Why do women stay in abusive relationships.

Women writing about politics, etc.
April 8 2009 11:41 AM

Crazy Love, Crazy Choices

Why on earth do women stay in abusive relationships?

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Like Steiner, Pollitt also has an old-fashioned explanation. In her case, it's an antique version of romantic love. Like Madame Bovary, Pollitt read too many novels and gave her heart to an old-fashioned "bounder." The first things she noticed about her future betrayer were his "panama hat" and his "romantically long and threadbare overcoat." She writes, "All he had to do was introduce himself, and half an hour later I was on fire: I was like a flame in fog." At the time, Pollitt uncharacteristically forgot how this would end in a novel; Madame Bovary ends up lying on the floor, clutching a vial of rat poison.

Unlike Steiner in Crazy Love, Pollitt uses her very powerful mind to address how she, and many others, let herself become the victim of her Lothario's relentless womanizing. "All my adult life," she writes, "I had wanted to rescue women—but I had also felt superior to the ones I tried to help. … I had not taken my own advice either. The truth was I was … just like them."

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Still, she never really answers the question: Why do women's self-destructive fantasies drown out the warnings that years of old-style feminism have alerted us to? As Pollitt puts it, when will women's psychology catch up with their material conditions? Must we assume that they are natural, inevitable victims?

I refuse to accept this bleak assessment, the soft bigotry of low feminism. Michelle Goldberg's new book The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World, is about the struggle to bring sexual self-determination to women who really were powerless. It includes the story of 11-year-old Anne, who got wind of her impending genital circumcision and walked 25 miles through the Kenyan bush at night to reach a Girls Rescue Center. Anne was not a columnist, or a blonde. But she heard a rumor of liberation and followed that rumor into the woods.

Another lesson: Women should be able to look after one another. At one point, in her effort to figure out what to do, Steiner researches abuse. An expert on domestic violence tells her that no man he'd ever studied had stopped being violent. No one he worked with in the field would ever say "this one is done. He'll never abuse anyone again." Four months after her husband nearly killed her, Steiner saw him kissing the hair of his new girlfriend at a party. She silently turned away. Will we be reading the girlfriend's memoir next?

Linda Hirshman is the author of the (entirely appropriately named)  Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution, coming June 5. www.gayvictorybook.com.