The 25th anniversary of the passing of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) on Friday, Sept. 13 called for a special occasion featuring Dr. Jill Biden alongside the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program (SHARPP).
Authored by former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden with the help of then-Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the federal law gave $1.6 billion over the course of six years to aid in the “investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women,” according to the act; “automatic and manual” compensation toward victims of sexual violence; and permitted “civil redress in cases prosecutors chose to leave un-prosecuted.” The law also created the Office on Violence Against Women, a part of the Department of Justice, a year later to educate police, judicial officials and victim advocates on sexual violence. The bill has since been reauthorized four times: 2000, 2005, 2013 and this past April.
The 5 p.m. event, held outside the front steps of Wolff House and SHARPP headquarters, saw Biden – a former professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College and the wife of former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden – lead a short speech on the significance of the bill while also applauding the efforts of SHARPP Director Amy Culp and the organization’s members and volunteers for their work to address domestic and sexual violence, saying that the “women and men of UNH are safer and more empowered because of you and your work.”
Biden told a crowd of nearly 30 attendees the story of the VAWA, a story that began in the summer of 1990 when then Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) and his staff began crafting the bill. At the time, Sen. Biden, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was inspecting crime statistics when a surprising figure “jumped out at him:” violent crime perpetrated against men had fallen “drastically” over the last decade, while violence against women had increased.
Sen. Biden also discovered that, per those statistics, one in 10 men believed that it was okay for a man to hit a woman “if she didn’t obey him,” Dr. Biden said. He also learned from the data that many men believed rape could be “justified” if they took a woman on a date and spent money on her.
“And the surprising thing is, many women agreed,” Dr. Biden told the crowd. “Now it may be hard to believe that, even in the 90s, partner violence was still considered…a private family affair. Domestic violence wasn’t really talked about; when a woman came to work – and I’m sure many of you…have seen this, with, you know, makeup covering the bruises – her colleagues just looked the other way. People thought, many people thought, that it was impossible for husbands and boyfriends to commit rape.”
The data and corresponding revelations led Sen. Biden to hold hearings on sexual violence, where he oversaw cases of women facing blame for such acts leveled against them. A notable example Dr. Biden recalled was the case of then-model Marla Hanson, who reportedly had her face slashed by Steven Bowman and Darren Norman, friends of New York City landlord Steve Roth, after Hanson rejected Roth’s advances. Following the attack, Hanson was reportedly blamed for “being out at night,” per Dr. Biden; faced a defense lawyer who “drilled” her about her previous sexual activities on the stand while implying that she was prostitute; and was criticized by her family for moving to New York by herself in the first place.
Dr. Biden added that the hearings also showcased testimony from grassroot organizations that had pushed for a bill addressing domestic and sexual violence for years prior, while various laws across the country that made it harder to press accountability on alleged perpetrators of sexual violence were “documented.” The enquiries also encountered a doctor and supposed “expert” who advocated for the other side and claimed that men possessed a “mental switch” that could be triggered by women; the doctor argued that men with a triggered “mental switch” should not be held responsible for their actions because of “their biology,” Dr. Biden recalled.
“During that time, Joe began visiting shelters and crisis centers and seeing the desperate need for more support,” she said. “He talked to the staff and advocates who sat with survivors every night, which I’m sure all the staff here [at SHARPP] is so familiar with. He used the power of his office to give voice to the voiceless; he took their stories back to Washington; he promised them that he wouldn’t let this go. And he didn’t.”
Opponents of Sen. Biden’s efforts claimed that, per Dr. Biden, abuse should not be punished “so harshly” and that it was a “private” matter. She added that the Department of Justice and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist also opposed the bill at the time, the latter of whom claiming that women could potentially use VAWA to win more money in cases of divorce.
“Now my husband has always hated bullies. He’s always believed, as his parents taught him, that there’s nothing more cowardly than a man who abuses his power over his family,” Dr. Biden said. “So, after listening to hours and hours of testimony, after seeing the backlash, Joe sat down and he drafted the bill in his own hands; he literally sat down and wrote it.”
Despite VAWA failing to garner a single vote in its first year and make an appearance on the Senate floor the following year, further efforts by him and his team to appeal directly to both sides of the aisle and the general public led to a breakthrough in 1994, the year VAWA eventually passed with a vote of 235–195 in the House of Representatives and 61–38 in the Senate. Dr. Biden recalled Sen. Biden, following President Clinton signing VAWA into law, stating that it was his proudest piece of legislation.
In the aftermath of VAWA, Dr. Biden said that the number of cases of “serious victimization by an intimate partner” fell by over 70 percent, aided by the creation of a national hotline that still operates today. In the years to follow, more than $7 billion worth of federal grants would be given out to shelters and programs like SHARPP to curb sexual violence and violence against women across the country and at campuses like UNH.
Dr. Biden went on to call the university a “trailblazer” on the issue since 1978, the year of SHARPP’s founding, as well as one of the “safest schools in the nation” as she praised the community for its efforts to protect women from sexual violence.
“You broke the silence before it was acceptable to most, and you’ve always understood what Joe has preached for decades, that laws are important, but laws alone won’t solve the problem,” she said of SHARPP’s contributions to the Durham campus and community. “…we need a fundamental cultural change. That means that men have to take responsibility, that bystanders have to step up; it means that all of us need to lift up stories like the survivors of SHARPP and bear witness to this injustice.”
Joining Dr. Biden at the event were members of SHARPP and its director Amy Culp, who introduced the headliner and expressed excitement over the VAWA anniversary.
“The passage of VAWA in 1994…has changed the landscape for many victims [and] survivors who once suffered in silence,” Culp said prior to introducing Dr. Biden. “Survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking have been able to access services such as SHARPP, and a new generation of families and justice system professionals have come to understand that domestic violence, dating violence, [and] sexual assault are crimes that our society will not tolerate.”
Attending students, such as junior political science and international affairs major Avery Judd, spoke similar praise for the event, VAWA and SHARPP’s efforts; Judd said she heard of the event from a friend and was intrigued by Dr. Biden’s appearance.
“I think SHARPP is great,” she said. “I mean, UNH is one of the safest campuses in the nation and that’s, like, a really amazing thing to…feel safe on campus, it’s a really special thing and it’s not a place that everyone has. So, I think SHARPP plays a really big role in that.”
Senior psychology major Hannah Nordstrom, meanwhile, called Dr. Biden’s speech “incredible and very empowering.” Nordstrom added that SHARPP and acts like VAWA offer “a lot of hope and empowerment to survivors or any person on this campus that is struggling with something personal or just knowing that they have the option to get help if they need it…”
As for the future of VAWA in the wake of the 2020 presidential race, Dr. Biden told The New Hampshire following the event that multiple aspects of the law, such as the “It’s On Us” movement against sexual violence created by the Obama administration in 2014 on colleges across the country, would be expanded upon should her husband win the White House next November.
“So just imagine, if we had a president of the United States who stood up and said to everyone, ‘we have to be more vigilant, and we have to make sure that sexual violence does not take place on campuses,’” Dr. Biden said. “And so everybody has to join together, and we have to create this cultural change. I mean, how beautiful would that be, to see that all across America, to hear that from a president, our president; something that we could all feel proud of?”