PUBLIC CONCERN FOR “PRIVATE” VIOLENCE

It is tempting to give credit for the discovery of a social problem to a single great person or a single tragic event. The field of child abuse and neglect certainly owes much to the late C. Henry Kempe. Walter Mondale was thought a hero by those concerned with child protection, while Senator (and Vice President) Joe Biden was instrumental in passing the Violence Against Women Act.

Another point of view is that no single person, journal article, or piece of legislation propels a problem from obscurity onto the public agenda. Rather, an issue slowly and gradually becomes a public issue. The “great man” and the “slow social movement explanations” of the social transformation of intimate violence and abuse are both inadequate. Rather, a variety of social movements and social concerns combined in the late 1960s to create a climate where people were ready and willing to listen to those concerned with the victimization of women and children.

The 1960s assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King focused public concern about violence. This focus led to the establishment of the President’s Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. The Commission’s national survey on attitudes and experience with violence produced invaluable data for researchers in the field of family violence.

The 1960s were also a period of violent social protest and race riots, again focusing public concern on violence. The “baby boomers” of the 1950s were teenagers in the 1960s and, as is often the case for those 18-24 years of age, they engaged in innumerable acts of delinquency and violence, increasing the national homicide, assault, and rape rates. The general public believed that we were in the midst of an epidemic of violence. Fear of violent crime began to paralyze American society. The Figgie Report (Figgie, 1980),2 found that four out of ten Americans were afraid of being assaulted, robbed, raped, or murdered in their homes or on the streets where they lived and worked.

Concern about violence would not have meant much had it not occurred at the same time as we were undergoing a resurgence of both the women’s and the children’s movements. These existing social movements provided the forum, the workers, and the energy to collect, organize, and present information on private victimization. Existing national groups, who lobbied on behalf of women and children, made it easier to lobby for national and regional attention to be paid to the problems of abuse and violence.

A final necessary and sufficient piece that helped shape public concern regarding violence into a portrait of a problem was the research being carried out by social and behavioral scientists. Until there could be scientific data that shattered the myths of abuse, it was impossible to convince the public and legislators that intimate violence was a social problem deserving a continued place on the national agenda.

 
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