by Lana Hart
March 16th, 2017, marked the anniversary of the brutal rape, sodomization, and assault of Carolyn Warren, Joan Taliaferro, and Miriam Douglas by Marvin Kent and James Morse. Their horrific ordeal was ignored by the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, who received multiple 911 calls but failed to respond adequately the first time, and then failed to respond at all on the second occasion.
Wikipedia documents the sickening nature of their case thusly:
“In the early morning hours of Sunday, March 16, 1975, Carolyn Warren and Joan Taliaferro, who shared a room on the third floor of their rooming house at 1112 Lamont Street Northwest in the District of Columbia, and Miriam Douglas, who shared a room on the second floor with her four-year-old daughter, were asleep. The women were awakened by the sound of the back door being broken down by two men later identified as Marvin Kent and James Morse. The men entered Douglas’ second floor room, where Kent forced Douglas to perform oral sex on him and Morse raped her.
Warren and Taliaferro heard Douglas’ screams from the floor below. Warren called 9-1-1 and told the dispatcher that the house was being burglarized, and requested immediate assistance. The department employee told her to remain quiet and assured her that police assistance would be dispatched promptly.
Warren’s call was received at Metropolitan Police Department Headquarters at 0623 hours, and was recorded as a burglary-in-progress. At 0626, a call was dispatched to officers on the street as a ‘Code 2’ assignment, although calls of a crime in progress should be given priority and designated as ‘Code 1.’ Four police cruisers responded to the broadcast; three to the Lamont Street address and one to another address to investigate a possible suspect.
Meanwhile, Warren and Taliaferro crawled from their window onto an adjoining roof and waited for the police to arrive. While there, they observed one policeman drive through the alley behind their house and proceed to the front of the residence without stopping, leaning out the window, or getting out of the car to check the back entrance of the house. A second officer apparently knocked on the door in front of the residence, but left when he received no answer. The three officers departed the scene at 0633, five minutes after they arrived.
Warren and Taliaferro crawled back inside their room. They again heard Douglas’ continuing screams; again called the police; told the officer that the intruders had entered the home, and requested immediate assistance. Once again, a police officer assured them that help was on the way. This second call was received at 0642 and recorded merely as ‘investigate the trouble;’ it was never dispatched to any police officers.
Believing the police might be in the house, Warren and Taliaferro called down to Douglas, thereby alerting Kent to their presence. At knife point, Kent and Morse then forced all three women to accompany them to Kent’s apartment. For the next fourteen hours the captive women were raped, robbed, beaten, forced to commit sexual acts upon one another, and made to submit to the sexual demands of Kent and Morse.”
Their case against the police department made it to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the police, stating that the police have no legal, constitutional right to protect citizens from harm unless there is a “special relationship between police and an individual.”
At a time when we, as a global society, are struggling to define women’s history more than ever, let’s take a look at the darker elements of our legacy—the elements we often cast aside in favor of highlighting the women who were able to beat the odds. Let us honor those whose voices have been lost to virulent attempts to erase our oppression, and to paint women’s history as though the struggle is both over, and that it was never that bad to begin with.
Poisoned Roots Birth Poisoned Leaves
On this date, in the middle of Women’s History Month, it is important to remember that our nation took one of the most unspeakable rape cases imaginable and dismissed it in order to protect male police officers who refused to do their jobs—as well as the male-dominated institution (one steeped in racism, I might add) responsible for them—and that the ruling which allowed this to occur has been upheld to this very day, resulting in cases like Gonzales v. Castle Rock, wherein Jessica Gonzales’ three children were abducted from her front lawn by her estranged husband, against whom there was a court-issued protective order requiring arrest should he violate it. She pled with the police for hours to arrest him, but they failed to even dispatch officers to the location he had reported being at.
Gonzales’ husband later showed up in the police station’s parking lot, fired at officers, and was killed at the scene. The bodies of Gonzales’ three little girls, ages seven, nine, and ten, were found in the back of his truck.
The language of the court order Gonzales had obtained against her estranged husband was explicit—“you shall arrest or issue a warrant for the arrest of the violator”—specifically because Colorado was one of about two dozen states at the time to have included such language in their restraining orders, a change that had been spurred by an overwhelming amount of police negligence to actually enforce said orders when that language was not included, allowing officers to employ a concept called “police discretion” in order for them to determine which calls to respond to.
Regardless, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the police, citing Warren v. D.C. as precedent, and stated that police departments could not be sued for failing to enforce a restraining order. The late Justice Antonin Scalia actually stated that “police discretion,” the very concept—not the law, which is what the Supreme Court Justices are supposed to interpret and rely on—was more important than the legal verbiage of the court order itself.
More to the point, he said, “a well-established tradition of police discretion has long coexisted with apparently mandatory arrest statutes.”
A well-established tradition. One which led to criminal under-enforcement of actual laws.
And by referring to them as apparently mandatory arrest statutes, not simply mandatory arrest statutes, Scalia made it abundantly clear that he held nothing but contempt for any legislation that held the police accountable for upholding the law when it might inconvenience them to do so.
In effect, Justice Scalia informed America—and most importantly, American women—that he, as a man in a position of incredible judicial power, and in possession of all the evidence hitherto outlined in this article, was morally and judicially at ease with the deaths of women and children due to both intimate partner violence and systemic law enforcement negligence—so long as his friends in the police force were not held accountable for their actions, or lack thereof.
It is likewise important note that this case is not ancient history.
This case was ruled upon in 2005.
Justice isn’t Blind—it Has Simply Rendered Women Invisible
Given these facts, it is necessary to keep two things in mind the next time you roll your eyes at the idea of necessary feminism, or even at IPV survivors or abused women in general.
The first is that our nation literally has laws that dismiss women’s suffering in favor of protecting the men and male-dominated organizations that contributed to that suffering. It is encoded in our very justice system to disadvantage women against the violence and violation they endure.
Knowing this, is it any small wonder our struggle continues to this day? Is it any wonder at all that women find themselves so existentially tired, particularly when compared to men, without “apparent” cause?
The deck is stacked against us at the bedrock of most civilizations; that is to say that often, our oppression is rooted in its very laws. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women due to a number of legislated factors such as child marriage, lack of information and decision-making powers, and employment laws that make it difficult for people—but especially women—to climb out of poverty. When you consider that these laws were passed by male-majority, or completely male legislators, and that women were and are still denied the ability to vote on these laws in many circumstances, it is evident that we did not shape our legal reality, and that puts us at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to expecting equitable treatment from it.
Moreover, cultural laws—societal rules for which there are tangible consequences, but no actual verbiage “on the books,” such as enforcing the role of women and girls as primary caregivers of family members of all ages, as well as encouraging early pregnancies—have worked to ensure that proportion of uneducated women hasn’t changed in twenty years.
A UNICEF study of 141 countries indicates that women own a measly 23.5% share of the world’s wealth. There are a tremendous number of reasons for this, ranging from the aforementioned discrimination applied to women’s education, to employers refusing to hire women, promote them, or afford them equal rights due to perceived (and imaginary) weaknesses, or the possibility of them one day taking maternity leave. The Equal Opportunities Commission devoted two years to studying the effects of pregnancy discrimination in the UK and found that 30,000 women each year are forced out of their jobs, a practice that while not necessarily legal, is awfully difficult to prove to a magistrate’s satisfaction in a court of law—proving that even the laws we have put in place to protect women in theory are woefully inadequate in practice.
The second point to keep in mind this Women’s History Month is when women don’t report their sexual assaults or take their abusers to court, the fact of the matter is that there is legal precedent to indicate they shouldn’t. There is legal precedent to suggest calling the cops won’t matter, and may in fact make things worse for them in the end. Data consistently shows that calling the cops may actually endanger your health as a victim, as mandatory arrests (the law we talked about in regard to Gonzales v. Castle Rock) have been so terribly handled by police forces in the U.S. that victims are often arrested instead of, or in addition to, the violent offender.
This not only leads to victims fearing imprisonment if they seek help from law enforcement—it also leads to many victims enduring additional violence when the offender is eventually released. Because mandatory arrests are not utilized in conjunction with a requirement for police to actually protect citizens from those offenders (as illustrated in the Supreme Court ruling for the Gonzales v. Castle Rock case), once released, the offenders are likely to return despite a court-issued order and maim, or kill, the victim who reported them.
In my own, very personal experience, the police who responded to my domestic violence and attempted child abduction call blamed the abuse I endured on my “young, loud mouth.” They then used my cell phone to inform my abuser—who had fled the scene—that he could press charges against me for false imprisonment, as I had attempted to stop him from leaving the house after his claims that he would cross state lines and ensure I never saw my child again. They were ready to handcuff me while I sobbed, holding my infant daughter.
This was my very first Mother’s Day experience as an actual mother, and it offered me a bleak perspective on what it was like to experience womanhood as a woman who had “done everything right.” I had produced a child, which is often a pre-requisite for any woman who can bear children. I was in a “stable,” monogamous, heterosexual relationship. I had no job outside the home—although I performed countless hours of unpaid labor as a caretaker for our house, my daughter, and my male partner.
“These are the things that will make you a good woman,” we are told. And yet, performing society’s definition of womanhood didn’t save me from being victimized. If anything, it made me far more vulnerable.
I was hamstrung financially. Even if I did work up the nerve to leave, where would my daughter and I go when we couldn’t afford a hotel room? How would I fight for child custody due to abuse when the police didn’t believe me, and what’s worse, I couldn’t afford legal aid? Though I had consulted with several organizations that helped victims find free legal services, none of them could take my case due to limited funding. And despite the pervasive rumor that women are granted favor in family court hearings, the opposite is actually true—mothers are held to a much higher standard of care than fathers are, and fathers who seek either joint or physical custody receive it over 70% of the time. It’s just that few ever actually attempt to do so.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
If we want to change our history, it is imperative that we do better now. We must stop pretending our nation does not employ systemic discrimination against women, that it does not legislate against our sex, and that these prejudiced policies don’t disproportionately affect women of color as well as women with disabilities. We must stop downplaying the misogyny that contributes to nearly five million women becoming victims of intimate partner violence every year—and that’s just in America.
At least one third of female homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by their male intimate partners—husbands, boyfriends, exes, and estranged lovers. Between the years of 2003 – 2012, 18,000 women met this fate—and that’s only after the Violence Against Women Act was passed in 1994.
That’s 18,000 women killed by current or former intimate partners—after a 64% decrease in annual domestic violence rates.
And while men and women both experience intimate partner violence, women are 70% more likely to become victims of it, and are 32% more likely to be murdered by their male partner than a man is to be murdered by his female partner. When you consider that approximately only 25% of female domestic or intimate partner violence victims actually report their assaults to the police, those numbers become even more depressing; domestic violence victim advocates like the National Domestic Violence Hotline, for example, receive over 20,000 calls per day on average, with an additional 9,000 going unanswered due to lack of funding, but they estimate that number is nowhere near the actual figure of women who are enduring abuse at any given time—it only accounts for the ones who could get to a phone.
Approximately one woman is beaten every nine seconds in the U.S. Three women per day are murdered by a current or former male partner—and in fact, IPV is the leading cause of female homicide and injury-related deaths during pregnancy. Women lose eight million days of paid work per year due to abuse perpetrated against them by current or former male partners, the equivalent of 32,000 full-time jobs.
And to add insult to injury, the average cost of emergency care for a woman who has endured IPV is roughly $948, while men who endure IPV pay only a fraction of that at an average of $387.
The global statistics are even more sobering. 70% of women worldwide will experience physical and/or sexual abuse by an intimate partner during their lifetimes, as of 2014. In 98% of domestic violence cases, this is coupled with financial abuse, a form of manipulation that ensures the victims stay or return to the abusive relationship because the abuser controls the money supply, leaving them with no financial resources with which to liberate themselves.
Looking Forward by Looking Back
So, what does this say about women’s history? What does this say about our contributions to society and what footprints we are leaving behind? What does it say about our legacy, that so many of our accomplishments are not only lost to the hundreds of years in which we were not allowed to participate in innovation and discovery due to our sex (and upon penalty of death), as well as denied access to the same quality of education as our male peers (which is still happening both in first-world nations and developing nations alike), but that they have also been claimed by men in our stead, or have otherwise been snuffed out along with our very lives?
Women’s history is soaked through with our own blood and enshrouded in silence. Much of our lives, our past generations, have been reduced to tombs containing all the hopes and dreams we never realized—not to mention the abuse we have endured, both intimately and socially, by virtue of being born women. While we have been exemplary in spite of this fact, it is also important that we honor our terrifying reality as much as we do our resistance to it.
Yes, women have a long history of overcoming the odds. But the odds never should have been stacked against us in the first place, and the damage incurred by even the most archaic of misogynistic policies and social standards spans generations. We are still laboring under the vestiges of those chains to this day, a phantom limb syndrome we can only shake off by continuing to move forward and demanding allyship from every corner as we do so.
So when you ask questions like, “If women are so smart and strong and brave, why aren’t there more exceptional examples of them throughout history?” please recall the countless examples of our erasure, our oppression, and our staggering mortality rates due to our sex alone… and how it is still occurring to this day.
And please remember the victims of the Warren v. D.C. suit, who have never seen appropriate justice served for the violence inflicted upon them by a patriarchal institution and society that we have marched against in the millions, and shall again. Because yes—this is surely women’s work, and it is not done.
Author’s Note: While the Supreme Court and various other courts of law have ruled that police have no special duty to actually protect and serve citizens, all fifty U.S. states require citizens to assist a law enforcement officer when requested. Failure to do so results in varying levels of criminal punishment, from violations to misdemeanors.