Patricia Bosworth met her future husband in a bar when he punched out a drunk who pinched her bottom. She was only 19, but they married with dizzying speed.
He began to abuse her almost as quickly. One night they argued about money, in the back seat of a taxi, and he started hitting her. Screaming and sobbing, she begged the cab driver for help, only to have him shrug off her pleas.
“He’s the boss, lady,” the driver said.
Bosworth finally left her husband when he tried to choke her to death because he was angry that his pet bird escaped. Now 83, she has since had a long career as an actress and author. Her latest book—The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan—describes the harrowing story of her first marriage in an era when the prevailing culture simply assumed that men were entitled to beat their wives.
“I was brought up to believe the husband was always right,” Bosworth recalls. “That’s the way things were in those days.”
As the women’s movement gained strength, feminists raised public awareness about the prevalence of domestic abuse, and laws were passed to protect women from violence by intimate partners. But Donald Trump’s candidacy alarmed a wide range of women’s advocates—and things quickly got worse.
Although many activists had assumed voters would reject a nominee caught boasting on tape about grabbing female genitalia, Trump’s victory signaled a disturbing public acceptance of such retrograde behavior. His actions since then have generated growing fear that the Trump administration heralds a return to the policies—and the predations—of the past.
Women’s advocates were particularly dismayed by the news that Trump is planning “dramatic” federal budget cuts that include all 25 of the grant programs managed by the Office on Violence Against Women, which is housed in the Department of Justice.
“We’re deeply concerned about cuts in the funding that enables us to provide legal and social services to victims,” says Jennifer Friedman, managing director of the Center for Legal Services at My Sisters’ Place, a nonprofit organization in New York’s Westchester County that provides shelter and counsel to survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking.
Such cutbacks would be dangerously counterproductive, according to activists in a broad range of women’s rights, civil rights, faith-based, labor, and law enforcement groups. “I don’t think it is extreme if I say to you that women will die,” Lynn Hecht Schafran, senior vice-president of Legal Momentum, warned in a call for action sent to the organization’s supporters.
The proposed budget cuts don’t even make economic sense, according to experts. “VAWA (the Violence Against Women Act) has saved taxpayers billions of dollars in costs for medical and mental health services, as well as costs for law enforcement and justice system expenditures,” Schafran wrote. “VAWA’s 25 grant programs are not wasteful, and they represent just over one hundredth of one percent of the federal budget.”
Despite considerable progress, the need for such assistance remains acute. “Domestic violence is still happening in huge numbers,” Friedman says.
‘People think that if women have money, they can get out, but my mom was making well over six figures when my dad held her underwater in a hot tub.’
The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 40 percent of female murder victims are killed by their intimate partners. Two-thirds of all women who report being raped, assaulted, or stalked are victimized by current or former husbands or boyfriends, and more than a million American women are physically assaulted by their intimate partners every year, according to the Department of Justice.
And yet male office-holders have long neglected the problem, preferring to focus on other priorities. President Trump emphasizes the potential threat from foreign-born terrorists, but far more Americans die from domestic violence, as was made painfully clear by a recent headline on a New York Times op-ed column: “Husbands are deadlier than terrorists.” In the United States, the death toll is exacerbated by ready access to firearms, as Nicholas Kristof pointed out: “In other countries, brutish husbands put wives in hospitals; in America, they put them in graves.”
Equally curious is the ongoing failure of male-dominated legislatures to address the economic consequences of such abuse, which are enormous. “One in three women is the victim of domestic violence in her lifetime, and it costs the U.S. billions of dollars a year in loss of productivity, health care, and other costs,” says Alyse Nelson, president and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership, a non-profit organization that works with women leaders on economic empowerment and human rights issues.
Popular stereotypes often assume most victims are women of color and those in poverty, but domestic violence occurs in all socio-economic, religious, racial, and cultural groups. Steph Wagner, a San Diego-based financial consultant who specializes in divorce, sees women in every income bracket. “I had a prospective client whose estate was 15 to 20 million dollars, and we had to create an underground-railroad safety plan before we could even talk,” says Wagner, who grew up in Texas with an abusive father. “People think that if women have money, they can get out, but my mom was making well over six figures when my dad held her underwater in a hot tub.”
The stubborn persistence of such assaults only highlights the fact that most men have not joined the battle. “The majority of men are non-violent, but unfortunately the majority, for the most part, stay silent,” Nelson said at Vital Voices’ annual gala last December.
Seeking new ways to address the problem, some organizations are now enlisting men. “Violence against women is one of the greatest challenges facing the human race, but it’s always been thought of as a women’s issue, and it’s only going to get better through engaging men,” Nelson says. “We can’t expect to eliminate violence against women without men as active partners and allies. We have to show them that this is where they need to lead.”
The Vital Voices event, Voices of Solidarity, honored male leaders who are helping to fight violence against women in countries around the world. The honorees included a Heineken executive in Mexico, the mayor of Dallas, and the actor Patrick Stewart, whose abusive father served in the British Army. All spoke eloquently about their efforts, and the mood that night was hopeful.
But Trump’s rise to power has ratcheted up fears of a return to the bad old days. During the presidential debates, many viewers perceived his behavior toward Hillary Clinton as threatening, and therapists and service providers saw a surge in abuse survivors who reported that the public conduct of the GOP nominee had triggered a flare-up of their post-traumatic stress symptoms.
“Women felt Trump’s presentation was that of a batterer, and all of us saw an increase in women coming out of the woodwork to tell their stories,” says Friedman. “People you never knew had a story came out and said, ‘This is what happened to me.’”
Many survivors felt traumatized by Trump’s bullying tactics, which included verbal abuse and the denial of objective reality, known as gaslighting, a tactic abusers often use to assert their dominance by creating confusion and anxiety. “The fear is so great it’s like living under Saddam Hussein,” says Wagner. “It’s about mental control. The humiliation and control are just as painful as being punched in the eye.”
That perspective reflects an evolving understanding of domestic violence, whose treatment increasingly incorporates a recognition of its psychological and economic dimensions. “The word ‘violence’ implies injury, but domestic violence is defined by advocates as a whole range of behaviors, including emotionally abusive power, and control issues that may not be physical,” Friedman explains.
Trump’s history includes an accusation of rape by his first wife, Ivana, the mother of his three oldest children. But despite such charges, 53 percent of white women still voted for him. “No matter how far we’ve come, I still think the majority of women are traditionalists,” Bosworth says. “They think it’s a man’s world, and men should have control.”
When Trump assumed office, he chose other alleged abusers as close advisors — including Steve Bannon, the far-right media executive who became his senior strategist and White House counselor. During their divorce, Bannon’s second wife accused him of abuse, and he was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence, battery, and dissuading a witness. The charges were dropped after his ex-wife failed to appear in court, although she said her absence was due to threats made by Bannon and his lawyer.
Bannon’s divorce and custody files also included charges that he was abusive toward his children; didn’t see them for a full two years, during which time they had no idea where he lived; threatened school administrators; and failed to pay child and spousal support.
A Trump cabinet nominee raised similar concerns. Trump named Andrew Puzder, chief executive of the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., as his secretary of labor. Puzder’s first wife Lisa Fierstein had appeared in disguise on an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” titled “High Class Battered Women” to accuse Puzder of domestic abuse. Fierstein, who had called the police during one incident, said Puzder told her, “I will see you in the gutter. This will never be over. You will pay for this.” Fierstein later retracted her charge of spousal abuse as part of a child custody agreement; the couple divorced in 1987. Despite Puzder’s history, Trump was apparently unperturbed, and it was only when the Oprah tape became public—and senators from both parties reportedly saw it at private screenings—that Puzder finally withdrew his nomination.
Yet President Trump’s apparent tolerance for assault has raised fears of a growing male backlash against women’s empowerment. “Violence against women is an age-old problem, but it isn’t getting better—it’s getting worse,” says Nelson. “We have seen great progress in the U.S., but men are threatened by women’s rise in power.” Their reactions will soon be measured in dollars and cents, with decisions made by the aging white men who dominate both Congress and the new administration.
“If Congress cuts funding, it would be turning back the clock,” says Friedman. “People don’t give up privilege that easily, because privilege is power. The notion that women and men are equal only became embedded in our law a few decades ago. You’re challenging all of human history in a generation or two. We’re waiting to see what’s going to happen, but there’s an atmosphere of trepidation now.”
Leslie Bennetts is a longtime journalist who has covered presidential politics since the 1970s and a best-selling author whose latest book is Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses and Liberation of Joan Rivers