Everybody Knows Somebody : Throughline In the mid-1980's a woman who didn't consider herself a feminist was asked to solve perhaps the biggest problem women face. How she and a small group of people seized on that rare moment and fought back in the hopes that something could finally be done.

Everybody Knows Somebody

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/796735042/1200557101" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Hey, everyone. Just a warning before we get started - this episode has some references to sexual violence. Producer Laine Kaplan-Levenson has the story.


VICTORIA NOURSE: I think I'm one of the only people I know who went to law school to rebel against their parents. I grew up in a household where my sisters are quite a bit older than I am. And their generation, they just weren't groomed to be having careers. In the day, it was thought that if you had a career, you would be odd - an oddball, that you would not have the chance to have a family, that those two things were opposed to each other.

But being a little bit rebellious, I decided to go to law school at Berkeley. It caused a bit of controversy in the home, and so I decided, well, I'll just pay for it myself. So I worked as a waitress, and I got some loans and went to law school.


NOURSE: My name's Victoria Nourse, and I'm a law professor at Georgetown Law Center.


NOURSE: I'm going to Berkeley in the early '80s. I'd park my little Honda up on the hillside where a lot of the frats were, and I would take out all my heavy law books. And people would jeer outside the window - what's a cute girl like you with all those law books? (Laughter).

But I think a lot of us just felt like we were happy to be there - to have the access. It seemed as if it was just the luckiest possible thing.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: So were you interested in studying women's issues?

NOURSE: No. Many of the women that I was working - were there, we - I don't we'd call ourselves feminists. I took securities regulation and really liked that and did well (laughter). I wrote my student note on an obscure section of the securities laws.


NOURSE: Yeah, I know.


NOURSE: It's so...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But like you said, you didn't identify as a feminist.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: A few years out of law school, Victoria landed a job with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

NOURSE: And I had just been hired to the chairman, and that was Joe Biden.


NOURSE: This is Joe Biden when he's around 50 or maybe a little bit before 50. A couple of years earlier, he'd had an aneurysm and almost died. And he's really coming back to his legislative life at this time, but I had no idea about that.


NOURSE: And so eventually, I'm sitting in a room - not too long after I'm there - and I'm with the guys (laughter). And literally, they're the guys in the legislative room...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Because Victoria was the only female lawyer on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

NOURSE: ...And the chairman says, we need to do something on women. And then there's no women in the room, and he points at me - he has no clue who I am - and says, I think you should do something on it - and then flashes his million-dollar smile.

And at that point, what are you supposed to say - no, I'm not a feminist, I studied securities law? No, I (laughter) - so I'm like, OK. (Laughter) And - then he walks off.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Victoria left that meeting having no idea what she had just said yes to. Joe Biden had essentially swiveled around, pointed at her and told her to do something about women. She needed more information, so she went to the committee's chief counsel Ron Klain.

NOURSE: And he showed me an op-ed by one of my current colleagues - a woman named Lisa Heinzerling, who's a well-known professor at Georgetown - and she had written an op-ed about what had happened in Montreal, where a guy had gone into an engineering classroom. He had separated the women from the men.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He said in French, you're a bunch of feminists - and he started to shoot.

NOURSE: And he'd shot all the women.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: There was utter pandemonium outside the university building as ambulances carted away the injured. Police have now confirmed 14 students dead, all women. Another dozen people were hurt, caught in a rampage that witnesses called a human hunt, with the gunman yelling - I want women. Police say after going on the rampage...

NOURSE: The op-ed is basically saying, women are being targeted for being women - for their gender.

So Ron handed me this. And he says, we need to do something about this. And I now know he had handed that to Biden.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The 1989 Montreal massacre pushed Biden over the edge on an issue he was already concerned about. He didn't think his own country took violence against women seriously enough, and he became set on changing that with landmark legislation that protected people in ways the Constitution never had before.

Victoria's job was to write it. In order to do that, she had to understand the laws through a new lens - through the history of violence against women. This is a story about a group of people who got a rare chance to take on an age-old problem - a problem rooted in power - in the hopes that something could finally be done.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Sexual assault in this country is epidemic.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: It's America's dark secret.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: In the U.S. alone, an estimated 1 in 4 women is victim of severe physical abuse.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Every 16 hours in the United States, a woman is shot to death by her partner.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: How many domestic violence calls do you get on most nights?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Might not be unusual to have six or eight.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: But I don't understand why the victim is ostracized and not the perpetrator in these cases.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Well, that's the issue...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The person who's rape is damaged goods. No, how about the person who did the raping has a problem?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: It's hard for me to understand how people are punching out their wives at home and the rest of that. But it does happen. And it's an issue we've been working on for a very long time.


ABDELFATAH: You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR...


Where we go back in time...

ABDELFATAH: To understand the present.


MELISSA ORTIZ: Hi. I'm Melissa Ortiz (ph).

HARSH SHAVLA: And I'm Harsh Shavla (ph) from San Francisco, Calif.

ORTIZ: And you're listening to THROUGHLINE...



JULIAN BOND: It is now recognized that for generations, behind a portrait of marital bliss, all too often lurked men with short tempers and violent tendencies. Americans didn't invent violence against women, but they took to it with vengeance.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In the 1990s, an anthropologist named Shannon A. Novak was studying skeletons of the Fremont civilization, a group of people that lived in Utah 1,300 years ago. She noticed that all the female skulls had specific types of cracks and dents in them, while most of the male skulls didn't.

Novak thought that was odd, so she went and spent a year at an emergency room, studying female abuse trauma cases. She found that the wounds of the cases in the ER matched the ones on the Utah skulls.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The history of violence against women is as old as history itself. It shows up in human remains and in the laws. Hammurabi's Code is one of the first sets of written laws and dates back to the 1700s B.C., the age of ancient Mesopotamia. There are laws in there saying men were allowed to use violence against their wives in certain situations. For instance, if a woman was caught cheating or left her husband, she could be tied up and drowned.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And then there were the Puritans.


BOND: In Puritan New England, women were routinely whipped and publicly humiliated. Married women were little more than the property of their husbands.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This is audio from a 1995 HBO TV special called "Violence: An American Tradition."

And then there was this 1864 court ruling in North Carolina.


BOND: The law permits husbands to use such a degree of force as necessary to control an unruly temper and make a wife behave herself. If no permanent injury has been reflected, it is better to draw the curtain, shut out the public gaze and leave the parties to forget and forgive.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: OK. Now back to Victoria Nourse who, if you remember, didn't identify as a feminist, hadn't learned any of this history in law school and had no plans to make gender a focus of her career in any way - until Joe Biden told her to take on the issue of violence against women. All of the history I just described was new to Victoria but ancient history nonetheless. She had to catch up on what was on the law books now - or in 1990.

So what did you go do?

NOURSE: I went to the library, which is the oddest place. No one writes legislation in a library.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But she didn't really have any other options.

NOURSE: I didn't have any women to really go to in the Senate because there were two women senators. So I went to the ladies on the shelves, the ladies in the books. And then it became - the more I read, the more shocked and the feminists who were considered radical at the time didn't seem terribly radical to me.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Give me some examples of what you were reading and discovering that was so shocking to you.

NOURSE: Well, you have to understand that the 1990s was an entirely different world. So - for example, a woman named Susan Estrich had written a book called "Real Rape" - that there was something called date rape. But that was really super controversial - right? - at the time. But it turns out that the laws of some states at the time actually said it could not be aggravated rape if you were a voluntary social companion. That was the term in the law.


NOURSE: So let's just give you an example. So someone, like, cuts off your arm and you're on a date and rapes you, that's not aggravated rape.


NOURSE: That just struck me. You didn't have to be a feminist (laughter) - just struck me as wrong.


NOURSE: And I was upset that there were different rules for this particularly heinous offense.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Victoria studied rape trial after rape trial and she realized from the records that, time after time, these cases were handled differently than other crimes.

NOURSE: OK, so if you wanted to claim rape in some jurisdictions, you would have to go in and engage in a lie detector test. There were still places where prosecutors just refused to take the cases. They would say, you're lying, essentially. There were judges who would say things that - you wore a short skirt. What were you doing there? So it was as if someone who went to a bar assumed the risk of rape.

So I just compared it to, all right, you go to a bar, and you're in a brawl. Do they disbelieve you? No, right? You were in a brawl. No one says you have to have a psychiatric exam. There are no special rules for that. Why are there special rules that stack the deck heavily in favor of the defendant when the deck is already stacked in favor of defendants because we have beyond a reasonable doubt? So I compared the brawl or any old assault on the street to these cases, and they just did not line up.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The term voluntary social companion haunted Victoria. The law essentially rendered date rape impossible. And it didn't stop there.

NOURSE: If your husband raped you, you could not bring a criminal charge in many, many states. That was on the books. And that shocked me. I didn't think that in a world where the Constitution provides for equal protection and that I'm an equal citizen - I certainly thought I was an equal citizen - that that could possibly apply. And I kept thinking, what if that had happened to me?


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Sitting alone in the library, Victoria realized that any federal protections she thought she had did not exist. She was shook.

NOURSE: There's a professor at Yale who worked with me on the bill. And she doesn't remember this, but she once said to me, Victoria, I've never met anyone who is in so much denial. When she said that to me, I thought, but what am I in denial about? And there was a point when I was starting there that I very much was in denial.

You know, I went to school to study engineering. I was the only woman in the class. And my professor wanted to study with me in his office. And I don't think there was anything to it. I think he actually wanted to encourage me. You know, sexual harassment was not even a concept, really, that I was being taught or had been taught in school. So I don't even know what that would be. But I felt uncomfortable. So I ended up being a history major. So I pretty much quit engineering.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: You quit engineering...

NOURSE: I just didn't know what to do. I couldn't tell whether he really wanted to be my mentor or whether there was something else going on. And I couldn't face it. So I denied it, and then I just switched. You know, I mean, I think this is a very common phenomenon in a world where you knew that kind of stuff happened, and you knew you'd be blamed. Like, I kept thinking at the time, well, my mother will blame me if I do this. My mother will blame me. And I'm already out on a limb out here in California, where they don't want me to be, so I better not do that. So I'll just stay away and do something else.

I started to see things. I would see Democratic senators fondling interns or cornering them in elevators. Why was the world like this, when I saw people just assuming the power to corner the intern? This was the kind of thing that you saw literally. And I think this is what this woman was saying, you're in denial about how deeply sexist the institution may be.


NOURSE: There were times working on it that I got flooded. There are times when I didn't know if I could continue. And it was an extraordinary awakening.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Victoria had been planning to leave the Senate and accept a job teaching at the University of Wisconsin. But this awakening made her see that she was in a position to revolutionize a system she had come to view as utterly skewed.

NOURSE: I had a special opportunity, a moment in time that I could have 15 seconds to help change the world for my daughter, if I ever had a daughter. So I had to take it.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: She had done her research and was now staring at a blank page. In order to write this legislation, she had to figure out what it was actually meant to do.

NOURSE: We were trying to name a phenomenon that people didn't really realize existed, and we were trying to unify it. I mean, the big move here was to say this is part of discrimination.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: One of her biggest revelations was that there were no federal laws that addressed violence against women - rape, assault, domestic abuse. These cases were up to local cops and handled in state courts. Too often, Victoria found in the records that women were stripped of their power when they came forward. They were ignored, doubted, blamed. And if the survivor lost in state court, she didn't have the right to an appeal. There were no grounds for her to.

NOURSE: And I saw this, and I said, this system is rigged. The criminal law was saying there are some people who are just not protected. How can that be equal protection of the law? The Constitution says you have equal protection of the law. How can that be equal protection? That was the core of the kernel that I just kept building out.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: A kernel that suddenly made her see this was as basic as could be. This was about civil rights.

NOURSE: And what civil rights are, is the rights that we all deserve as citizens under the 14th Amendment.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: So, real quick, the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, and it granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the U.S., including formerly enslaved people. This is the amendment that guarantees each of these citizens equal protection of the laws. Now she had an idea. She went back to chief counsel, Ron Klain.

NOURSE: And I said, Ron, can we do a civil rights remedy? And he's like, yeah, maybe we can do a civil. He said, what for? I said, well, violence against women. He said, yeah, yeah, yeah. So what would it do? And I said, well, we can't fix the criminal justice systems in the states. The feds have no power to do that. But we can provide a backstop. If the states fail, we can provide a another place where women can go. So we wanted the civil rights remedy to provide an alternate system so that women who got no protection when people threw away your rape kit or people refuse to prosecute your case, that they could go to federal court, and they could actually sue the perpetrator.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: A civil rights remedy would make gender-based violence a federal issue for the first time, which Victoria hoped would get people talking.

NOURSE: There were no good names for what was going on. At the time, Biden called it a dirty little secret that society had, and one way that kept being reinforced with the names. So domestic violence, you know, sounds like an oxymoron. There's nothing domestic about a hook to the left jaw. There's nothing tame about it. I needed something very clear. And so one day, I think I said violence against women.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The bill would be called the Violence Against Women Act - VAWA.

NOURSE: It seemed simple enough.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: What wasn't so simple was how to convince 535 powerful politicians, almost all men, that this was worth it. VAWA takes on Congress when we come back.


BRIANNA BECKENEY: Hi, this is Brianna Beckeney (ph) from Tokyo, Japan. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. Love the show; love everything about it. Thanks for all your hard work, and keep it up.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Victoria had been working solo up until this point, alone in the library giving herself a crash course on gender and the law. But she knew she couldn't write this bill alone. She needed support. She needed muscle.

NOURSE: And then I called New York. I called the NOW Legal Defense Fund.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: NOW is the National Organization for Women.

NOURSE: And I found myself talking to a woman named Sally Goldfarb.

SALLY GOLDFARB: I got a phone message that Victoria Nourse, who worked as an attorney for the Senate Judiciary Committee, was interested in meeting with me to talk about this new legislation. She had heard of me because I was doing work on civil remedies for domestic and sexual violence.


GOLDFARB: I'm Sally Goldfarb. I'm a law professor at Rutgers Law School in Camden, N.J.

NOURSE: She said, this is really fascinating, and does Senator Biden really mean this? I said, yes. In fact, I think he's very excited about it. I said, you've got to come down here and talk to me about it if you're willing to help. And she said, really? And I said, really.

GOLDFARB: So I went over and met with her.

NOURSE: I'll never forget. We're sitting in the conference room outside the Senate Judiciary Committee.

GOLDFARB: And she briefly laid out what she had in mind, which was to have, for the first time, comprehensive federal legislation addressing the issue of gender-based violence. And I immediately knew that this was a very exciting and groundbreaking and worthwhile idea.

NOURSE: And I think she just could not imagine that the Senate of the United States just coming out of the Reagan era would have any interest because if you know anything about the history of feminism in the 1980s in the Senate, it was a very, very negative place for feminists to be. They were dismissed. They were disparaged. They were insulted in the record.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: A decade earlier, California Senator Alan Cranston had tried to get federal funding for battered women's shelters.

NOURSE: He brings it to the floor, and it's essentially filibustered. Gordon Humphrey, who's a senator from New Hampshire, says this is about indoctrination. Battered women shelters are indoctrination centers. They're going to indoctrinate people into this idea of feminism, and using feminism as if it were communism.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms chimed in that battered women's shelters would encourage the disintegration of the family. That's the last time someone had tried to make domestic violence a federal issue. So Victoria's plans had Sally super excited.

GOLDFARB: So I offered to stay in touch and try to be of help to her. I certainly didn't realize the extent to which my own life would become immersed in getting this law drafted and passed.

NOURSE: I was delighted. I thought, wow, this is someone who really gets it, who knows more about this than I do. It was clear she was a true feminist, that she had worked on this.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And that she could help build that base of support, a base that could put pressure on members of Congress to get on board, which they knew would be an uphill battle considering what happened the last time anyone had tried to pass something like this.

NOURSE: So Sally stopped litigating, and she started building a coalition. And then they needed someone who knew how to lobby.


NOURSE: So they had to look for someone like Pat Reuss.

GOLDFARB: Pat is a hoot, a veteran lobbyist on women's rights issues.

NOURSE: She's warm...

GOLDFARB: ...Irreverent.

NOURSE: She's funny...

GOLDFARB: ...Brilliant...

NOURSE: ...Authentic...

GOLDFARB: ...Tireless, unbelievably committed.

NOURSE: And she had the high ability to persuade almost anyone of the virtues of this particular project.


PAT REUSS: I wore my - a good Christmas sweater for you.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Oh, my God. That is...

REUSS: Is that great?

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...Incredible.

REUSS: Isn't that wonderful?

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: When I walked into Pat Reuss’s first-floor condo at 11 in the morning, the impeachment hearings were blaring from her flat-screen TV, and it smelled as if she had just finished a cigarette. As soon as I laid eyes on her, I realized she had really dressed for the occasion.

REUSS: Well, it's a knit sweater that has all the Christmas colors. And then right smack dab in the middle is a cartoonish face of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with her glasses and her intensity (laughter). Isn't that great?

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: I felt like I knew Pat before I had even pulled my arms out of my coat.

Thank you so much for inviting me to your home. I really...

REUSS: Would you like coffee, tea, hot chocolate, water? I have wine. I have Coke.


REUSS: I have some cinnamon cream rum, but I (laughter) have enough trouble waiting till 6 o'clock to have my wine. I do not need to start drinking in the morning, although there are days. Don't we all agree?


REUSS: Yes, yes.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Pat's known by some as the grandmother of the women's movement and by many as the grandmother of the Violence Against Women Act. She's been organizing for women's rights for almost 50 years, but that wasn't her original plan.

REUSS: When I was little, I wanted to be a doctor. And guess what? Ka-zam (ph) - University of California, I'm sorry. We've already filled our 10% quota for women for premed. And everybody goes, but, Pat, you're so assertive. Why didn't you just get up and dump the table over? I said, my God, that was 1959. I still was wearing a girdle, for goodness sakes.


REUSS: I also wanted to be a baseball player - a doctor who played right field for the Yankees, I announced. I know. And then my father - remember; we're in the mid-'50s now - had to explain to me why girls couldn't play baseball. So my revenge is all my work in the women's movement.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In the early 1970s, Pat and her husband moved their three sons to Montana. She was already politically active at that point and spent most of her energy working on getting women elected to office. But everything changed for her one day in 1972, when a friend showed up at her door.

REUSS: She comes over, and her face is a mess. She's been beat up - puffy lip and puffy eye like she'd been in a bar fight. That's the only fight I'd ever seen before. Or - I've dated rugby players. And my - two of my sons were rugby players. Somebody was always beat up. She looked like that.

And she's sitting there. One of her kids is in school, and the other two are with her. And we have to whisper, and I have no idea what to do. So I get on the phone. Who do you call? I called somebody in the city, I called churches. I don't know, I had a list about eight places I called. And we found nothing for her. There was nothing for her. She said, I'll just go back and try harder. And I've never forgotten that.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Pat couldn't believe there was nowhere for her friend to go. She couldn't believe it when her friend called her to say she had to run away with her three kids to go live with her mom. And what she really couldn't stand was that there was nothing she could do about it. So she got together with a few other women.

REUSS: We decided to raise money for a battered women's shelter.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And because there was nothing for them to tap into, they had to start small - really small.

REUSS: And so we decided to have a plant sale.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: A plant sale.

REUSS: That was our seed money to begin our women's research center, a women's center and a couple of rooms for battered women.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Pat's friend was the first person she knew who had been beat up by her husband, or so she thought.

REUSS: Then, of course, as I start working on it, my cousin comes up - whisper, whisper - well, just that he - you know why I got divorced? 'Cause he just beat the you-know-what out of me. And I didn't tell anyone. I'm telling you, but you can't tell anybody. Then my aunt comes up. She's a social worker. And she says that she became a social worker 'cause her first husband - I always wondered why they all got divorced. And she said, don't tell anybody. And I'm going - oh, my God.


REUSS: And so it turns out that everybody knows somebody. Whether you know it or not, everybody knows somebody.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Pat spent the next two decades making a name for herself in the movement - so much so that by the time Victoria and Sally needed a lobbyist, they knew who to call. She said yes and went to work traveling the country, preaching the VAWA gospel.

REUSS: I would say, I'm here today to talk about violence against women and Joe Biden's bill. And I know he's a guy - and everybody would laugh, you know - but he really is earnest and we have a chance. And in the bill, there'll be money for shelters. And they all go, yay. And then I said - and in the bill, we have a provision that gives people a right to sue their rapist or their batterer - I boiled it down - and that is the closest we can get to holding them accountable.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Whatever Pat was doing, it was working. The coalition grew and grew.

GOLDFARB: Ranging from the Girl Scouts to civil rights groups to labor unions, religious denominations, obviously women's rights groups, domestic violence, sexual assault - all the different kinds of groups you could possibly imagine.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Now they needed to convince members of Congress directly that this was important. They were the ones, after all, who were going to vote on the bill. So Pat had a separate strategy for the politicians and coached Sally on how to play ball.

GOLDFARB: And she taught me everything I needed to know about talking to members of Congress.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Like, how to literally go up and talk to them.

NOURSE: There's a funny story when - apparently, Sally Goldfarb was flying back...

GOLDFARB: From Washington to New York after a day of meetings...

NOURSE: And she somehow finds out that she's sitting in a plane with Chuck Schumer, who is in the House.

GOLDFARB: In the House of Representatives.

NOURSE: And she knows who he is. And she wants somebody in the House, and she wants him to move the bill through the House committee.

GOLDFARB: And there were no cellphones at the time. I used the telephone on the back of the seat in front of me on the plane, using my credit card to place a call.

REUSS: The phone rings, and it's Sally. I've just seen Chuck Schumer.

GOLDFARB: Chuck Schumer's on the plane with me. What should I do?

REUSS: So instead of saying - oh, for God's sakes, you dummy, of course you know what to do, I sat there and outlined a cause of action. You approach him. You love him. He puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like you. You are equals right now, and you love him. And you maybe drop that you chair this giant coalition.

GOLDFARB: And we had a conversation about the Violence Against Women Act. And I did my best to explain to him why it was important, why he should support it.

REUSS: She then calls back and she says - OK, I did it. Oh, my - I mean, she might as well have just won the New York Marathon, she was so proud of herself.

GOLDFARB: At the time, he lived very near where I was living in Park Slope in Brooklyn. And he offered me a ride from the airport back to Park Slope.

REUSS: So then she calls - is it OK for me to get a ride from a member of Congress? And - I know. I know. I know, I know. And I'm going, absolutely. Just, you know...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Get in the car, Sally (laughter).

REUSS: Get in the car, Sally. And don't talk about business anymore. Talk - ask about his kids, whatever. Just - and then - and be friendly. You lobbied him; you're through. And the good thing was he came back and said to his staff that they'd been praised. And so they loved it, and they were our friends for life.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Schumer became a major supporter of the bill.

So that's why they call you the godmother of this bill.

REUSS: Part of it, yes. Yes.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In order to raise public awareness and get bipartisan support, it wouldn't be enough for Congress to only hear from lawyers and advocates - they needed to hear from survivors themselves. So the coalition organized a series of public hearings.

And when was that first hearing?

NOURSE: It was in June of 1990. And you walk into the large double doors - mahogany doors and marble floors. You might have seen this if you've watched a confirmation hearing of a Supreme Court nominee. It's pretty darn intimidating because you have a dais that is on high - a bench where the senators sit. And they're a lot higher than the witnesses. In the front, crouching down in front of the witnesses, are cameras - lots of cameras with motorized drives. So it's loud.


NOURSE: It's a very intimidating atmosphere.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: So the survivors are telling their stories to a group of men that are towering over them.

NOURSE: Yes. It was very clear there was a lot of nerves in the room.

I'm sitting there in the back bench of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tapping my heel like I'm nervous out of my brain is that I don't really know what they're going to say. And I've got Strom Thurmond. And I've got Joe Biden. And I've got all these people, and I have no idea what they're going to say and how it's going to go.

In the first hearing, there was a woman who - her case had been in the news in New York.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: She's former fashion model Marla Hanson, whose face was horribly slashed in 1986 outside a Midtown Manhattan bar...

NOURSE: So this woman had been a model. And she was well-known because her landlord had disfigured her, essentially, so she could no longer be a model.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: Marla's landlord hired two men to slash her face. After the attack, he pretended to be her concerned boyfriend at the scene of the crime.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This happened after Marla Hanson rejected sexual advances by her landlord. Pat remembers another witness who was left partially paralyzed after she was attacked by her estranged husband.

REUSS: And she had to suck in air before she could say it. She took an hour to give her testimony. And every member of the House Judiciary Committee sat there And just died. Oh, please, God, make her stop. You could see that look on their faces.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Victoria also remembers a woman named Sarah Buel.

NOURSE: Sarah Buel was an extraordinary witness.


SARAH BUEL: Good morning, and thank you very much for inviting me here...

JOE BIDEN: Thank you.

BUEL: ...To speak. I'm particularly in the mood to talk...

NOURSE: She opened up her testimony with a demonstration. So she said, gentlemen, take out your wallet. Now take out all your credit cards. Now take out all your cash. Now try and figure out how to get your children away from someone who is going to harm them. You have no money, you have no credit cards, and you're scared for your life.


BUEL: So you try finding a homeless shelter, but 95% of them don't accept children. So you try finding a sympathetic landlord, but nobody will rent to you because you don't have a source of income in that city. And by that time, the batterer has found you. He's tracked you down, and he's going to kill you if you don't come home or else he's got a box of chocolates and a bouquet of flowers, and he's sorry, and it will never happen again. But you've spent the $20...

NOURSE: It was riveting.


BUEL: ...And getting back and forth to all these agencies.

NOURSE: At the time, there were many myths about the battered woman. Why didn't she just leave? And this was a very, very powerful demonstration about how it's much more difficult than you think.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The hearings had an impact on Congress, but VAWA still hadn't reached bipartisan support. They needed the endorsement of a key Republican in the Senate Judiciary Committee - Orrin Hatch. Hatch was an ultraconservative from Utah. And so support for any Democratic bill was not a given. But the thing is, like most people, he knew someone.

REUSS: He had a staff woman who had been cruelly beaten by her then ex-husband.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: They held another public hearing, this time in Salt Lake City.

NOURSE: Hatch was nearly in tears. And he reached out to embrace me. And at this point, he says, oh, no. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Was that wrong? I said, no. It's fine.

REUSS: So I see him afterwards. And he goes, Pat, did you get all those people there? I said, sir, I think I only know 10 feminists in Utah, and I did not call them. So he experienced firsthand - you have your allies wherever you get them.

NOURSE: After that, he says to his staff, well, we got to come up with some compromise. And I say, well, Biden wants a civil rights remedy. That's - if you can't get on the civil rights remedy, then we can't do it. He said, well, maybe I can be on that if it's like a hate crimes act. And I said, well, maybe.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Getting Hatch on board was huge. Not only was there this giant coalition, VAWA officially had bipartisan support in the Senate. But the biggest roadblock was yet to come. A fight to the finish when we come back.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: When VAWA started out in 1990, everyone knew there would be pushback. Republicans controlled the White House, and Republican lawmakers were an obvious obstacle. But they were just the start.

GOLDFARB: The opposition came from some surprising places.

NOURSE: The traditional liberal allies, they were not so interested.

GOLDFARB: Even within the women's rights community, there were some people who felt that this wasn't the highest priority, that we needed to be working on other issues like family leave, which, at the time, was not yet protected under federal law - abortion rights, equality in the workplace. These are all important issues. Some women's rights groups felt that working on the Violence Against Women Act would in some way distract or undermine those other efforts.

NOURSE: There were concerns raised by some women's groups about Native American women. There were some parts of the bill that might have had a negative effect because Native American law is very specialized because they're nations. So somewhere along the line, in the first year, I reached out to a colleague of mine on the Indian Affairs Committee, and I said, you need to help me redraft every piece of this to make it clear that Indian tribal units can benefit from the law, they can get the money under the grants, that they are required to meet the same conditions, that there is no discrimination whatsoever.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Native Americans were just one of many communities with concerns. People of color were active in the coalition all across the country, but white people were the main authors of the bill, which caused blind spots to say the least. Who was this bill going to actually protect? And who was it going to potentially endanger even further? There were feminists who publicly spoke out against the bill, like Mari Matsuda, a professor at Georgetown Law in the '90s who published her opinions in Ms. Magazine. She wrote, we know that the police are a source of violence in our communities, not just a deterrent to it. We also know that violence against women is endemic and that police don't come when a woman from the wrong part of town dials 911.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: VAWA was attached to the criminal justice system, and that disturbed some feminists. At the same time, the justice system was disturbed by VAWA. The bill's biggest enemy was a group that you wouldn't expect to come out so strongly for or against anything - judges.

NOURSE: The federal judges launched an incredible campaign. And technically, under the judge's ethical code, they are not supposed to lobby. And, in fact, when the women judges were asked what their position on the bill was, one of them said, you know, I don't know if we should take a position because if we do, and then we have to rule on it, that would be a conflict. I never heard that from any of the male judges.

GOLDFARB: Federal judges who felt that the violence against women civil rights provision was going to enable women to use this new statute as a way to manipulate the legal system and get a higher settlement in a divorce case.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Judges wrote letters...

NOURSE: ...Saying that women would bring these cases in divorces, and they would lie to extort damages from their husbands.

GOLDFARB: And, of course, that was extremely disturbing, that judges would assume that women are going to fabricate charges of domestic violence in order to get an advantage in litigation.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The chief justice of the Supreme Court was William Rehnquist. He led this resistance and warned that if the bill passed, the courts would be flooded with family squabbles.

NOURSE: There are two things that are happening in their arguments. One, they're demeaning the problem as insignificant and not significant for a federal judge. So it doesn't matter. You can go back to state law. Whatever Mississippi said is fine, even if what Mississippi says is entirely different from Alaska. There's nothing federal about this, where federal means something important, right? The second thing they're saying is they're feeding into the very stereotypes the law was supposed to push against. From the very first witnesses, they were telling us stories about how they weren't believable, that they weren't credible.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The biggest issue for the judges was the most revolutionary piece of VAWA - the civil rights remedy, which Victoria had based off of previous laws.

NOURSE: Yes, previous legislation in the 19th century which was targeted at violence in the South. I mean, it's called the Ku Klux Klan Act that allowed the federal government to criminalize violence that was focused on race. And that was pretty well established. No one thought that that would be unconstitutional. I kept saying, well, if that isn't unconstitutional, why is it different for gender? This was my constant refrain. Eventually, unfortunately, one of the judges on the committee said to me, well, we don't like those cases, either. I couldn't get out of there fast enough, man.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The judges were wearing Victoria down. She was losing hope.

NOURSE: I really was quite demoralized. I really didn't know how I was going to move forward. The women judges had by then come out in favor of a remedy. So we had some support. But judges are friends of senators, and they had convinced people that this was the worst thing that had ever happened to them. And I could never quite get them out of that mindset.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But finally, in yet another drawn-out meeting, Sally got through.

NOURSE: Sally was very, very persuasive. I've never seen a better oral argument in my life. They all had legitimate questions about the scope. What did gender-motivated mean? There were questions, and Sally won the day.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The judges ultimately backed down and decided not to take a stance on the civil rights remedy. Now it was down to the final negotiations and deals cut behind closed doors. It had been nearly four years since Victoria started working on the bill. And in that time, a lot had happened.

GOLDFARB: Well, things politically had changed. By 1994, we had Bill Clinton as president.

NOURSE: And then there was the nationally cataclysmic events of Anita Hill.


BIDEN: Professor, do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?


BIDEN: Thank you.

NOURSE: I was sitting at dinner with a little Sony TV watching. And like the rest of the nation, I was transfixed and horrified.


HILL: Mr. Chairman, Senator Thurmond, members of the committee, my name is Anita F. Hill. And I am a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: During Justice Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991, law professor Anita Hill came forward that she had been sexually harassed by her former boss, Clarence Thomas. She testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee over the course of three days, where she was interrogated by senators like Alabama Democrat Howell Heflin....


HOWELL HEFLIN: I've got to determine what your motivation might be. Are you a scorned woman? Do you have a militant attitude relative to the area of civil rights?

HILL: No, I don't have a militant attitude.

HEFLIN: Do you have a martyr complex?

HILL: No, I don't (laughter).

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...And by the committee chairman, Joe Biden.


BIDEN: It is appropriate to ask Professor Hill anything any member wishes to ask her to plumb the depths of her credibility.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Despite Anita Hill coming forward, Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court. The hearings inspired women to run for office all across the country. 1992 was coined the year of the woman when 24 women were elected to the House and five were elected to the Senate. All of these women now had an opportunity to pass VAWA and influence their colleagues.

NOURSE: There's no question that in terms of the Senate dynamics, we used to joke that after that, senators would try to sign on to the Violence Against Women Act three or four times. You know, she's a tremendous hero for the Violence Against Women Act.


HILL: I guess one really does have to understand something about the nature of sexual harassment. It is very difficult for people to come forward with these things.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: As more and more women were taking jobs in D.C., Victoria finally had to leave hers. Remember; she had been offered a teaching gig at the University of Wisconsin when she first started working on VAWA. If she didn't take it now, she'd lose it for good. So she left before a deal was cut. About a month later, she woke up to a phone call in the middle of the night. It was one of her colleagues back in D.C.

NOURSE: And she says, they passed VAWA. I said, the civil rights remedy? She said, all of it. And it's 2:00 a.m. in the morning, and I'd been teaching for about a month or something. And I'm like, really? Really?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Please remain standing for the national anthem, sung by Detective Kim Royster.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: On September 13, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. VAWA was included in that bill, the crime bill that many say contributed to the rise of mass incarceration in this country and the bill that many people of color and grassroots organizations didn't want anywhere near the Violence Against Women Act - that bill.

NOURSE: So I fly in for the ceremony.

GOLDFARB: I was there on the White House lawn watching President Clinton sign it.

REUSS: And we sat there, and it was very long 'cause everybody had to talk.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: You sustain us with your grace.

REUSS: But VAWA was never mentioned.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: We invoke your presence at this time.

REUSS: No, nobody ever mentioned the Violence Against Women Act.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: We pray for all persons here.

REUSS: Didn't matter. We had passed it. We didn't care. We didn't care.


KIM ROYSTER: (Singing) Oh, say, can you see by the dawn's early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: For the next six years after VAWA was signed into law, survivors of sexual violence filed suit against their perpetrators using the civil rights remedy.

NOURSE: This was their avenue. You know, the coach harassed them. And they - under Title 9, you could only sue the university. You can't sue the coach. So they're suing the coach. They're suing the professor.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And these women were winning?

NOURSE: Yes, they were winning.

GOLDFARB: Now, of course, that wasn't the final end of the story.


WILLIAM REHNQUIST: We'll hear argument now No. 99-5, United States against Antonio J. Morrison and Christy Brzonkala v. Antonio Morrison. Ms. Goldscheid...

NOURSE: Christy Brzonkala was a student at Virginia Tech. And not long after she enrolled, she was attacked by two football players.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Allegedly. Also allegedly...

NOURSE: One of them went on later to say something like, I like to get women drunk and F them. And basically, the school ended up going back and forth about whether they should be disciplined.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: One of the football players, Morrison, was suspended. But ultimately, he was reinstated.

NOURSE: Meanwhile, Christie Bzronkala dropped out of school and was traumatized by this. And she brought a suit under VAWA.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Bzronkala lost in the lower courts. In 2000, she brought her case up to the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

NOURSE: Justice Rehnquist wrote the opinion 5 to 4, holding that Congress had no power to enact the civil rights remedy.


REHNQUIST: Petitioner Bzronkala's complaint alleges that she was the victim of a brutal assault. If the allegations are true, no civilized system of justice could fail to provide her a remedy for Morrison's conduct. But under our federal system, that remedy must be provided by the Commonwealth of Virginia and not by the United States. The judgment of the court of appeals is therefore affirmed. Justice Thomas has filed a concurring opinion. Justice...

REUSS: William Rehnquist said we cannot find it in the Constitution that this is a civil right.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Which means...

REUSS: Right.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...The Constitution cannot protect a woman against violence.

REUSS: Absolutely. It means that it cannot find in its place to determine that gender-based violence is discrimination.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The Washington Post came out in favor of the Morrison decision, saying the court got it right. If Congress could federalize rape and assault, it's hard to think of anything it couldn't.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: So what do you think would be different today if the civil rights provision had lived?

NOURSE: Well, the country lost the heart of it. The country lost a backstop for Title VII, Title IX. The country committed itself to something it couldn't imagine, which was #MeToo.


NOURSE: And I always thought before #MeToo that the rest of VAWA might have done the job. It might have educated people. It might have changed the institutions, like police departments. It might have, you know, gotten people to understand that women were credible.


NOURSE: But after #MeToo, I realized that the heart of it had died for the wrong reasons, and it made me deeply, deeply sad.


REUSS: I don't know. I guess I was used to it. Maybe I've been abandoned at the altar so many times - I don't know. There was no town hall meeting that caused Orrin Hatch to be born again. There's no way. So - it's just like, oh, f***.

NOURSE: Guess what? In 2019, a district court in Michigan held that Congress had no power under the Morrison decision to ban female genital mutilation, meaning torture under a number of international treaties.


NOURSE: And only because of Morrison, Congress had no power.


NOURSE: That has to change.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Since the Morrison decision in 2000, VAWA has been reauthorized numerous times with revisions that aim to be more inclusive and intersectional. For instance, the act didn't fully protect same-sex couples until 2013. There's still criticism from advocates who say women of color have paid the price for a law focused on criminalization. While seen as a victory for women by some, many are still asking - which women? - not to mention which genders.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: With all its triumphs and shortcomings, today VAWA sits in purgatory. When the bill expired in 2019, the House passed a new version that's currently stalled in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn't put it on the legislative schedule.

So while the future of the bill is uncertain, it's clear that no version of this law alone will ever make this problem go away. Pat thinks that even after #MeToo, a national reckoning around sex and power still hasn't happened.

REUSS: We can fight for cancer - pink ribbons for breast cancer. Men are our best friends. God bless them. When we play baseball, they've got on all this pink stuff 'cause when you fight breast cancer, you don't blame the victim. But when it comes down to sexual and domestic violence and incest and stalking and rape, it's hard for them to do.


REUSS: We couldn't get Obama to light up the White House in October purple. Purple is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I begged. I pleaded. I cajoled. I threatened. Well, we have the pink all lined up, and we can't change or whatever - I don't know. Lighting it up for breast cancer is cool. But domestic violence is just too hard.


REUSS: And that's why, you know, it's a power thing. It's a hierarchy thing. Right now if you and I had some problem, I would look at you and I would say, who's going to believe you? You're 32 years old, and I'm 77. And I know powerful people, and you're just a kid. I would say that to you. And you would walk out the door - God, she's right. No one's going to believe me. And my mom will be some embarrassed - and my friends, you know. We can all put ourselves in that place.


ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me. And...



KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.



ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl. Thanks also to Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: And Austin Horn. Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: If you like something you heard or you have an idea for an episode, please write us at throughline@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter @throughlinenpr.


ABDELFATAH: Also, we'd love to hear from you. Send us a voicemail to 872-588-8805 and leave your name, where you're from and say the line, you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. And tell us what you think of the show. We might even feature your voicemail on a future episode. That number again is 872-588-8805. Thanks for listening.


Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.