Caitlin Reed Wiesner, Mercy College

When the National Black Women’s Health Project (NBWHP) first weighed the merits of the recently passed Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in their June 1995 Hill Briefs newsletter, few anticipated the bill’s longevity and significance. Introduced by then-Senator Joseph Biden in 1990, VAWA still stands as the single largest state investment in the prevention and treatment of violence against women in the United States. VAWA allocated $1.6 billion over six years towards maintaining the shelters, hotlines, counseling, and educational prevention programs originally launched by the anti-violence-against-women movement during the 1970s.[1] The path to becoming in scholar Maria Bevacqua’s words “the most significant accomplishment of the anti-rape movement” was not without setbacks.[2] A bitterly divided Supreme Court struck down the most radical provision of the act in 2000, which defined rape and battering as “crimes of violence motivated by gender” and empowered victims to sue their assailants in federal court. Predictable partisan bickering stymied reauthorizations in 2000, 2006, and 2012. Yet each incarnation of VAWA sustained the bill while also extending protections to marginalized groups of victims. The 2012 renewal of VAWA specifically acknowledged same-sex couples, allowed battered undocumented immigrants to obtain temporary visas, and expanded jurisdiction for services to Native American reservations.[3]

 VAWA was nearly a casualty the 2018-2019 shutdown of the federal government, with its funding caught in the balance of a Congressional gridlock. The House of Representative belatedly voted to reauthorize VAWA in April 2019, with new stipulations closing the “boyfriend loophole” that allowed some convicted abusers to legally purchase firearms.[4] The bill was subsequently ignored by the Republican-controlled Senate. Senators Joni Ernst and Dianne Feinstein led months of fruitless negotiations talks that finally collapsed in November 2019, leaving VAWA without funding. Politicians and celebrities who saw themselves as defenders of women’s rights decried Congress’ inaction. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand lamented that the expiration of the Violence Against Women Act during the government shutdown left “shelters across the country… struggling to keep their doors open to help women who have survived domestic violence and sexual assault.”[5] Actress Alyssa Milano, who had become the celebrity face of the #MeToo Movement in 2017 after she inadvertently appropriated the Twitter hashtag that was the brainchild of activist Tarana Burke, asked incredulously “What kind of country allows its Violence Against Women Act to expire?”[6]

Upon being thrown in legislative limbo, VAWA was regarded by feminists as an unqualified good. They demanded reauthorization as a commonsense non-partisan measure to confront the grievous problems of rape and battering. Lost in the scramble to secure the Violence Against Women Act were its more pernicious consequences.[7] VAWA was passed as Title IV of the $30 billion dollar Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. It remains the single largest crime bill in American history. Feminist rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters had previously hitched their movement to federal entities born of the “war on crime”  in order to keep their doors open, such as the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration of the 1970s and Office for Victims of Crime of the 1980s.[8] But VAWA purported to end gender violence specifically by “boosting law enforcement and creating more secure public environments,” and its provisions reflected these priorities.[9] In addition to establishing grants for victim service providers, VAWA also funded the expansion of the police force to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women. It also supplied new tools for punishing offenders, including increased sentences for repeat offenders and mandatory arrest policies when responding to domestic violence complaints.[10] Leaning so heavily on the criminal justice system to shield women from rape and battering dampened VAWA’s appeal to low-income women and women of color, who saw the police as aggressors within their communities and intensely mistrusted them. The National Black Women’s Health Project immediately identified this shortcoming. Their June 1995 Hill Briefs writeup pointed out the contradiction created by VAWA in which victims of rape and abuse “must turn to a system that has traditionally mistreated Black women” and “has traditionally disregarded the seriousness of violence against women,” while diverting federal resources away from social safety programs that would empower victims to escape abusive situations.[11]

NBWHP’s criticisms of VAWA proved prescient. Over the next fifteen years, the rise of prison abolition, #BlackLivesMatter, and other movements that spotlighted the enormous violence inflicted upon people of color by the state led activists and scholars to similar stances. INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color Against Violence (formerly known as INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence) lamented that since the passage of VAWA in 1994, “antiviolence organizations have focused primarily on criminal justice solutions to ending violence that reinforce the prison industrial complex.”[12] This was a “disastrous” development for “women of color, who must address both gender violence within their communities and state violence against their communities.”  Nancy Whittier has documented that a specialized unit funded by the Violence Against Women Act in Washington, D.C. surged domestic violence prosecutions in the city from less than 20 per year to over 3,000.[13] Emily Thuma describes VAWA “an act promising to curb violence against women” that  “simultaneously authorized the expansion of institutional violence against the nation-state’s racial and economic others.”[14] Aya Gruber describes VAWA as “the very exemplar of carceral feminism” because it conflates the feminist goal of securing women’s safety with the conservative tactic of expanding punitivity. [15]

In March 2022, President Joseph R. Biden quietly signed into law the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act of 2022. Passed without much fanfare by Congress as part of the Omnibus Appropriations Package, the act ensured that VAWA funds would flow uninhibited through 2027.[16] Still, Congress’ failure to swiftly reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act in 2019 offered an opportunity to critically evaluate the outcomes of VAWA and envision an alternative state response to gender violence. Ideally, a more progressive Violence Against Women Act would, as the National Black Women’s Health Project suggested in 1995, divest substantially from the criminal justice system. Funds earmarked to expand law enforcement’s capacity to prosecute abusers could be “redirected to ensure the availability of shelters and public housing and to strengthen the safety net.”[17] This would constitute what legal scholar Aya Gruber has termed a “neofeminism” that substitutes a “forward-looking distributional approach” to justice in lieu of the longstanding retributive model.[18] Directly supporting rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters without the potentially repelling layer of law enforcement would give women of all classes and races greater latitude in determining how they might best recover from their assaults and escape abusive situations.

[1] Marie Gottschalk, The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 151.

[2] Maria Bevacqua, Rape on the Public Agenda: Feminism and the Politics of Sexual Assault (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000), 170.

[3] Nancy Whittier, “Carceral and Intersectional Feminism in Congress: The Violence Against Women Act, Discourse, and Policy,” Gender & Society 30, no. 5 (2016): 791–818,

[4] Ashley Killough, “House passes reauthorization of Violence Against Women Act,” CNN online, April 4, 2019, 

[5] Kirsten Gillibrand, Twitter Post, January 7, 2019, 2:01 P.M.,

[6] Alyssa Milano, Twitter Post, December 23, 2018, 4:40 P.M.,

[7] INCITE!, ed., The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (Cambridge, Mass: South End Press, 2007); Kristin Bumiller, In an Abusive State: How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement against Sexual Violence (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); Emily L. Thuma, All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019).

[8] Bevacqua, Rape on the Public Agenda, 117, 168.

[9] Violence against Women: Victims of the System : Hearing before the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, One Hundred Second Congress, First Session, on S. 15, a Bill to Combat Violence and Crimes against Women on the Streets and in Homes, April 9, 1991., 201.

[10] Crimes of Violence Motivated by Gender: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, One Hundred Third Congress, First Session, November 16, 1993 (Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 1994).19.; Violence Against Women, 321.

[11]Hill Briefs Vol. 1 No. 6 June 1995,” National Black Women’s Health Imperative Records, SSC-MS-00487, Box 2, Folder 37, Smith College Special Collections.

[12] INCITE!, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, 11.

[13] Whittier, “Carceral and Intersectional Feminism in Congress,” 809.

[14] Thuma, All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence, 7.

[15] Aya Gruber, The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020), 148.

[16] “Fact Sheet: Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA),” The White House, March 16, 2022.

[17]Hill Briefs Vol. 1 No. 6 June 1995,” National Black Women’s Health Imperative Records, SSC-MS-00487, Box 2, Folder 37, Smith College Special Collections.

[18] Aya Gruber, The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020), 193–94.