Writing about the history of violence against women can be a daunting task, one that Carol E. Jordan fearlessly attempts in Violence against Women in Kentucky: A History of U.S. and State Legislative Reform. Her ambitious project not only documents the development of over one hundred bills that affected Kentucky women who were victims of violence, it also provides a brief history of women’s social and political activism in Kentucky, a comprehensive overview of types of violence against women, a literature review of scholarship on each of these types of violence, an analysis of the history of the legal treatment of rape and domestic violence on a national scale, and an in-depth guide to advocating for legislative change in Kentucky. In doing so, Jordan brings together discussions of domestic violence, stalking, rape, sexual abuse and harassment, murder, and psychological and emotional abuse.
Using records from both the Kentucky House and Senate and personal interviews with activists, legislators, and victims of violence, Jordan has assembled an impressive chronicle of legislative changes over the past forty years. Inspired by a lack of awareness of these changes by a younger cohort of advocates, the book serves as “a baseline of guidance for the next generation of reformers” (p. 136). This is the greatest strength of the book. Jordan’s chronicle of legislative [End Page 481] reforms in Kentucky is thorough and detailed. Chapter five provides practical strategies, like public awareness campaigns, public exposure of personal stories, and the formation of coalitions and task forces, for legislative advocates. Jordan’s own experience as an advocate allows her to offer useful advice to young activists.
As Jordan notes in the conclusion, however, the book was “intended to celebrate the work of advocates and our legislative allies over the past four decades,” and, as such, it does not provide much critical analysis of this work (p. 374). Jordan misses some crucial opportunities to investigate how women of color in Kentucky approached activism against violence or how they were affected by legislative changes. For example, did African American women in Kentucky approach activism differently than white women? Did they incorporate activism on violence against women into civil rights campaigns? Were they affected differently than white women by the legislative changes Jordan outlines? There is, overall, little analysis of how these legislative changes affected different populations of women.
The book also, at times, suffers from a lack of focus. Its scope is ambitious, perhaps too ambitious. As a result, many of the chapters meander from subject to subject without providing sufficient analysis of the information provided. For example, chapter one gives a general history of women’s activism in Kentucky but never explains why this information is important to understanding legislative changes and violence against women in Kentucky’s history. How, for example, does a general overview of Kentucky women’s struggle to gain suffrage help us better understand the legislative changes Jordan discusses later in the book? Likewise, chapters six, seven, and eight also extensively detail legislative changes, but they read more like lists of information rather than narratives.
Chapters three and four are the most effective because they each focus much more narrowly on legislation and distinct types of violence against women. Chapter three, which discusses rape and sexual violence, provides very clear explanations of the history of rape laws in the United States and the ways in which ideas about masculinity, [End Page 482] femininity, sexuality, and proper behavior have influenced those laws and the way they changed over time. Chapter four, which concentrates on domestic violence and stalking legislation, contains a strong analysis of the legislative process and potential unintended consequences of adopting particular laws, such as mandatory arrest laws. Each of these chapters would be useful in undergraduate classrooms.
As a work of history, however, Violence against Women in Kentucky falls short. It takes the term history to literally mean a chronicling of events of the past and misses many opportunities to provide...