Boston’s Self-Image Fails to Connect-the-Dots in Our Culture of Violence Against Women
written by Erin O’Brien
Jennifer Martel. Amy Lord. Stabbings in Southie. Kidnapping and subsequent rape of a woman picked up from unlicensed cab in Seaport district (along with a highly suspect delay by police in making this information public). Every single one of these crimes is horrific and emblematic of a culture of violence against women in Boston.
This culture has gone unnamed in the Hub so that each story is reported and discussed exclusively on individual-level terms. Should Jared Remy have been let out on bail (uh, no)? Did his father’s beloved position in New England unwittingly influence prosecutors and/or police? What were Amy Lord’s final moment like? Why didn’t people notice? What precautions should women take when riding in a cab (think about that phrasing…)? Should cabs be better marked so pedestrians know that they are registered?
While some of the questions matter, and I find others suspect or sensationalistic, they all nonetheless fail to connect-the-dots on this City’s culture of violence against women. Each of these women experienced extreme, and all too often life-ending, violence at the hands of male assailants and the “it’s not a huge deal” culture that too often protected their assailants as his crimes escalated. The crimes are also connected in the sense that there is an unwillingness to acknowledge that in this liberal, very blue Commonwealth violence against women is a reality that is systematic in nature. Being a Dem does not mean we don’t have a violence against women culture. Boston, I’m talking to you.
I confess I am not a native Bostonian. I’ve got generations of family who can make the claim but my comparative position of living in other major cities (DC, Cleveland) and not so major ones (Battle Creek, Newport News, Dayton) make one thing about Boston salient when it comes to women: denialism. While it is true and commendable that the city has been at the forefront of LGBTQ rights and continually sends a blue delegation to Washington, it is also true that Boston and Commonwealth lag far behind much redder localities in the political incorporation of women. New and old Bostonians, in my view, rely too much on our liberal reputation at the expense of seriously considering and acknowledging the violence against women that occurs in Boston. This violence threatens our city’s “liberal,” forward-thinking reputation. Unfortunately, this self-perception promotes the denialism that cries in horror at “clearly anomalistic” acts of violence against women rather than demanding the systematic, coordinated policy action that names, addresses, and gets serious about violence against women.
And another thing—and now it’s about to get really dicey—as a Political Scientist who specializes in public policy, women and politics, methodology, and urban politics I can’t help but note that this summer’s “wave” of crimes against women focuses on, well, women “we” care about. In political science, we call this the “politics of deservedness” and it helps explain why the crimes against women that get the most national attention are the ones where predominately white, young, and physically attractive women by western standards are the victims. Molly Bish. Natalie Holloway. Lacy Peterson. I shouldn’t have to say this, but because I know the knee-jerk reactions that will follow, OF COURSE each and every one of these women are deserving. No woman deserves or asks to be a victim of violent crime. Amy Lord, Jennifer Martel, and the other women in Boston whose names have not been released to the press thus far this summer are highly deserving of our outrage and policy action. But so are the female victims of violence in Rosindale, Mattapan, and other areas of Boston that are disproportionately of color. Boston’s highest ranking elected legal official has actually stated numerous times that Amy Lord was a “truly innocent victim.” The unstated binary he was relying on is that “you other victims are not.” Just as Boston’s liberal self-image makes it difficult to acknowledge and address violence against women, this same self-image blinds our city to the fact that Boston follows the national trend of only giving major attention to “pretty victims.” This unnecessarily divides women and is a disservice to every woman of Boston. Violence matters in every neighborhood and should receive systematic attention that connects-the-dots to violence against women in Rosindale and East Boston as well as Back Bay and Beacon Hill.
I’m glad to see Martha Coakley and her office are beginning to take this issue on and wish that Boston’s culture of denialism (“we’re liberal Boston, women are ‘safe'”) had allowed for it earlier. As the recent community meetings in South Boston made clear, and the outrage in other neighborhoods that only Southie seemed to be getting attention punctuated, women of this city are angry that our physical safety is in jeopardy and we want elected officials to recognize, name, and act on this. Linda Dorcena Forry was the only woman on the stage in Southie that night. That’s not enough. That’s not liberalism, Boston.
Erin O’Brien is Associate Professor of Political Science at UMass Boston and Faculty Affiliate in the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies as well as in the Department of Women’s Studies. She is a sports fan, progressive, irish, feminist, satirical but genuine, bostonian w/ buckeye flair, jack catholic, sunshine & lollipops. She also lives in South Boston.