The excellent Hilzoy has a post on why women stay with their abusers that is worth everyone’s time. What she doesn’t do is give a direct response to Linda Hirshman*, who is here making a claim in her usual manner: say something indefensible wrapped up in a misty old-school feminism that is just near enough to a defensible position to give plausible cover.** Here the claim is that unlike those other feminists who say “don’t ask an abused woman why she didn’t leave”, Hirshman knows that one must ask why she didn’t choose to leave, in order to respect women’s agency.
Sounds sensible, until you understand exactly what she means. From the post describing the book:
The somewhat fictionalized memoir (Steiner says she changed some identifying details and combined some characters) follows earlier essays in which she chronicled her anorexia and financial dependence. In this latest episode of bad choices, her future husband gave her clear warning.
It seems that anorexia is being counted as a bad choice. This is a particularly telling turn of phrase, and one that should strike us as odd; someone who said “I think we need to ask that anorexic girl right there why she just doesn’t eat, to respect her agency” or “This is just her choice not to eat” would at best be someone who profoundly misunderstood anorexia nervosa, at worst someone who is callously cruel.
And a similar problem arises for Hirshman’s position. She’s not the first to consider this question (not at all), so she can’t be taken as calling for study of a neglected phenomenon, and the research has been done has said that it’s hard for someone to leave an abusive relationship because of any number of psychological and cultural factors. And — it doesn’t require a full-blown battered woman syndrome. The abuser is nice and completely normal the rest of the time. The abuse happened in the middle of a nasty fight; he must have been pushed to it. The abuser is nice and completely normal to everyone else. He might actually need help. It’s hard to admit to oneself that one is that woman. (And that’s leaving aside financial or other reasons, like past abuse.)
And in both anorexia and abuse, there’s a sense in which the solution is simple, and in which the solution isn’t. Start eating again! Leave the abuser! But one would have to be exceedingly poorly informed or unbearably smug to think that that’s all that has to happen.
*Because Hilzoy is always even-tempered.
**I suppose the charitable explanation is that she doesn’t know how to manipulate tone. But there’s a clear pattern, whether she’s pointing out that the abused woman’s husband left her (so she didn’t even leave), or calling upper-class stay-at-home-moms low-caste.