The oldest battered women's shelter in New England, established in 1975, is setting precedent and making many feminists nervous in the process.
Transition House not only launched a "gender-neutral" search for a new executive director but also appointed a man as its interim director. Transition House explains that it simply wants to hire the best person for the job, and interviewing men doubles the chance of success.
Feminists of my ilk, who judge individuals on merit rather than gender, are applauding. (Admittedly, a muttered "it's about time!" may also be heard.)
Feminists who believe that gender must be a deciding factor in who addresses domestic violence and how it should be addressed, are appalled. They view the very prospect of hiring a male director as violating the "mission" of the shelter movement: to assist battered women and children.
In short, the "women-only feminists" believe males should be precluded from major employment and entry at shelters. Indeed, women's shelters often deny entry to male children over 12-years-old. (The legality of doing so at tax-funded shelters is dubious, to say the least.)
Why should even male teenagers be excluded? In a protest letter to the Transition House Board, the feminist organization About Women explained that the shelter must be a space where "women could feel safe from male intrusion and could openly unburden themselves of the experiences of male violence they had undergone without fear of censure, criticism or inhibition by male presence."
One interpretation of the foregoing statement makes sense. Some female domestic violence victims have been so brutalized by the men in their lives that a mere male presence may well terrify them. For that category of domestic violence victim, a women-only shelter may be the most compassionate and effective option.
(Men-only shelters for similarly devastated male victims would be equally valid.)
Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand why a male executive director who may have no direct interaction with battered women is so objectionable. To understand this response, it is necessary to enter the realm of ideology.
The argument for a women-only space is rooted in a belief that domestic violence results from the general societal oppression of women as a class by men as a class.
The "Power and Control Wheel" that is used by every domestic violence organization I know of embodies this belief. The wheel explains the origins of domestic violence through a pie chart; one of the pie segments is labeled "Male Privilege".
In short, women-only feminists argue that women are battered not merely by an individual male abuser but by the entire male gender and, so, they must be protected from both.
This is similar to claiming that a white person who has been beaten by a black needs to be in a black-free environment because they have been battered not merely by a specific black person but by an entire race.
To carry the analogy one step farther, it is similar to demanding that blacks should not be employed or allowed on the premises of a whites-only shelter…even if those premises are tax-funded and, so, prohibited from discrimination.
The ideological argument for women-only shelters -- as opposed to the practical argument that, sometimes, such shelters just make sense -- is class guilt. The guilty class is "male." Class guilt does not allow an individual male to demonstrate his innocence because, simply by being a member of a class, he is guilty by definition.
The concept of class guilt never ceases to anger me. As a victim of domestic violence, I know the fist that legally blinded my right eye was wielded by a specific man, not by a class. And I refuse to dilute his responsibility by extending it to men who've done me no harm.
It angers me as well because I'm the sort of domestic violence victim who needed exposure to non-abusive men, not isolation from all male presence, in order to heal. I needed to realize that decent caring men still existed and that I could interact with them in a positive way. In other words, a specific man was my problem; men as a whole were part of the solution.
As I mentioned, there are domestic violence victims who do not share my reaction.
It would be amazing if hundreds of thousands of people -- from different cultures, lifestyles and backgrounds -- responded to a complex experience in exactly the same manner. Just as there is no one explanation for domestic violence, neither is there a one-size-fits-all remedy.
But the ideological women-only argument for domestic violence shelters is inflexible. It denies to female victims the healing presence of benevolent men with whom they can re-establish trust.
It denies the very possibility of male and female victims occupying the same shelter and, so, coming to an understanding of their differences and shared realities. Such mingling of the sexes is common in other forms of therapy and rehabilitation but it is akin to heresy to even suggest the prospect for domestic violence.
In short, women-only zealots dismiss the feminist goal of 'diversity' and insist instead upon only one explanation for domestic violence and only one organizational principle for shelters.
Women-only zealots are hurting victims. They are harming those battered women who would benefit from learning how to regain their trust and respect for male. They are harming the significant percentage of domestic violence victims who are male themselves.
Estimates vary on the prevalence of male domestic violence victims. Professor Martin Fiebert of California State University at Long Beach prepared a summary of hundreds of studies and reports which indicates that men and women are victimized at much the same rate. A recent BOJ study found that men constituted 27 percent of domestic violence victims between 1998 and 2002.
Whichever figure is correct, a significant percentage of domestic violence victims are refused admission to most shelters in North America based solely upon their gender.
The anti-male prejudice in domestic violence must cease.
The deadline for Transition House's job search is August 30, which means there may be a new executive director as you read this column. Whether it is a 'he' or 'she' is secondary. What matters most is that the individual will have been judged upon his or her merits and no longer upon genitalia.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.