ways in which she might have approached her topic.

First, she could have written a piece whose conclusions were limited to the specific book that prompted her reflections. She could, that is, have said that some women who stay with abusers are making “bad choices” because of “self-destructive fantasies”, or making themselves “available for the hurting”; that in her judgment Leslie Morgan Steiner was such a woman; and that in such cases (and only in such cases), we need to ask why this happens. But she could have made it very clear that what she said was limited to this case, and cases like it; and that she did not take this case to have broader implications about victims of abuse generally.

Second, she could have actually tried to understand why women stay in abusive relationships, and to explain this to her readers. Had she done so, she would have done a great service both to those readers and to battered women generally.

But Hirshman did neither of those things. She did not limit her comments to Steiner, whose book I have not read, but to whom I am willing to assume that they are appropriate. And she did not actually try to inform or enlighten her readers about the reasons why women might stay in abusive relationships. Instead, she just tells us that it is “terribly important” to keep asking the question why women stay with their abusers — though not, oddly, important enough for her to make a serious attempt to answer it: apparently, asking the question is its own reward.

She also seems to think that the fact that some people think that we do not need to keep asking this question shows that something is wrong with contemporary feminism. She writes: “The current love affair with understanding* stops feminists from calling victims on taking responsibility for their own well-being.”

I’m sure this is accurate of some feminists. But for the most part, I don’t think that feminists are asking anyone to believe that most battered (or non-battered) women are not responsible for their conduct. They are asking people to appreciate how hard it can be to leave an abusive relationship; to really try to think this through from the inside. They are also asking that people do this before passing judgment, not only because it’s a good idea in general to understand the facts before making judgments, but also because, in this particular case, judging too quickly can do genuine damage.

Several things bothered me about Hirshman’s piece. First, I do not think that she tried to understand what might lead people to stay in abusive relationships. Second, her piece suggests to me that she thinks the answer is that they ‘make themselves available for the hurting’, or have embraced their status as ‘natural, inevitable victims’, or something like that. That is undoubtedly true in some cases, but it does not begin to get at the difficulty and complexity of leaving.

But a third is that I think — and here I may be wrong — that Hirshman is more interested in using battered women to make a point about certain kinds of feminism than in battered women themselves. Certainly she does not display any great curiosity about what might lead them to stay, or any understanding of what, other than a desire to silence questioning, might lead anyone to think that focussing on the question “why do battered women stay?” rather than on, say, “why do some men beat up women?” is unhelpful. (For the record, the question ‘why do they stay?’ is one that people who work with battered women are asked endlessly, while ‘why do people beat their partners up?’ is pretty rare. That fact accounts for some of our impatience with it.)

What bothered me most, I think, is my sense that Hirshman was not interested in battered women themselves, or in the question why they stay with their abusers, but in arguing against a particular strand of feminism; and that battered women just happened to present what looked like a good way to make her point. That would have been fine had she taken the trouble to make sure that she either described them accurately or limited her observations to the specific case of the book that prompted her reflections. But I don’t think she did either.


* Footnote: It’s odd to equate ‘understanding’ with a refusal to answer questions. Possibly Hirshman is thinking of something like “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” (to understand all is to forgive all). On this point, I’m with P. F. Strawson: “The best comment on this saying I ever heard was made by J. L. Austin. He said: “That’s quite wrong; understanding might just add contempt to hatred.” (Skepticism and Naturalism, p. 37.)