Still the elephant in the room

Jamakaya, Columnist

Thirty-five years ago, as editor of Amazon: Milwaukee’s Feminist Press, I reported on the murders of Heather Halseth, Alice Alzner, Joanne Esser, Janet Marie Bey and Nancy Lynn Radbill. 

They were only a few of the women murdered, raped and mutilated in southeast Wisconsin during the spring and summer of 1979. Adding to the horror was the disgraceful response of Milwaukee Police Chief Harold Breier to feminist advocates: “How many of these rapes do you really think are rapes?”

This misogynist rampage by both criminals and the criminal justice system fueled intense anger that led to the first Take Back the Night protest. On Oct. 19, 1979, 3,000 people marched through downtown Milwaukee demanding “Fire Breier, he’s a liar!” 

The events of 1979 haunt me still amid recent reports of women’s remains found in burn pits, in corn fields, in suitcases tossed onto roadsides. There are also women who disappear without a trace, like Kelly Dwyer, who vanished from the apartment of a male acquaintance. Landfill searches failed to unearth her remains. Increasingly, criminals plan well, knowing that no evidence or degraded evidence means no murder charges.

Even when there is evidence, murder charges are pleaded down and perpetrators get hand slaps. Judge Jeffrey Wagner recently gave 15 years to a previously convicted felon who plugged nine bullets into Alexis Taylor, killing her and her fetus. At that rate, the young killer can serve time for the murders of four more women during his lifetime. 

Then we have defense attorneys who blame victims, suggesting that women like those found bound in suitcases expired in the pursuit of “consensual” sexual gratification. “If it’s a reckless act involving two people, which one is being reckless?” asked Steven Zelich’s attorney. Conveniently, dead women cannot testify as to the circumstances. 

Those are only a few of the most sensational crimes and injustices against women in recent months. Each year in Milwaukee County alone, almost 5,000 women seek restraining orders against abusive husbands, boyfriends, relatives and even children — mostly male. That staggering figure represents a minority of the number of women being abused, those at the end of their ropes and brave enough to come forward.

Congress is focusing on the military’s failure to assist rape victims. WiG ran an editorial tying violence against women to the anti-woman political climate. The Nation, a liberal bastion, ran a cover story about making colleges more responsive to rape victims. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat suggested that since alcohol use is often present in campus assaults, all drinking ages should be lowered to 18.

Well-meaning or absurd, editorial writers keep talking around the elephant in the room. Male violence against women is endemic in all societies, across all cultures, races and economic and political classes. Decades of statistics from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention document pervasive patterns of male violence against women and its pernicious effects on families, communities and whole nations.

Better social services and legal accountability are admirable goals. But nothing will change until scientists and health experts focus their research on men. That is where the problem lies. Why do men treat women so brutally? What can be done to stop them? In a classic example of patriarchal reversal, feminists who raised the issue of woman hatred in the 1970s were condemned as “man haters.” 

Evidence of widespread misogynist violence has multiplied since then. We continue to avoid the essential question.