CHARLOTTE – The confident, composed and extremely successful businesswoman sitting beside me at the “Women Helping Women” lunch was also the face and voice in the video, the one talking about how to move on and grow stronger after experiencing domestic violence at the hands of a partner who professes love.
The event called attention to activities planned for October, domestic violence awareness month. While the month may be drawing to an end, the problem is far from solved. Earlier this year, when President Obama signed an updated version of the Violence Against Women Act, which backs local and state efforts, he acknowledged that the rate of sexual assaults has dropped and progress has been made. But he said there is still work to do. The bill’s reauthorization survived criticism by some Republicans over new domestic violence protections for gays and lesbians and the issue of trying accused non-Native American abusers in tribal courts on reservations.
The bill has also become an issue in the Virginia gubernatorial race, where Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe and former president Bill Clinton on Tuesday criticized Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli for not backing the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act. He was one of three state attorneys general who did not sign a letter urging Congress to reauthorize the legislation. Cuccinelli said he does not routinely endorse legislation because the bills can be amended, and his campaign pointed to his work to combat sexual assault when he was a student at the University of Virginia.
My luncheon companion’s experience was a reminder that this political issue is personal. Often the audience for her speeches is high school students who still don’t get the message. When she speaks with them, she will grab their attention with her old prom photo, reminding them and herself that she was that young, with grown-up problems.
Tana Greene, 54, told me her story when we later met for coffee. She was a naïve high school freshman, flattered that the handsome and popular senior focused on her. When he insisted she never ride the bus because he was the only one who could drive her to school, when he pushed her friends away so he could have her all to himself, she felt special. When he wanted to have sex – that one time – she ignored her instincts and upbringing and said yes. And she became pregnant.
Greene married at 15 and had a son at 16. By then, the attentiveness had begun to turn into emotional and physical abuse from her young husband. “I kept thinking I could fix it,” she said. “I think I can fix anything.” She felt guilt and shame, and kept silent when, she said, he held her at gunpoint or locked her out of the house in the rain when she was six months pregnant. With the support of her parents – “they were fantastic,” Greene said – she divorced at 17 and moved on.
In North Carolina, the domestic violence awareness campaign “eNOugh,” which sponsored the luncheon where I met Greene, strives to educate and ignite community action. The public-private partnership involves community organizations and leaders, with volunteers representing corporate, law enforcement, legal and marketing and communications partners. It offers statistics – domestic violence is the No. 1 reason women and children become homeless in the United States, more than 13 percent of high school students report experiencing physical violence by a boyfriend or girlfriend. But it also offers hope.
Greene said there were no shelters she could turn to. That has changed. In Charlotte, she has served on the board of Safe Alliance, formerly United Family Services and a partner with eNOugh, which last December opened a shelter that nearly tripled the number of beds available in the old shelter. When it opened, the five-acre site also had room to grow from its 80 beds to 120. “It’s full,” said Greene, and necessary. “You can’t get on your feet when you have no money and he has control.”
Greene took control. After her divorce, she wrote down a list of goals: Finish school, buy her own house by age 23, get married by age 26 and own her own business by age 30. She accomplished each one. She and her husband signed the papers for their first business on her 29th birthday. She said the Greene Group, a national staffing corporation based in Davidson, N.C., has revenues of $34 million, for now.
Greene has a daughter from her long and successful second marriage (that first husband has been married and divorced six times, she said), and her now 38-year-old son is a husband and father. Not just in October but throughout the year, Greene said she tells women to trust their “God gift of intuition.”
“So many times, we shut that out. You’ll figure everything out if you figure that out.”