The Ms. Q&A: Esta Soler Shatters Silence to Build Futures Without Violence

As a social worker in 1970s San Francisco, Esta Soler became increasingly aware of the ways in which police responses to domestic violence were falling short and failing survivors. Thus began her career as an advocate—one which led her to become the President of Futures Without Violence.

Soler’s journey began with a minuscule desk in the DA’s office and a single seat at San Francisco General Hospital. Now, Futures Without Violence is a globally-oriented organization with its headquarters in The Women’s Building in San Francisco’s Presidio neighborhood, a large, beautiful, open space overlooking the city. On any given Sunday, families and young couples come to the area to enjoy a day in the sun; this visibility was crucial to Soler when she chose the location. She and many of her contemporaries remember a time before the term “battered wives”—and the empowerment that came with discovering the term and being able to talk about an issue which had previously been so under-discussed it didn’t even have a name. Her method has therefore always been to discuss these issues openly, with great compassion and immense warmth.

Soler played an essential role in passing the Family Violence and Prevention Services Act in 1980, which supplies nationwide funding to domestic violence shelters, and the seminal Violence Against Women Act in 1994. Her storied and groundbreaking career in shattering silence around and spotlighting solutions  to violence against women has garnered her a Kellogg Foundation National Leadership Fellowship, the UCSF Medal, a Koret Israel Prize, a University of California Public Health Heroes Award, the Leadership Award from the Coro Center for Civic Leadership and the Mathew O. Tobriner Public Service Award from the Employment Law Center.

Ms. spoke to Soler about the evolution of the movement to end all forms of violence against women and the persistent power of the women’s movement.

I don’t know if you’ve read Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “The Longest War”—she makes the point that we refuse to see domestic violence as a pattern. The media has this tendency to report on domestic violence or horrific instances of sexual violence as if they’re isolated incidents rather than a trend, and, you know, fairly objectively, we can look at the trends in the data and say, there’s something going on here in the way that we configure masculinity that is profoundly wrong. 

When I first started working in violence prevention more than 30 years ago, “gender-based violence” was not common in our lexicon. It was called a “domestic dispute.” I used to go crazy, seeing these headlines, even in The San Francisco Chronicle—“woman dies because of a domestic dispute.” I’d say to myself: Nobody dies because they’ve had a dispute with somebody. It might be disturbing, it might be uncomfortable, but you die when somebody kills you.

A lot of what we did early on was make sure that the language we used was descriptive of the seriousness of the problem. We really wanted to keep the focus on the seriousness of the problem—not minimize it, not psychologize it, but really talk about it. It is about an act of violence. You’re talking about injury. You’re talking about people losing lives. You’re talking about people winding up in the hospital. And it is usually not a one-time event. Sometimes it is, but oftentimes it is a pattern—which, from my point of view, as the optimist that I am, gives you an opportunity to intervene in many different ways and at many different times.

I think that we’ve been pretty successful at breaking through on that message—that yes, it happens over time, that there are opportunities for intervention and it’s serious, it’s criminal and it’s injurious and it’s not just a “dispute.” It took 25 years to change that.

Also, in the past few years, we’ve seen a pattern we call Day 3. For many of the acts of terrorism that are described as terrorist events and committed by a lone attacker, the media gathers the basic biographical facts during the first two days. Then, by the third day, the media typically discover that this particular person also abused his wife, or was an abused child or spent some time in the criminal justice system, which didn’t get him the help he needed. Those kinds of connections are important. We can see the escalating pattern that they abuse their wife or girlfriend, and then they go on to commit an act of homicide or terrorism. If we had identified that pattern, made sure that he didn’t have a gun, more people’s lives would have been saved.

And so we should almost be looking for domestic violence, not that it should be subsumed by—

It’s a predictor of many other things. We shouldn’t wait until the Day 3 analysis; let’s make sure that this is something we identify earlier and at least prohibit gun access. Now, people use other methods to destroy other people, we know that, but let’s not make it as easy as we do.

Do you think that you could have had the career that you’ve had anywhere else?

I do. I think that there are certain other communities where we could have been equally as successful. What is great about the Bay Area is that there is a lot of receptivity. When we first got our start, we had support form now-Senator Feinstein and the DA’s office as well. So we were able to take some of the early work that we did, before the Violence Against Women Act and really convince people in public service and in positions of power that they need to take these issues seriously. I’m glad I did it in the Bay Area; it’s an absolutely spectacular place to do it.

How would you describe the Women’s Liberation environment that was here in the Bay in the mid-seventies? Because you are also very good friends with Marya Grambs, who was similarly involved in these things.

Marya was a rock star. The women’s movement was alive and well. Lots of organizations were forming. I think Marya founded about 17 of them. It was a place where you could have conversations. They were protected and thoughtful. There was a lot of energy and excitement. We were going to forge a new way, a new world. It was perfect. New Haven was that way, too. It was also a place where people got together, tried to figure out a different way of being. I loved it because there were so many things to do—so many conferences, so many smart people writing about it, singing about it. It was a lot of fun.

Yeah, it does sound like it was pretty exciting.

We grew up first with the Civil Rights movement and then the anti-war movement. We grew up moving from one organized effort to the next. I sometimes have to pinch myself! That’s such a gift. When I was a kid, my parents took me to see Martin Luther King, and I felt like my life was filled with such purpose. I get teary-eyed now, just thinking—this is really cool! I was around for this march and that march—so it was wonderful. There was always a protest, something to stand for and stand up to. We wanted to make the world a better place, and we still do.

I think that today’s youth, or the generations that have come after the Boomers, don’t have that same belief in their own power to change.

I think it’s a lot harder. On some level, our kids have access to more. On the other hand, it just feels like their journey has been more complicated. There certainly is activism, but it’s a little different. It’s episodic. Ours was constant. It was constant and thrilling. I think we felt fairly successful, in terms of ending the war and some civil rights. Obviously there is just so much more work we need to do now. Back then we felt like we were moving. It felt palpable. We could handle it.

There’s a huge theme emerging of the Bay Area being this big laboratory for trying to reimagine relationships and reimagine how we all live here together—be that organizing a commune, or the AIDS ward at SF General, or turning to that age-old institution of marriage and saying “we could fix this.” What was it that led you to question these things?

I was fortunate to grow up in a home where it was really clear that service mattered. It wasn’t about accumulation of wealth or personal accumulation—it was about doing good both at home and throughout our entire neighborhood. My mom would make sure that anyone who needed anything, she was there. At dinner the table was always full. And my parents were very loving toward each other. So I grew up just believing, “this is life, this is home life.” As I got more active in the women’s movement—when I was working in Jerry Brown’s first administration—I started hearing stories of women who were fleeing abusive partners. I came to the conclusion that what I had, everybody should have.

When I was working at the state, I was funding programs that dealt with drug and alcohol abuse. Most of those programs were not serving women. Then I found the battered women’s programs that were popping up, and there were very few of them. That’s how I met Marya. I said, “okay, we need to figure this out and do more work on that.” And that’s how it happened. Then I joined a coalition—of five people. We used the word “coalition” because we wanted people to think we were very large. The people in the group were Eva Patterson, Mimi Silbert, Nancy Walker. We put together this coalition to help women and kids, particularly kids who were vulnerable and who didn’t have resources. And that’s how this whole thing started.

You said that when you first went to Washington to pass the VAWA—was it a Republican Congressman?

In 1984, it was the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act; it is the piece of legislation that funds domestic violence shelters across this nation. So when we went to Washington—there were a few of us working together. I was really excited, being in the halls of Congress. A friend of one of the congressmen who we were working with pulled me aside and said, “you’ll never believe what one of my colleagues said, he said, ‘this bill’s just going to take the fun out of marriage.'” Thankfully things have changed dramatically since that moment.

You often say “I wish I had Twitter then,” and I think it’s important to raise the point where we talk about the Internet and how it comes from the Bay Area and how it changed the way we can have the conversation around domestic violence.

The student activism around sexual assault has been incredible. I think that social media has actually helped fuel it. I think it would have been a lot harder to get to the place that they all got to, as fast as they have, without social media. It also gives people an opportunity to tell their story with some anonymity. Both the strength and the weakness of social media is the anonymity. Because you can also be awful on it and not identify who you are, so it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword. But to promote new ideas and to push activism, social media is absolutely fantastic. You want to get people involved? You post something, you tweet, you put it on FB and you have a community.

As someone who divides her time between Europe and America, I am always struck by how private life is a contentious issue in this country. And especially around marriage equality and this whole notion that a man’s home is his castle and that he’s allowed to do whatever he likes in it. There is this huge tension between not wanting the government to interfere in people’s private lives, and—

Yet interfering all the time, around reproductive issues—

Yes, exactly, interfering with people whose private lives they disagree with. So much of your work has been about getting discussions around domestic violence and sexual assault out in the open and you’re in this building to claim a very visible discursive space. 

People would say it’s from the Calvinist ideology that government is too invasive—and yet, the same people who say that use government to be the most invasive. So I think there are a lot of contradictions. I also think that public policy and governance create civil society, and that literally creates world peace, so I’m going to fight for it—more passionately than ever. I really believe in community. It’s not just an accumulation of nuclear families.

I think that’s one of the central projects of the Bay Area, is trying to say that it’s not about the nuclear family. We’re all here together, we share this beautiful place and we have a responsibility towards it.

I remember when Hillary Clinton said “it takes a village”—and she was maligned. What’s wrong with that? Look at other cultures. We’d be much better off. The only time we become a village is when there’s a catastrophe. We tend to retreat into our nuclear families rather than work as a collective society. We have to change that.

I want to touch on The Women’s Building as well, and just highlight that you are both doing similar things by placing yourselves very visibly. Futures Without Violence is in this very public and beautiful place; The Women’s Building is very visible. It seems to me that there is a real drive for that visibility, a way of saying “we are actually here in real life, we’re here to stay, we’re not going anywhere.” Because a lot of our conversation around women’s liberation does happen in the ether.

That is explicitly why we opened our headquarters in the Presidio. When the Presidio converted from a military base to a public space, we saw the parallel of opening our doors on federal land. It’s important, on public land, to take an issue that has been so private, and so not in the public sphere. I want this to be a public place. Ultimately, we will build public exhibits. That’s why we’re here. It is a political statement.

Stephanie Sy-Quia received her BA in English Literature from Oxford University. She is currently writing a book on luminaries of the San Francisco Bay Area, from the Beats to the AIDS crisis. She lives in London.