Gender Justice Roots for Just Conflict

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What might it mean for women and men to have deeply intimate and just relationships when, for so much of human history, relationships between men and women have been shaped by dominance, gender inequality, and violence? 

This question arose for me out of thirty years of work in the domestic violence intervention community starting with my role as a volunteer on the staff of one of the first programs in the country to do intervention with men who batter.  This program is RAVEN in St. Louis.  I was the coordinator of counseling services there for over eight years in the 1980's.

The parent group for RAVEN developed from the planning team for the 4th National Conference on Men and Masculinity held at Washington University in St. Louis in 1977. That conference brought together men (and some women) who were interested in discovering how our understandings of gender shaped our relationships with other men, with women, and with our children.

The planning group continued to meet after the conference and formed what was first called Brothers in Change but which was later changed to the St. Louis Organization for Changing Men. We were a collective which allowed anyone who completed the training and volunteered at least three hours a week to be a member of the staff and to participate in the consensus decision-making process. That is, anyone who was male. Women were excluded from membership.

The broader organization had multiple goals and activities. There was a monthly public meeting that explored some issue of men's identity, often through a film and subsequent discussion. There was a group exploring the roles of men as fathers.  And there was what we called the Childcare Collective which provided childcare at women's events. The intervention program working with men who batter was not originally an activity of the collective. It mostly arose out of a concern to figure out why men would physically assault their women partners. Some of the men on staff had themselves been violent in past relationships.

I took the training to join the staff in the fall of 1979 and started co-leading one of the groups for men who batter in January 1980. In June of 1980 I went to my first National Coalition Against Domestic Violence conference and discovered how controversial our work was. I saw us as allies with the women who work with battered women. It never occurred to me that there would be women who opposed what we were doing. Still I found that I had great respect for the women who were not impressed or encouraged by our work. Their indifference and skepticism gave me a very helpful lens through which to see what we were trying to do.

A central concern for feminism in the 70's (and which has continued to this day) is the problem of violence against women. Much of the activism of the day was about creating support services for the victims of that violence: victims of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence. The men who were attracted to Brothers in Change were primarily social activists who wanted to change the world. While we were not welcome to join the women in their work, we envied their zeal and the cohesiveness of their consciousness raising groups.

It was self-evident that the women who were victims were the victims of men. As men, it was our job to address those men, our brothers and at times ourselves, who perpetrated the violence. We saw ourselves as unwilling beneficiaries of men's violence against women and we committed ourselves to ending it. While we would have enjoyed women's thanks, it was clear we were not going to get applause for cleaning up the mess we were making.

So the Domestic Violence "Community" was actually two communities. There were the women who worked with women, and the men who worked with men. We didn't meet together routinely. From time to time there was occasion to each present at the same event and we knew each other socially, but there was a sense that our work was different and that there was little reason to collaborate.

As men we knew that our work depended on the work that women were doing. Indeed, there is no "problem of domestic violence" in those communities where there are no services for battered women. On the other hand women considered that we were at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous. We certainly weren't going the get the men to change and we might give their partners senseless hope which would lure them back into danger. There was no sense that we men were in a mutual relationship with the women. Some of us felt a sense of justice in this imbalanced relationship. We were atoning for thousands of years of patriarchal violence and oppression.

But by the 90's the politics started to change. It became more and more important to model gender equality and that meant having men working at rape crisis centers and women co-leading intervention groups for men who batter. As this shift happened it also became more critical that we have a clear notion of what just and equitable relationships between women and men might look like.

This clarity has not emerged in the communities of which I have been a part. We have a pretty clear sense of what we don't want, but we don't have a clear vision of what healthy relationships are like. It was my wish to describe just relationships in gender neutral terms that helped prompt me to develop the ideas I present in Just Conflict.

In order to envision what healthy relationships look like in the book we consider the nature of power, kinds of relationships, forms of agreements, and tools to create and recreate accountability. In every instance it is important to take into account the effects of culture on our expectations. Nevertheless, just relationships are not shaped by the demands of gender. We must take seriously the trauma of abuse and discover ways of establishing a radical level  of accountability if we are to build relationships which do not mimic the oppression that characterizes much of what is considered normal in this culture.

My personal efforts to answer these questions have resulted in the practical framework which is the vision of Just Conflict.

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