When asked about her plans to seek pay equity for women and combat domestic violence against them, in a debate in Portland on Sept. 30, Oregon Governor Kate Brown defended her record, revealing a painful, personal detail in the process:
"I know what it feels like to be a victim of domestic violence," Brown said. "I know what it feels like to represent clients that can't get restraining orders on abusive partners. That's why I spent a number of years in the Oregon legislature strengthening Oregon's domestic violence and sexual assault laws, including increasing penalties for domestic violence when a child was present."
According to a KGW News, Portland, report, it was the first time the governor had publicly discussed her history of abuse at the hands of a former partner — which the governor's office clarified was not her current husband.
Brown's opponent, physician Bud Pierce, issued a baffling response during the debate, ignoring Brown's disclosure while claiming that educated, employed women don't have to worry about violence at the hands of a significant other.
"A woman that has great education and training and a great job is not susceptible to this kind of abuse by men, women or anyone. Powerful women have access to lawyers and courts and go at it," Pierce said.
Domestic violence, he argued, could only be reduced by improving economic conditions for poor women.
His answer drew a chorus of boos from the crowd and Brown, stunned and clearly emotional, reaffirmed her commitment to pay equity.
Pierce, to his credit, apologized after the debate.
"As a physician who began medical school almost 40 years ago, and has seen many patients including women of domestic violence, I know that any women, regardless of economic status, can be subject to domestic violence and sexual abuse," he wrote in a statement. "Sexual and physical abuse is morally wrong, is against the law, and must be opposed with all efforts."
There's no type of person who isn't vulnerable to domestic violence.
Partner and familial abuse is indifferent to color and class, and no one, rich, poor, white, black, Latino, Asian, Native American, female, or male, is immune. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, nearly 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience some form of violent partner abuse in their lifetime. Poor women do face specific challenges — lack of paid sick days to seek treatment, spotty access to medical and child care, and limited funds to put distance between themselves and their abusers — but it's not just poor women who feel compelled to remain in an abusive relationship for economic reasons.
According to a 2013 Daily Beast report, domestic violence victims who are upper-middle-class or wealthy frequently face economic and legal abuse, as well as threats of financial ruin from their abusers, who frequently are similarly advantaged. Indeed, the list of rich and famous women who have reportedly been victimized — Nicole Brown Simpson, Rihanna, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Halle Berry — is long and continues to grow.
Implying that being educated and having means is all it takes to "escape" an abusive relationship reinforces the notion that, for the women who cannot escape, continuing to subject themselves to abuse must be their fault. Meanwhile, countless anonymous women and men — poor, middle class, and wealthy — suffer in silence.
Solving this problem requires more than an either/or approach.
Improving economic conditions for poor women — and expanding access to shelters, counseling, and family services — is a necessary component. So too is acknowledging that domestic violence can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Helping victims overcome the notion that abuse "shouldn't, couldn't happen to me" empowers them to take most important step — seeking a way out.
No single solution will end domestic violence permanently and for everyone. But by opening up about her past, Governor Brown took an early step, sending a critical message to victims from all walks of life — rich or poor, white or non-white, female or male:
You're not alone, and it's not your fault.