Women in the World

03.29.12

Rep. Gwen Moore on Her Own Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women Act

Rep. Gwen Moore took to the House floor Wednesday to share her personal experience of sexual assault. She tells Patricia Murphy why the Violence Against Women Act must be passed—and how this Congress has a preoccupation with ‘putting women in their place.’

Rep. Gwen Moore is a feisty, hard-charging, unapologetically liberal Democrat from Wisconsin. But as she told me during an interview in Washington, she is also a survivor of a lifetime of violence, including beatings, rapes, and abusive relationships.

“I have been a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault for as long as I can remember,” she said. “I think that men, boys, see it as a right of passage to have sex with girls. Lovers feel it is their right to dominate women in that way. That has been my experience.”

That experience led Moore to the House floor Wednesday to convince Republican members of Congress that the Violence Against Women Act is more than just another bill to be passed, blocked, or stalled on the House floor.

“It is pathetic and it is disappointing that it’s come to this,” she said on the House floor, nearly yelling at her colleagues across the aisle. “Violence against women in this country is not levied against just Democrats, but Republicans as well...not just rich people or poor people. It knows no gender, it knows no ethnicity, it knows nothing.”

Moore was leading the charge with Nancy Pelosi to force a vote on VAWA as a part of the budget being considered in the House. Republicans unanimously voted down the measure, even though every Republican woman in the Senate is co-sponsoring it across the Capitol.

Although the bill was renewed in 2005 nearly unanimously, money to continue its funding has become contentious for the first time since it passed in 1994. New provisions to include gays and lesbians, as well as illegal immigrant women, in the bill’s protections have riled the GOP and led eight Republicans, all men, to vote against it in the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.

“Once again, for some reason in this 112th Congress, there has been a preoccupation with putting women in their place,” Moore told The Daily Beast after the House vote.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, the top-ranking Republican women in the House, countered that her party has always supported the bill in the past but that Democrats’ efforts to force a vote on it now are a political stunt.

“I really believe this is a distraction from the issues facing America,” she said. “The Democrats are manufacturing this ‘war on women’ it because they know Republicans won the women’s vote in 2010. The Democrats are trying to manufacture this to distract from the real issues, and I believe they will be exposed.”

But Moore sees the situation differently, very differently.

“It is very frightening to see a resurgence of the old mores, or lack thereof, regarding women’s rights to their own bodies,” Moore said.

“I have lived through a period of time well before 1994, when there were no resources,” she said. “It is epidemic and it is only with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 that we have been able to put a dent in violence against women, and women have had a place to go.”

Moore’s improbable journey to become a champion of the bill began in Racine, Wisc., where she was born the eighth of nine children to a factory worker and a teacher. She grew up in Milwaukee, where she was assaulted as a child by a distant family member and raped by a classmate before she finished high school, she said.

The next years would take her from college to welfare to life working odd jobs and struggling as a single mother. She eventually finished at Marquette University, worked as a VISTA volunteer, and was elected to the Wisconsin state Assembly. But woven throughout her rise to Congress was a dark pattern of violence at the hands of men—abuse she said she and other women had no way of escaping on their own in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

One experience came in high school, when she said boys in her class made a bet that one of her classmates could not have sex on her: “When he wasn’t about to win the bet, he just forced himself on me.”

She was raped again in the early ’70s by a different man, who later challenged her story in court, she said. “He had as a defense that I didn’t have any underwear on and that I had a child out of wedlock. I was literally on trial that day.”

Moore said her rapist was found not guilty and she was fired from her job as a file clerk for not calling in to work the day after the attack.

She later fled from an abusive relationship with the help of what she calls “an informal network of women” because victims of abuse had no rape counseling or crisis centers to rely on in the years before VAWA passed.

Now 60, she said she feels physically safe now but is alarmed by what she sees as a trend against women’s rights that shows no signs of stopping, highlighted by proposals across the country this year to limit women’s access to contraception, abortion, and health-care services.

“It is very frightening to see a resurgence of the old mores, or lack thereof, regarding women’s rights to their own bodies,” she said. “I’ve got granddaughters, the older ones say, ‘Grandma, can they do this?’ They are young women who are actually afraid for their future and I am frightened for them.”

Moore said she’s redoubling her efforts on legislation like VAWA, but also called it the overall push to protect women’s rights “a fight for a brand-new generation” that she sees young women engaging in for the first time.

“It’s time to be vigilant again,” she said. “So yeah, it’s on.”