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Sociologist Studies How Shared Goals Can Unite Political Foes
As a polarized battle unfolded last fall in the U.S. Senate over the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, sociology professor Nancy Whittier was paying close attention to how the various intersections of feminist issues and identity politics were playing out.
For many, the confirmation process mirrored deep partisan divides throughout the country. For Whittier, it provided further insight for her ongoing research on social movements and social change, sexual violence and sexuality—all issues that have defined her scholarly studies for more than 30 years.
“You saw the issue of sexual violence really coming to the fore in the personal testimony of sexual assault survivors, from not only [Kavanaugh accuser] Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but also from so many other women in conversations that were happening in people’s living rooms around the country,” says Whittier, who is the Sophia Smith Professor of Sociology.
The #MeToo movement, for example, has brought renewed attention to the harassment and assault of women, she says, “and is clearly not just a hashtag. It spills over into real-life interactions.”
The current political climate “is really an unusual and remarkable moment for the women’s movement,” Whittier says. “We are in a moment of mass social protest and mobilization. The women’s movement is at a much larger and more prominent position than it has been at any time in the past 30 years.” The common myth that the feminist movement died at some point in the 1970s is demonstrably untrue, she adds.
Mass mobilization, like the Women’s March of 2017, occurs when divergent groups can work together on common goals, over such issues as sexual violence, sexual harassment or assaults that women experience. However, Whittier stresses, it is not just women’s rights issues that have mobilized so many. Explicit attention is also paid now to issues of race and sexuality and class as they intersect with gender, she notes.
Less clear is what’s happening this year with the Violence Against Women Act, which protects survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. In 1994, when the landmark legislation was passed, the law was said to have resulted from the unexpected alliance between conservative and liberal members of Congress over issues like pornography and sexual violence. Whittier, who writes about the alliance in her new book, Frenemies: Feminists, Conservatives and Sexual Violence, details how feminists and conservatives found common ground over domestic violence and other types of violence against women, only after being accepted as issues of criminal justice reform.
The law now supports programs that offer help to survivors of domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault, and is administered through the Department of Justice as well as the Department of Health and Human Services. Reauthorized in 2000, 2005 and 2013, the legislation expired in December and is due this year to be reviewed for reauthorization by Congress. However, since the election of President Donald Trump, both Congress and the American public have become highly polarized, Whittier says, and the law’s future remains uncertain. “The law has become a little bit of a political football, in ways that have never happened before.”
The alliance between conservatives and feminists around sexual violence is in flux now, she notes, and it may be breaking down. “It is unclear what will become of not just the Violence Against Women Act but also other sorts of bipartisan feminist issues.”
Watch a video of Nancy Whittier talking about her research and her book, Frenemies: Feminists, Conservatives and Sexual Violence.