Power and Control: Changing Structures of Battered Women’s Shelters

By Michelle VanNatta.

Published by The Social Sciences Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The domestic violence movement purports to empower survivors of abuse, yet battered women's shelters in the U.S. have rules and practices which may serve to discipline women into complying with stereotypical white, middle class, heterosexual norms of femininity. This research relies on qualitative interviews with thirteen workers from anti-violence organizations in the U.S., on examination of written shelter rules and documents, and on recent writings by progressive antiviolence organizers. Evaluation of mainstream shelter rules and practices suggests that the ideal shelter client is a stereotypically submissive, “feminine” woman who unquestioningly obeys extensive and intrusive rules about personal behavior, remains emotionally open to authorities, and efficiently performs her household chores. Women who fail to meet this ideal may be perceived as inappropriate clients at risk of being lost to the “culture of poverty,” which supposedly encourages them to be dependent, lazy, dirty, devious, and unlikely to function adequately in the job market. Analysis of shelter practices reveals an embedded "culture of poverty" ideology which pathologizes survivors of abuse seeking emergency housing. Shelter workers endeavor to reform individual women, while the structures that perpetuate poverty and abuse are left intact. Rather than empowering women, battered women's shelters may serve the latent function of disciplining women to comply with norms of middle class, heterosexual femininity. Some communities are now developing innovative antiviolence strategies that exist outside of the mainstream shelters and do not rely on culture of poverty ideologies. In addition, some shelter administrators have begun to rethink their structures and provide greater autonomy to residents. This paper traces the problems with traditional disciplinary shelter models and describes some evolving efforts to address violence in a liberatory fashion.

Keywords: Domestic Violence, Battered Women, Abuse, Battered Women’s Shelters, Culture of Poverty, Antiviolence Organizing

International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp.149-162. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 632.100KB).

Dr. Michelle VanNatta

Assistant Professor, Sociology, Criminology, Dominican University, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Dr. VanNatta holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Northwestern University. She is currently the Director of Criminology at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, where she also advises the student group Domestic Abuse Stops Here (DASH). Dr. VanNatta has been involved in antiviolence work for the past fifteen years. Her research has examined domestic violence shelters, prosecution of battered women in self-defense cases, sexual assault in prisons, street harassment, and community-based responses to violence. Her community work has included involvement with the Illinois Clemency Project for Battered Women, Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, the Community Accountability Planning Group, and the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network. She is currently interested in pursuing community work and research on transformative justice.


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