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Lessons in Self-Defense: Gender Violence, Racial Criminalization, and Anticarceral Feminism
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Lessons in Self-Defense:
Gender Violence, Racial Criminalization, and Anticarceral Feminism

In August 1980 more than a hundred activists gathered in Washington, DC, for the National Conference on Third World Women and Violence. Organized by the DC Rape Crisis Center, the conference marked the first time that black, Latina, Asian, and Native American women working in rape crisis centers (RCCs) and battered women’s shelters in the U.S. convened both nationally and autonomously. The coordinators explicitly named “concerns of isolation, alienation, and racism” within these organizations as a key rationale for the gathering and their larger goal of cultivating a new national network of women and men of color engaged in antiviolence activism.1 The DC center was uniquely poised to host such a conference, as it was the only African American–led RCC in the country at the time.

Conference participants culled lessons from their experiences as anti-violence organizers in communities of color and as people of color working in largely majority-white RCCs and battered women’s shelters. While racism within these institutions was one catalyst for the meeting, collective concern about their increasing involvement with the criminal justice state was another closely related impetus. Feminist activists had founded upwards of five hundred RCCs and shelters around the country during the previous decade, making these institutions two of the most prolific and widespread organizational forms of the larger women’s movement. Most offered some combination of counseling, support groups, hotlines, and shelter, and many included community education initiatives in their repertoires as well. Activists’ need for funding to sustain these programs, as well as their desire to confront the hostility and dismissiveness that law enforcement [End Page 52] and the courts showed rape survivors and battered women, had brought them into growing contact and collaboration with criminal justice agencies (Bevacqua 2000; Schechter 1982). As scholars have shown, this “alliance with the state” reflected, as well as inadvertently fueled, the ascendancy of a law-and-order agenda under the auspices of a highly racialized “war on crime” (Bumiller 2007; Gottschalk 2006; Kim 2014; Richie 2012). The increasing focus on criminalization invariably constrained the transformative social justice goals of the antiviolence movement but also its organizational cultures; as sociologist Nancy Matthews puts it, many antiviolence programs gradually appeared and functioned more like “social service agencies than social movement organizations” (1994, xiii). What is less often acknowledged in the academic literature is that the question of whether, how, and to what end feminist antiviolence activists should accept criminal justice funding and prioritize criminal legal reforms was vociferously debated within individual agencies, at regional and national conferences, and through independent media.

In one sense, the National Conference on Third World Women and Violence could be construed as a meeting of the proverbial margins of the U.S. feminist antiviolence movement. Yet the attendees’ manifold political affiliations meant that the conference represented a distinctive center emerging from the interface of multiple social movements: U.S. third world feminism, black feminism, indigenous decolonization, and prisoners’ rights, among others. The slate of workshops and panel discussions ranged from “Medical Abuses: Sterilization” and “Feminism and Third World Women” to “Working with Men Committing Violence” and “Lesbianism: Third World Perspective.”2 Members of the “International Panel” provided a discussion of state-sponsored violence against women in Angola, South Africa, Chile, and Nicaragua and inspired passage of a formal, conference-wide resolution to demonstrate support for the South African Anti-Apartheid movement (Dejanikus 1980). Indeed, the name chosen for the conference signaled the organizers’ desire to reconfigure so-called “minority women” as part of a “Third World majority” of women whose lived experiences required an intersectional analysis of patriarchy and gender violence.

Many in attendance questioned what “more prisons, longer sentences, and increased convictions” accomplished aside from “penaliz[ing] the most disadvantaged of offenders” and bolstering the legitimacy of an expanding prison system.3 Over the course of the two days, presenters [End Page 53] lifted up the recent cases of Joan Little, Inez García, Yvonne Wanrow (Swan), and Dessie Woods, four women of color who each killed her (or her child’s) sexual assailant and became the subject of a broad...