On December 6, 1989 the murder of 14 women at L’École Polytechnique plunged Canadians into a polarizing debate. Many saw the Montreal Massacre as the isolated act of a madman. I had been working in a battered women’s shelter by then for three years and knew that normality can exist with bottomless cruelty—and that violence against women knows no bounds.
I saw Marc Lepine as the symptom of a problem. For those of us working inside shelters, the murders were but the visible tip of a massive social crisis.
Fast forward 28 years. On December 6, 2017 I attend the sentencing hearing of an Ontario man, Basil Borutski, convicted of murdering three of his ex-partners. I am struck by how alike Borutski is to all the others: self-centered, smug, entitled, lacking even the most basic knowledge about himself, unable to think from the perspective of others. He saw women as sluts, whores and liars and responsible for his problems. He slaughtered three of them before his morning coffee with the ease of an angler gutting a string of fish.
Borutski’s actions were extreme, but his mindset is not. His rationalizations and justifications are no different from the many who make this planet a living hell for women. To borrow from Hannah Arendt, the trouble with Borutski is that there are so many like him—and that the many are not sick, but terrifyingly normal.
In the early stages of my work, I, too, struggled to understand what was going on. It took years of seeing the pattern repeated for things to become clear: Intimate partner violence is a drama in three acts. It is only in the third act that the narrative draws to a chilling conclusion.
It played out for me in a series of shocks.
First I witnessed the extreme cruelty of so many men towards their partners. Woman came to our shelter in a steady stream bearing variations on a single story of abuse. They told of their partners degrading them as sluts, cunts and whores; of being choked, beaten and raped. They’d tried everything to make it work. When finally they took the decision to separate, their partners would not let them go.
I was then able to see that threat, control and violence increase at the point of separation. Women are kicked to the curb at the leaving stage—their contributions devalued, their share of the assets denied. They are depicted as lying, vindictive, unstable, unfit. They are often dragged through the courts for years. The message women who leave abusive relationships receive through these experiences is that their lives do not belong to them. It is the time of highest risk.
Finally, I would watch as the systems women turn to for protection—police, courts, child welfare agencies, family court assessors—desperately failed them. They fail them through attitudes, policies and practices that minimize the violence, and through weak criminal law interventions. For abused mothers, our family courts are an unmitigated disaster. Apparently, women’s lives don’t matter to the community either.
Women are left to their own devices to deal with the violence as best they can. They are patronized with half-baked solutions to living in war zones. They are told to make safety plans, to teach their kids a code word for when daddy is escalating, to put money and keys aside for a quick getaway, to wear a panic button, to carry bear spray, to get a dog, to take a self-defense course, to install security cameras and extra lighting, to alarm doors and windows, to disable GPS tracking devices. They are told to vary their routines, to move, to change their identities.
In Canada a woman is murdered by her partner every three days. In the U.S., it’s three women per day. In many countries, the statistics are much worse. But wherever data exists, a similar pattern emerges Domestic homicide occurs in a context of control and violence. Often the woman has turned to authorities, only to have her pleas for protection ignored.
Three decades have passed since I began my work. I no longer think we have any intention of stopping this violence. I have come to view our offerings to women as appeasements. We’re happy to help women cope, adapt, hide and so on; we will counsel them when they are injured and console their families when they are murdered. But give them lives free of violence? That would be going too far.
The poet Katha Pollitt observes: ”It’s hard to see women as belonging to themselves.” Culture critic Ellen Willis writes that we live in a society “actively hostile to women’s ambitions for a better life.” Partial measures and small beginnings can be simply “bones to gnaw on”—as the great feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir said—”a mystification.” She felt that some things given to women are not better than nothing because they suppress women’s rebellion.
“In fact,” she wrote, “it’s a way of subduing [women] by making them think things are being done. It’s not only a way of co-opting women’s revolt but of countering it, suppressing it, pretending it needn’t exist.”
The first shelter opened in Canada in 1973. We now have more than 600. Shelters play an important role in keeping women safe, but shelters don’t stop abuse. We can rescue women until the cows come home; build ten thousand shelters. Misogyny, like a pernicious cancer, treated in one area appears in another. The violence is inside our men and inside our institutions, rooted in age-old prejudices transmitted thoughtlessly generation to generation. It needs to be taken out at the root.
Keeping women alive is a bare minimum demand: obviously these murders must stop. But all violence against women must stop. Male dominion over women’s lives must stop. Institutional support for men’s violence must stop. Rape and sexual harassment must stop. It’s all connected and it all must stop.
These circumstances are dire, but they are not beyond human control, nor inevitable. Key to ending this scourge will be tapping the expertise inside our shelters and rape crisis centers worldwide. Survivors and their advocates know this territory. They know where the landmines are hidden. They must take the lead in the development and implementation of all programs and policies that respond to violence against women.
It’s not just about monitoring and oversight of police or courts, looking for mistakes after the fact. It’s about privileging the knowledge and experience these women bring to the table—involving them at the front and working alongside them every step of the way until we get it right.
Feminist historian Gerda Lerner describes women’s history as “the primary tool for our emancipation.” Women must avoid being dupes in the next stage of our work. “Nobody gave us anything,” Lerner reminds us. “We had to fight every inch of the way for every advance and against constant resistance.”
We must jump into the fight with both feet, one eye on the past, one eye on a future where women are free to determine the course of our own lives.