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Opinion Biden puts renewed focus on the Violence Against Women Act. What will female voters think?

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks at the 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., on Oct. 26. (Sam Wolfe/Reuters)
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It’s difficult for any male candidate to navigate matters of gender in the first presidential field that features multiple female contenders. But the issue is perhaps most treacherous for former vice president Joe Biden, who has confronted criticism for his handling — in the view of critics, mishandling — of the Anita Hill hearings and for his supposed handsiness, an old-school politician’s brand of tactile campaigning in a rules-changed, #MeToo world.

From the Biden camp’s point of view, there is an understandable irony to the baggage that the 77-year-old Biden — his birthday was Wednesday — is being forced to carry. Because one of Biden’s signature achievements — “the proudest thing I’ve done in my career,” as he put it in an interview with me on Tuesday — is pushing for the passage and then overseeing the implementation of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which brought new attention and resources to the once overlooked and discounted issue of domestic violence.

I covered the Clarence Thomas hearings and had always thought of the Violence Against Women Act as Biden’s effort to rehabilitate his image with women in their aftermath. What I had not realized was that Biden had been working on the measure since 1990 — somewhat to the dismay of women’s groups who worried then that emphasizing domestic violence might detract from their efforts on abortion rights and other issues.

“Everybody thinks the reason I was so passionate about it and got started was maybe my mother, or sister, wife or somebody had been abused, but my dad … this is no malarkey, really the reason was my dad,” Biden said. “He thought the greatest sin anybody could do was the abuse of power ... physical power, a man raising his hand to a woman or a child.”

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Now Biden is making a new push to highlight his work on the law, whose reauthorization is once again stalled in the Senate — this time over, among other things, new protections for transgender victims and the effort to close the so-called boyfriend loophole. Under existing law, married men convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence or stalking offenses are not permitted to buy guns, but that prohibition does not extend to dating relationships.

The House approved a reauthorization of the law this year, but negotiations in the Senate between California Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Iowa Republican Joni Ernst over a bipartisan bill have broken down. Feinstein last week introduced a measure similar to the House version and endorsed by all 47 Democratic senators.

The Biden campaign, seizing on the legislative jockeying, has launched a new 60-second television ad in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that spotlights Biden’s work on the issue. It features Chrissy Simonds, a New Hampshire woman who was homeless due to domestic violence. “When you’re someone like myself who’s gone through domestic violence and been physically and mentally broken down, and then one day you read in the newspaper that a senator who you don’t even know is fighting for a bill to be passed to help women like myself, to keep us safe,” Simonds says, her voice cracking. “Joe Biden became my hero that day because he didn’t even know me, and he was fighting for me and my son.”

Biden also unveiled his own plan to expand VAWA and make its reauthorization a priority of his first 100 days in office. The Biden proposal focuses on creating an expanded safety net for survivors of domestic violence, including $5 billion for community organizations to dispense cash grants to survivors of domestic violence, federally mandated paid leave and ensuring access to housing.

I spoke with Biden about his proposal in a telephone interview from Delaware, where he was preparing for Wednesday night’s Democratic debate. Given the criticism about Anita Hill and his campaigning style, I asked, is bringing up VAWA a good way to remind voters, male and female, about his advocacy on behalf of women?

“No, quite frankly, I think the opposite. It just generates questions like that,” Biden said. “I’m not being a wiseguy. … I promise you, this is not about the politics. This is a core, core, core value issue for me. … There still is in this country a sexism that goes to the notion that somehow, somehow if a woman is in fact abused or raped that she somehow deserves it or did something.”

Read more:

Molly Roberts: It doesn’t matter what Joe Biden meant to do

Amber Heard: I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.

The Post’s View: We need to face this harrowing statistic on gun violence

The Post’s View: A first step toward getting guns out of the hands of domestic abusers

The Post’s View: If you beat your wife, you lose your gun. That’s how it should be.