The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Femicide is up. American history says that’s not surprising.

Reversing the rising tide of femicide requires understanding its deep roots in the United States

The new Family Justice Center was lit in purple to raise awareness of domestic violence in 2016 in Upper Marlboro, Md. (Kate Patterson for The Washington Post)
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Father of ‘Idyllic’ Family is Charged after Driving Tesla off Cliff.” “Utah Man Kills Wife, Five Children and Mother-in-Law, Police Say.” “Ana Walshe’s husband, Brian Walshe, is charged with murder.” As these January headlines attest, 2023 is on pace to top previous years’ rates of femicide — the crime of men, nearly always current or former intimate partners, killing women.

According to a September 2022 report by the Violence Policy Center, between 2014 (the lowest year on record) and 2020, the incidence of femicide in the United States has increased by 24 percent. In addition, intimate partner violence rose an estimated 8 percent during the coronavirus pandemic and does not appear to have subsided.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that, among our peer countries, the United States accounts for 70 percent of incidents of femicide and ranks 34th among all countries (in large part this is because of the accessibility of firearms in the United States).

But media reports have neglected to shine the light on this chilling reality, especially when Black women, Native American women and trans women are the targets of violence, which they overwhelmingly are.

Feminist activist Diana Russell began using the term “femicide” in 1976, at the first International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, to describe the “killing of females by males because they are female.” Yet, in the United States, the term “femicide” is rarely used to describe the killings of women by men that take place on American soil. This isn’t just a media oversight. Textbooks also gloss over, at best, the role of gendered and sexual violence in our nation’s history. (The teaching of these topics is being further obstructed by state laws banning “critical race theory” and research-based discussions of sex.)

Yet to understand the current problem of femicide, we must put it in historical context — and in particular in the contexts of white supremacy, U.S. expansion and coverture.

Under the system of British common law that governed American states well into the 19th century, wives were considered an appendage of their husbands and a woman’s legal identity was covered by that of her husband, hence the term coverture. “Mrs. John Smith” meant that, after marriage, the courts did not care about a woman’s maiden name or identity; all that mattered was her marital status.

Until the late 1800s, married women had no legal right to their own earnings, to any property they may have inherited or even to the children they had borne from their own bodies. Under coverture, it was also basically inconceivable for a husband to be prosecuted for assaulting his wife or children — they were, essentially, his to do with as he saw fit.

At the same time, gendered and sexual violence were used as tools to extend White settlers’ control of land and of enslaved people.

The rape and killing of enslaved women, Indigenous women, immigrant women and Mexican women bolstered “Manifest Destiny” — the 19th-century rallying cry for White Americans to “settle” the continent from coast to coast — and sustained the brutal practice of legalized slavery for more than 50 years after Congress banned the importation of people from Africa for the purposes of slavery in 1808.

After the Civil War, sexual violence remained a key component of white supremacist rule and galvanized Black women to organize myriad clubs and civil rights organizations, creating a direct line from Ida B. Wells to Rosa Parks.

In the 1870s, female temperance reformers began to call national attention to the twinned problems of domestic violence and alcohol abuse, especially when White women were the targets. Though their approach tended to frame domestic violence in moralistic and class-based ways — as a problem among immigrant or lower-class families to be solved by middle-class club women — these reformers did succeed in instigating conversations about a widespread problem that had heretofore not been discussed publicly. Before 1930, private settlement homes, such as Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago, provided the main safety net for abused women.

Despite these conversations, domestic violence persisted, and so too did pressure to keep the patriarchal family intact.

During the Great Depression, the federal and state governments set up programs that limited how much aid single mothers could qualify for and increased the surveillance of low-income women.

Under Secretary Frances Perkins, the Labor Department engaged in heated debates about New Deal programs for women before finally settling on a two-pronged, gender-based system. Men would qualify for unemployment insurance while women qualified for welfare, which paid far less, because New Deal leaders believed women should be supported by husbands. Put another way, after decades of women’s increasing participation in the paid labor force, New Deal programs tended to institutionalize women’s economic dependence on men.

This policy embodied a broader shift between the 1880s and the 1950s: Despite attention to the issue of domestic violence, policymakers and social scientists increasingly blamed women rather than men while simultaneously limiting women’s pathways to economic self-sufficiency.

Beginning in the late-1960s, however, feminist activists began organizing shelters and hotlines for survivors of domestic violence and advocating for public policy solutions to what had previously been discussed as a private, family problem.

Marital rape finally began to be recognized as a crime in the 1970s. In 1974, Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which enabled women to attain bank accounts and credit cards without their husbands’ signatures.

And second wave feminists like Dorothy Pittman Hughes and Gloria Steinem demanded that Americans look at the structural roots of violence against women, rather than the outmoded “one bad apple” approach. Nevertheless, until the 1990s, the United States had “more animal shelters than women’s shelters.”

Yet various high-profile events like Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony at Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings and the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson brought increased, widespread public attention to the related crimes of sexual harassment and intimate partner violence.

And, in 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), introduced by Sen. Joe Biden, which established the Office on Violence Against Women within the Justice Department and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, among other provisions.

After the 1994 passage of VAWA, rates of domestic violence decreased. But, since 2014, incidents of femicide have increased and, since 2020, rates of domestic violence have also gone up, according to several measures. Why?

While initially a popular bipartisan measure, more recent reauthorizations of VAWA have faced partisan stumbling blocks. In 2018-2019, reauthorization of VAWA floundered in Congress over a provision that would have limited gun access for perpetrators of domestic violence.

Moreover, such policies have neglected the legacy of racism that has heightened the risk of violence for women of color and trans women.

Under a Democratic Congress and White House, the 2022 reauthorization of VAWA succeeded in remedying, at least in theory, one of the bill’s greatest weaknesses: the inability of tribal courts to prosecute people who are not Native American for committing crimes on Native American lands. In addition, the 2022 version of VAWA included vital provisions strengthening protections for LGBTQ people and increased support for sexual assault prevention and prosecution.

Moving forward, however, the recent partisan debates about firearms, to give just one example, portend future challenges in sustaining VAWA.

Another significant challenge is the normalization of a national discourse that dehumanizes women by describing them as sexual objects and/or reproductive vessels, as well as our reluctance to talk about gendered and sexual violence in structural, rather than individual, terms.

The arc that runs from former president Donald Trump’s crass comments about groping women’s bodies to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade has implications not only for public policy but also for the lives and deaths of women.