Rural Woman Battering and the Justice System: An Ethnography


Neil Websdale

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  • Sage Series on Violence against Women

    Series Editors

    Claire M. Renzetti

    St. Joseph's University

    Jeffrey L. Edleson

    University of Minnesota

    In this series

    I AM NOT YOUR VICTIM: Anatomy of Domestic Violence

    by Beth Sipe and Evelyn J. Hall

    WIFE RAPE: Understanding the Response of Survivors and Service Providers

    by Raquel Kennedy Bergen


    edited by Jeffrey L. Edleson and Zvi C. Eisikovits

    WOMEN'S ENCOUNTERS WITH VIOLENCE: Australian Experiences

    edited by Sandy Cook and Judith Bessant

    WOMAN ABUSE ON CAMPUS: Results From the Canadian National Survey

    by Walter S. DeKeseredy and Martin D. Schwartz


    by Neil Websdale


    View Copyright Page


    For Amy and Mia


    Andrew Bush helped turn me on to sociology and I thank him for that and a number of other dubious favors. I am also grateful to Eva Gamarnikow at the University of London, Institute of Education, and to historian and barrister-at-law, Margherita Rendel, who did much to nurture my early interest in gender and power. I commenced researching Rural Woman Battering and the Justice System while teaching Sociology and Criminology at Morehead State University in Kentucky. There I found a warm working environment and would like to acknowledge the helpful and varied contributions of Dave Rudy, Ed Reeves, Karl Kunkel, Jamie Dahlberg, Ric Karic, and George Ecklund. Since coming to Northern Arizona University I have benefited greatly from the insights of Ray Michalowski, with whom I discussed a number of the ideas about rural criminal justice that appear in the book. My conversations with Ralph Weisheit and Evelyn Zellerer about rural crime and justice issues have also been most helpful, as have my more general exchanges with my good friend and colleague, Alex Alvarez.

    My research was generously supported by two research grants from Morehead State University and three from Northern Arizona University. Susanna Maxwell, Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Northern Arizona, has been especially supportive of my research endeavors. I thank her.

    The backbone of this book derives from my lengthy conversations with 50 rural battered women, resident in various spouse abuse shelters in Kentucky. They offered up the connective tissue of rural patriarchy and I have benefited from that offering in ways they will not. I thank them.

    I also want to recognize the important contributions of 46 other people whom I interviewed regarding rural woman battering. In addition, there are numerous other key informants, including judges, police officers, attorneys, and advocates, whose names I cannot make public but whose contribution to some of the finer details of the manuscript was crucial. Several judges spoke with me off the record about some very difficult decisions they made. Attacked by the press, these judges did not want their side of the story to appear in this book. I have respected their wishes and thank them for taking the time to explain their positions to me privately. In all cases, names have been changed or permission was obtained.

    Material from the following publications was used with permission: the McCreary County Record, the Lexington Herald-Leader, Pulaski Week, and the Troublesome Creek Times.

    I thank sociologist Laurie Garkovich at the University of Kentucky for providing me with useful data on the social condition of rural women in Kentucky. I am most grateful to Stan Swarts, Department of Geography, Northern Arizona University, for producing the regional map of Kentucky. At the Kentucky Commission On Women, former Executive Director Marsha Weinstein and current Executive Assistant Lindsay Campbell generously provided me with useful materials and information. Staff at the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association (KDVA) helped in many ways. Gil Thurman and Monique Parker-Knoll of the KDVA went out of their way to assist me. The Executive Director of the KDVA, Sherrie Currens, educated me about domestic violence and politics. This book could not have been written without the input of her sharp mind, her astute appreciation of political processes, and her numerous contacts. At the time of doing this research, shelter directors Peggy Payne, Ramon Walton, Connie Wagers, Melissa Kemp, Judi Elder, Becky Hagan, Debbie Stevens, Beverly Fenigstein, the late Marlice Pillow, and Helen Kinton helped to introduce me to women who wanted to tell their stories, and otherwise offered invaluable assistance as I tried to make sense of rural battering. Stephanie Hong, then a counselor at the Lexington YWCA spouse abuse shelter, also offered valuable insights. Of these women, Helen Kinton, then president of the KDVA, was especially helpful. As director of Sanctuary Incorporated, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Helen is a veritable gold mine of information about rural domestic violence. I thank her in particular.

    In addition to my ethnographic research, Byron Johnson and I surveyed battered women in Kentucky shelters about their victimization and their experiences of policing and the judiciary. Together we traveled many thousands of miles in Kentucky and became much more than co-researchers. I thank Byron for his many insights into my work.

    Claire Renzetti and Jeff Edleson read earlier drafts of the manuscript and offered many helpful suggestions concerning its development. I am grateful to them for their insights, kindness, and support. Diane Reese, Executive Director of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, critiqued a later draft and provided detailed feedback. I am very grateful to her. Likewise, the production staff at Sage have assisted me in numerous ways. In particular, I want to thank Dale Grenfell for her kindness.

    The chapter titled “Policing Rural Woman Battering” was written at June Takenaka's house in Hawaii. I want to thank her for her hospitality and generosity over the years. Although the bulk of the manuscript was written in Flagstaff, Arizona, parts of it took shape at my parents’ house in East Anglia, England. I am indebted to my parents, Molly and John Websdale, for their love and kindness toward me. Likewise, I want to thank my sisters, Jill Minter and Judy Flew, who have supported and helped me in many ways over the years. Finally, I'd like to thank my wife Amy and our daughter Mia for the countless ways they have contributed toward my work and enriched my life.


    Over the past decade or so, policymakers have increasingly come to realize the epidemic proportions of violence against women in the home. It is easy to see how one of the alternative pop/folk/rock icons of the past 30 years, Leonard Cohen in his song “Democracy,” can wax lyrical about the “homicidal bitchin’” that occurs in the kitchens of family homes over “who will serve and who will eat.”1 Put simply, intimate gender relations in the United States are a lightning rod for assault and homicide. Likewise, these relationships are also marked by enormous psychological tension and antagonism, regardless of whether such hostilities manifest themselves as physical violence. At the same time, many families are the sites of love, intimacy of all kinds, and support for constituent members.

    These observations are not new. The research literature on violence between intimates is massive, and continues to grow. My purpose in writing this book is to draw attention to a phenomenon that has received scant research attention: namely rural woman battering and the so-called justice system's response to that violence. One of the reasons for the neglect of woman battering in rural communities is that researchers have ignored rural communities. There may be any number of explanations for this neglect. It is not easy for researchers to study rural communities. Rural citizens tend to be suspicious of outsiders in general. Even conducting research through techniques such as telephone surveying is more problematic in rural communities because telephone subscription rates can be much lower than they are in cities. Another reason for the dearth of research into rural domestic violence may be the popular tendency to see rural communities as more tranquil than urban ones. This image of tranquillity is not mythical. Rather, it is supported by crime statistics that show much lower levels of violent crimes such as robbery and aggravated assault in rural regions. However, as research reveals, violence within families does not follow the same social patterns as street violence. As I go on to show, rural families seem just as prone to outbreaks of violence against women as their urban counterparts. Take for example the following murder-suicide that occurred in rural Eastern Kentucky.

    Myrtle Whitaker survived her husband's attempt to murder her.2 Myrtle had been victimized for many years by her husband, Allen Whitaker, Jr., prior to the abusive episode on December 15, 1990, when Allen Jr. tried to murder Myrtle and successfully murdered two of his sons and then killed himself. The couple started dating when he was 18 and she was 16. Myrtle noted that in the early days of their dating “he was good to me” (Lexington Herald-Leader, March 27, 1991, p. A6). They married on June 21, 1973 and Myrtle reported that “the next day he changed.… He was my boss. I had to do what he said” (Lexington Herald-Leader, March 27, 1991, p. A6). In 1981 she left him to live with her parents in a small house in Puncheon Camp hollow in Eastern Kentucky. He arrived at her parents’ house a few days later and ordered his wife and children into his truck at gunpoint. As the family left, Allen held a gun to Myrtle's head. Fearing for her life, she told her parents not to call the Magoffin County sheriff. Allen Jr. continued to abuse his wife and children over the years. The family lived in a remote hollow known as Bear Branch. Their house, like other houses in the hollow, had no running water and no indoor toilet, and the nearest road was a mile away. Allen Jr. had a job as a Magoffin County school bus driver and Myrtle received $614 a month in disability and welfare payments. He controlled his family tightly. According to Myrtle's mother, Susie Prater, “He didn't allow them to talk to nobody … just whoever he wanted them to speak to. He wouldn't let her visit nobody” (Lexington Herald-Leader, December 30, 1990, p. A10). Arbie “Bubby” Sublett, whose sister married into the Prater family, commented that, “He kept them up in a hollow … like cattle” (Lexington Herald-Leader, December 30, 1990, p. A10).

    Myrtle was ensnared in a network of deeply conflictual family relationships, ambushed by her poverty, and unable to break free in a community that was home to both her own and her abuser's parents and friends. At one point, Myrtle told her sister, Norma Cole, “I ain't got no place to go, no place to stay, no way to make it” (Louisville Courier-Journal, December 23, 1990, p. A7).

    In spite of her desperate situation, Myrtle planned her escape. On January 19, 1990, she waited until Allen Jr. passed out drunk and then took her two sons and her daughter with her to walk to the mouth of the hollow to use a neighbor's telephone. She called her father, who collected her and the children and subsequently arranged a secret meeting with local police. As a result of this meeting, Allen Jr. was charged with sodomizing his daughter. He was later released on bail. Myrtle moved out to the spouse abuse shelter in the area and then into her sister's house. She obtained a restraining order from the court to limit Allen Jr.'s access to her and her children and began to live a new life. This new life included divorcing Allen Jr. The divorce was due to be finalized within a week or so after the murder-suicide.

    On the day of the murder-suicide, Allen Jr. and Myrtle met so that he could take the youngest son to stay with him overnight. Their oldest son, Kermitt, reached for some food to hand to his father. Allen Jr. took the food and put it on the hood of Myrtle's car. He then told Myrtle and the kids that he had a better idea than eating food and started firing his .38 caliber revolver at his family. He killed the two boys and left Myrtle for dead. His daughter escaped. He then reloaded the revolver and shot himself in the head.

    Events such as the Whitaker murder-suicide send shock waves through small Kentucky towns. These shock waves are often amplified through the urban presses in Louisville and Lexington. One of the discursive themes of these shock waves is the disturbance of the apparent rural idyll. These rural atrocity tales cast an ominous shadow over a way of life that is locally governed, that shuns outsiders, and in which people's families and friends are often intimately interconnected over generations. However, it is not my point that violence against women in rural communities takes different physical forms from that in urban areas. This book is not an attempt to provide hard quantitative data on the prevalence of battering in rural vis-à-vis urban areas. Rather, the book is a study of interpersonal violence against women within a number of intersecting contexts, one of them being the rural sociocultural milieu.

    Rural phenomena are not easy to study using quantitative data sources such as police call data and arrest reports, court convictions, and the like. My use of ethnographic methods, including 96 focused interviews3 and participant and nonparticipant observation is designed to overcome these difficulties and to produce a detailed study of the ways of life in rural areas. Although the details of the Whitaker case were gleaned largely from newspaper sources, in this book I attach central importance to the voices of rural women themselves. I rely on my conversations with criminal justice and other professionals to augment women's own words about their victimization, policing, the courts, and the state in general. In this way I hope to redress some of the imbalance in the research literature on woman battering and criminal justice that, as I will show in Chapter 3, often ignores battered women.

    Part of the art of the ethnographer is to identify his or her place amid a labyrinth of social forces and to reflect upon how this locus affects the research. This “situated” stance raised important questions for my research on rural woman battering. By trading on my privilege as a white male college professor, do I invade the territory inhabited by rural battered women, and rural folk in general, as I re-present their words and deeds in text? Am I the ethnographer-invader reproducing the imperialist modus operandi of bygone Empires? Recent critiques of ethnographic research have leveled the charge that ethnographers interpret “other” cultures through the lens of the ethnographers’ own cultural heritage, thereby engaging in what Michelle Fine calls “imperial translation.”4

    During my own ethnographic research I vacillated between seeing myself as a pro-feminist man researching a hitherto much ignored social problem and a colonizer invading an alien culture. I became what I call the “hesitant ethnographer.” These feelings are not unusual, and other ethnographers have wrestled with similar problems. Pinpointing some of the anxieties of conducting ethnographic research in Cuba, Ray Michalowski (1996) shows how the geo-political vortex of U.S.-Cuban relations generates considerable anxiety for him as he negotiates the ebb and flow of political tensions at an interpersonal level.

    For some, my ethnography may appear more noble if I assume the master status of activist-ethnographer. But this is not the case. My overwhelming feeling as I rode with police officers, talked with battered women, observed domestic cases in court, and lived in Eastern Kentucky, was one of awe and bewilderment. I liken it to my 2 years living in Japan after having spent most of my life in England. In Japan the trees, the stores, people's attire and style, language, the color of food, the smell of culture, indeed the entire social fabric, seemed to me to have been inverted. These feelings of awe and bewilderment are doubtless similar to those experienced by the early cultural anthropologists and may not form the basis for writing good sociology. In fact, even reporting my childlike curiosity or voyeuristic tendencies may be seen as either a form of self-indulgence or a type of cynical insurrection by those who would tyrannize all ethnography by manacling it to the lofty goal of producing a just society.

    Just as my sense of wonderment at cultural life in rural Kentucky may have been partially influenced by my childhood as a working-class Briton, so too must my curiosity about rural woman battering have been partially shaped by personal inexperience with such matters. Not having grown up in a battering family and not having been a batterer, I cannot speak from the unassailable pulpit of experience on these matters. Indeed, as one of my colleagues recently suggested, I may have been better able to write about battering had I been the perpetrator of such violence, at least at some point during my life.

    Since woman battering seems to be as prevalent in rural families as it is in urban families, and because researchers and policymakers have not addressed this disturbing social problem, it is imperative we learn more about it. The search for such knowledge requires an understanding of rural cultural life and the social condition of women. I claim no special expertise in this area, except that I lived, worked, observed, and conversed with people in a small rural town in Eastern Kentucky from 1991 to 1993. It was in that small town and its beautiful hinterland that my ethnography began. By ethnography I refer to the “study of ways of life.” Eventually, the ethnography spread across the lovely state of Kentucky to encompass a number of rural communities. Amid the green rolling hills of the Bluegrass, the derelict mining towns, the steep mountains of Eastern Kentucky, and the fertile farmland of Central and Western Kentucky, I went in search of intimate violence and the societal reaction to it.

    In the fall of 1991, I made contact with and got to know the women who ran the “Washington” spouse abuse shelter. After outlining the broad scope of my research venture and receiving their detailed input, we jointly arranged for me to approach women who were the victims/survivors of interpersonal male violence. The shelter director told battered women of my research interests and asked if they might be interested in telling their story. Once my first few interviews were completed, women who had talked with me shared their experiences with other women in the shelter, some of whom in turn agreed to share their experiences with me. Having women pass on information about their conversations with me served to introduce me to new interviewees. This snowballing effect also raised trust and comfort levels for both myself and the women I talked with. It is my perception that when men interview women, it is helpful if they are introduced by women and that their research focus is relayed by those women who, ideally, have played an integral part in formulating the research vista.

    One dark January night in 1992, I pulled up and parked my car in the trees close to the spouse abuse shelter in Washington. At that time the shelter was somewhat ramshackle. The entry was by a sidedoor and I could not help but think that this door was very easy to break down. The dead-bolt lock appeared insubstantial. I entered to be greeted by the shelter director who introduced me to Barbara, the first woman who expressed a desire to tell her story. I glanced into the administrative office where I saw a security screen that displayed the outside of the premises and particularly the back door, which one worker told me was “very flimsy.” The inside furnishings were at best modest and reflected both the poverty of the region and the fact that woman battering was not seen as a particularly serious offense by local government. All of the women in shelter were poor.

    The air was thick with cigarette smoke and the house alive with the sound of children playing and crying. One of the women who resided in the shelter bore the marks of physical abuse on her face in the form of a black eye, and on her leg in the form of softened blue/black bruises. Except for Barbara, whom I was about to interview, I was barely acknowledged by the other women residents. Barbara had a scar at the side of her forehead evidenced by streaks of whitish tissue that contrasted sharply with her regular skin color. This scar was the legacy of a stab wound inflicted by her abusive ex-husband. During this first visit to the Washington shelter I sensed I was standing at the feet of patriarchy. The very architecture of the shelter, with the security system, the drawn blinds so as to exclude the hostile world, and the residential language of injury and abuse, evidenced the “reality” of patriarchy. However, this was not a universal patriarchy, but rather a patriarchy nuanced by the silks and rags of class relations and the idiosyncrasies of the rural culture of Eastern Kentucky. Certainly it was a patriarchy characterized by coercion, violence, and cruelty, but also a patriarchy distinguished by a profound sense of resistance and endurance on the part of battered women.

    The centerpiece of my ethnography is the focused interviews I conducted with battered women, police officers, judges, attorneys, social workers, spouse abuse shelter employees and directors, and the leaders of the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association (KDVA). I also engaged in various forms of observation and participant observation that augmented my interview findings and my everyday cultural appreciation. I rode with police officers and observed their performance at domestics. For a year or so, I served on the advisory board of the local spouse abuse shelter and was involved in discussions about how to raise funds and how to alter the architecture of the shelter itself. In another capacity, I acted as an external evaluator of a federal program operating in seven Kentucky spouse abuse shelters. Through these various roles I became well acquainted with these shelters, their staff, and their problems.

    In the spirit of ethnographic inquiry, I gathered a lot of raw, unstructured information about rural woman battering that was inextricably tied up with tales of rural life in general. Putting my findings together and interpreting their numerous possible meanings involved considerable subjective analysis. By piecing together my ethnographic data and combining it with other documentary sources, I hope to contribute to our understanding of rural women's lives and their victimization by their intimate partners. More than anything, my approach is designed to present rural woman battering through the eyes and words of the women who have experienced it. In this sense I am following the theoretical line taken by Dorothy Smith and other realist feminist researchers, who acknowledge the authenticity of women's everyday experiences.5

    Due to the dangerous and highly privatized nature of violence against women, ethnographic research opportunities involving participant observation are limited. Researchers cannot easily reside in homes where battering takes place and, if they did, their presence would seriously affect behavior therein. An alternative strategy in developing a textured understanding of abuse is to have women or men who have been in battering relationships systematically reflect on past events. In a sense, my interviews were a way of doing this.

    Most battered women do not enter spouse abuse shelters. In Kentucky, as in other states, many more women are served by shelters through outreach programs rather than through staying in shelters. At another level still, many abused women, for a variety of reasons, do not even have contact with shelters. The experiences I explore are therefore snapshots of a much larger social problem. It is not my argument that the experiences I report are somehow “representative” of all battering that goes on in rural communities.6

    When two people undertake a personal interview, they may have many things in common. They may work at the same job, live in the same region, occupy the same social-class position, believe in the same religion, or be members of the same sex, race, or age group. Differing levels of shared experience produce varying degrees of congruence between the interviewer and the interviewee. The gendered experiential incongruence between myself and the women I talked with was perhaps compounded because interviewees were victims of male violence, not just “any” violence. Their experience of male violence, and my maleness, may have intensified the experiential incongruence between us. At times I wondered if I, as man, would be perceived as what Christine Delphy (1977) once called “the main enemy.”7 I shared these concerns with administrators of the KDVA and individual shelter directors and staff. Most told me that many battered women wanted to tell their stories to someone who would listen, regardless of whether the interviewer was male or female. This desire to tell their stories was, in some cases, heightened by the fact that as victims of violence, my interviewees had often been ignored by their abusers and criminal justice personnel, and their opinions and stories trivialized, met with disbelief or disdain, or, possibly, met with more violence. Indeed, several women told me they were glad that I was an “outsider” in the community. My outsider status meant that I was not part of the deeply entrenched gossip circuitry and was safer to trust with personal details.

    There are other reasons for interviewers not to shy away from interviewing people with different social backgrounds. Human subjects stand at the juncture of a multitude of intersecting social forces and possess what Donna Haraway (1991) has called “fractured identities” (p. 155). Robert Merton (1972), using the different language of status sets, notes that “individuals have not a single status but a status set: a complement of variously interrelated statuses which interact to affect both their behavior and perspectives” (p. 22).

    Merton notes that Insider and Outsider groups emerge at particular sociohistorical junctures characterized by the stress of acute social change. During these periods of acute social change, numerous tensions emerge surrounding the acquisition of knowledge about Insiders and Outsiders. In particular, Insiders (in Merton's original article, blacks) have claimed a special understanding of the condition and social world of “their” group. He calls this enjoyment of a special understanding, the “Insider doctrine,” which, in its “strong form,” constitutes an epistemological principle that states “that particular groups in each moment of history have monopolistic access to particular kinds of knowledge” (Merton, 1972, p. 11; emphasis in original). In its “weaker, more empirical form, the claim holds that some groups have privileged access, with other groups also being able to acquire that knowledge for themselves but at greater risk and cost” (p. 11; emphasis in original). The logic of the Insider doctrine is alarming to Merton because in its extreme form it denies that human beings are the possessors of multiple and intersecting sets of social statuses. Instead, the Insider doctrine argues that there is one overarching status determinant that signifies the essence of that particular human being's experience in the world.

    If the interviewer is of the same class, gender, or race as the interviewee, then such compatibility or congruence may enhance disclosure in different directions. However, in spite of the differences and similarities between myself and the battered women I interviewed, our conversations revealed rich details of women's lives and led me to believe that it is not necessary to “match up” all of the fractured identities (Haraway) or status sets (Merton) of the interviewer and interviewee. It is possible that if a woman interviewed my interviewees the conversation would have developed differently. However, after many long hours of interviewing and pawing over transcripts, I feel that it is inappropriate and contrary to the spirit of subjectivist methodologies to argue that gender congruence produces more “valuable” interview outcomes. Rather, we might usefully explore how the outcomes of interviews where there is gender congruence differ from those where there is not.

    As we will see in the first and subsequent chapters, women disclosed much about their private lives, including details of their brutalization, and their dealings with the police, courts, and other arms of the state. Women reported their experiences in a variety of ways. Some balked at revealing certain intimate details. For example, Lynn openly reported extensive details of physical abuse but refused to discuss her sexual victimization.8

    Websdale: Were there any times when you suffered injuries that required you to seek medical attention or go to the ER?

    Lynn: No, because Donny was very calculated in the way that he did his physical abuse. He knew if he hit me or hurt me, that I would have to go to the hospital and he'd have to answer for things. So the way he did it was, ah, bruising, ah, pinning me down, knocking me against the wall, stuff like that, but never hard enough. I would think well he's done this, he's lost his self-control. But he always had control the whole time.

    Websdale: Were there any times during your relationship when he sexually abused you?

    Lynn: I don't want to talk about that.

    I weighed the pros and cons of asking direct questions about sexual abuse very carefully. Cognizant of Helen Eigenberg's (1990) critique of the National Crime Victimization Survey's (NCVS) failure to access the magnitude of rape because NCVS questions shied away from directly asking women if they'd been raped or had sex against their will, I decided that a direct approach might be better.9 My decision to proceed in this direct manner on the question of sexual abuse was also based on my understanding that battered women are not helpless victims. My sense was that they would tell me if they did not want to answer a question. Lynn confirmed my belief.

    Katie typified those women who felt they could discuss their sexual victimization.

    Katie: … When he wanted to have sexual intercourse, he did it, without my consent.… Or whenever he wanted me to give him a blow job, he would take my head and push it down toward him and I'm like, “No, I don't want to do this.” But to get him to shut up, I did it anyway.

    My interviews with women did not follow the typical conversational flow between men and women. In mixed-sex conversations, men tend to talk more, their ideas are more readily taken up, women typically ask more questions than men, and women do more work than men to keep conversations going and to fill silences (see DeVault, 1990; Fishman, 1978; West & Zimmerman, 1983).10 In our conversations, it was I who wanted to listen to their stories. On the rare occasions when there was a lull in the conversation, it was I, as interviewer, who kept the momentum going. It was interviewees who provided the directions for the conversations, although those directions used women's personal biography, their victimization, and the criminal justice response to their victimization as broad frames of reference. Finally, women talked much more than I did during the interviews.

    Women may have disclosed information because they perceived that I, as a white male college professor, may, for example, have the power to influence the future policing of their cases, judicial outcomes, or the provision of social services. Women may have had a similar feeling if interviewed by a white female college professor as well. A number of women asked me questions about their cases. Typical questions concerned police practices, judicial actions, and child custody issues. Like Oakley (1981), I answered whenever I could, and gave my opinions freely. Several women told me they shared because they hoped the information would reduce the victimization of other women. Hanna, a spouse abuse shelter director, referred to the tendency of battered women to see me as someone in authority who might help them or assist in the struggle against woman abuse, as the “Knight in Shining Armor Syndrome.” The interviewer as “knight” raises some awkward issues.

    First, if the interview setting is as nonhierarchical as possible, and I as interviewer am inverting traditional male stances in mixed-sex interactions, then how could some battered women still perceive me to be potentially heroic? If I am trying to subvert the posture of “manor interviewer-as-dominant” in my approach to interviewing, then how might women see me in shining armor? The answer to these questions may lie in the point I made earlier: that battered women are not addicted to their victimization, or their abuser. They are not masochistic and are able to tell the difference between the violent domination of their abusers and the different kind of power that I perhaps exerted over them. Simply put: To perceive me as “knight,” women did not have to see me as dominant in ways that their abusers were (violently) dominant.

    Second, if the interviewer is seen as “knight,” whether or not she or he eschews that role, is she or he not manipulating the interviewee at some level? Assuming the Knight in Shining Armor Syndrome, reported by a number of shelter workers, is real, what can the interviewer do, at an ethical level, to reduce the dangers of manipulating interviewees? In an attempt to address this ethical concern in my interviews, I told women that although I was interviewing criminal justice personnel, I did not know them personally and was not likely to because I was essentially an outsider in the community. Consequently, I hoped interviewees would be less influenced by the fact that I may have “connections.”11

    My analysis of my conversations with women have focused almost exclusively upon linguistic interchanges between us. It seems to me that whatever the sex makeup of the interviewer-interviewee dyad, we are left with the very thorny epistemological issue of what aspects of the presentation of the interviewee's self and the interviewer's self should researchers incorporate into their broader understanding of a social phenomenon? I noted, and in Chapter 1 will note in much more detail, how women shared what I perceived to be a number of intimate details of their lives. At times women refused to answer certain questions or directed the flow of conversation to topics they appeared more comfortable with. However, if there was substantial resistance to answering my questions, or even to being in the interview situation, we must not assume that we can map that locus of refusal merely by using interview transcripts and meticulously dissecting the words they (and I) used. If one of the main problems with men interviewing women is experiential incongruence, we cannot assume that it is overcome if women divulge information that appears to male interviewers to be sensitive and highly personal. If the interview exchange between men and women is a microcosm of patriarchal relations and, in a sense, a potential lightning rod for that social structural tension, then we would do well to ask ourselves: “How is the resistance of women to men expressed in interviews?”12

    I will make a few rudimentary suggestions about possible directions to move in to begin to answer this question. If we accept that the interview exchange between men and women is a potential lightning rod for wider gender tensions, then we must look at what women interviewees think as well as what they say in their conversations with male interviewers. Since our conversations occurred in a relatively unstructured setting, we ought to explore the silences, the things women do not say and the leads they might have pursued but did not. We must also be aware of the heavily nuanced and textured nature of human interaction that cannot be mechanically read off of people's position in a gender hierarchy. Put simply, battered women's words and silences do not passively mirror their gendered disadvantage.

    Angela McRobbie (1978) points to the way that adolescent working-class girls see “romance” as a social lubricant that smoothes the difficult transition to adulthood. Contrary to the notion that these girls are duped into their interest in romance by a misunderstanding of marriage, McRobbie found that, given the limited choices of working-class girls, a little romance spruced up their lives before the realities of marriage set in. Could it be that battered women talked with me because it was a somewhat interesting diversion from the humdrum of shelter life? As much as I was using them as subjects in a research project, could they have been using me as a break from the routine? an opportunity for someone else to watch the children? Like McRobbie's working-class girls and their brief excursion into the world of romance, were the women I talked with somehow resisting by conversing with me?

    Finally, it must be said that there is a whole terrain of human communication that I have not touched. This is the area Foucault (1977) calls the material body. I have not engaged in an analysis of the rich tapestry of symbolism and personal style evidenced through modes of eye contact, bodily postures and language, facial gestures, and the presentation of injuries. Such a tapestry may be too ethereal to tap. If it is the case that battered women I conversed with resisted me in subliminal ways that defy observation, then such elusive aspects of the interview exchange might be another reason for challenging the argument that only women can interview women. For it is likely that in woman-woman interviewing dyads, subliminal resistive forces, whether the same or different, may also operate.

    I direct the reader to Appendix 1 for a detailed discussion of the other aspects of my ethnographic approach. There I discuss my interviews with criminal justice professionals, spouse abuse shelter directors and staff, social workers, journalists, and attorneys. There I also explore my role as “observer” and “participant observer.”

    Chapter 1 bears the title, “For Batter or For Worse.” As I indicate, the institution of marriage seems to be more revered in rural communities and, as I will point out in subsequent chapters, marriage rates are higher there than in urban centers. Marriage and the family lie at the heart of rural patriarchy. In traditional marriage vows the participants swear an oath of allegiance to each other “for better or for worse.” From my ethnographic findings, it seems as if we ought to be warning women at the altar that “for better or for worse” might be more aptly stated as “for batter or for worse.” For some readers, the title of the lead chapter may seem cynical. If it does, then the subheadings for that chapter may create further discomfort. The first section, titled “For Batter,” looks at rural woman battering through the experiences of rural women themselves. Since such an alarming number of Kentucky's rural women are murdered by their husbands and partners, the second part of Chapter 1 is titled “For Worse” and addresses homicides and homicide-suicides within rural families.

    It is my contention throughout this book that violence between intimates, and violence in general, is best understood as a product of social conditions, not as a result of the genetic makeup of perpetrators and victims, their psychological characteristics, or both. In order to understand the social-structural backdrop to the violence, we must have a working appreciation of what “rural communities” are. Chapter 2 addresses this issue of what a rural community is. In talking about “rural” social phenomena, I do not mean to imply that all rural regions are the same. Instead of essentializing rural culture, I adopt the idea of a rural-urban continuum and explore both the seeming similarities and differences among rural communities. It is in this chapter that I introduce and define rural patriarchy and highlight the social condition of many rural women. In addition, I discuss rural crime and criminal justice, taking care to point out that rural woman battering and the criminal justice response to that battering, have received scant attention from researchers and policymakers.

    Rural patriarchy is the conceptual tool that I find most useful in making sense of the phenomenon of rural woman battering. In Chapter 3, I delve into the research literature on familial violence in order to explain exactly why I find the concept of rural patriarchy such a useful explanatory tool. My purpose here is not to engage in an exhaustive review of this monumental literature. Rather, I hope to provide readers with the essential reasons for my argument that it is the gender struggle within rural families that lies at the root of the socially patterned battering of women in these communities. In Chapter 3, I also discuss the research on the reticent and often problematic response of criminal justice agencies to violence against women. This discussion lays the groundwork for my ensuing ethnographic assessment of the responses of the police, courts, and state agencies to battered women in rural Kentucky.

    While recognizing the dearth of studies on rural battering and the criminal justice response to it, I also stress that many of the studies of the policing and judicial responses to woman battering have relied upon official data rather than women's own perspectives. This reliance reflects a political choice and not just a methodological concern with obtaining “clean data.” It is profoundly ironic that in this age of “community policing” and its alleged concern to receive input from the community, the six National Institute of Justice (NIJ) studies on the role of arrest at domestics failed to publicize women's subjective experiences of police performance. Ascertaining the effectiveness of various criminal justice strategies without taking seriously the voices of those whom the strategies are purportedly designed to protect, makes little sense. I close Chapter 3 with a call to researchers to incorporate battered women's subjective experiences into their studies if we are to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the role of the “justice” system in supposedly protecting battered women.

    Chapter 4 is the first of three chapters that explore the response of the patriarchal state to rural woman battering. In Chapter 4, I focus on the responses of various police agencies. The picture that emerges is a complex one. I do not find that all police agencies automatically and inevitably perpetuate the disadvantage of rural women by failing to take women's interpersonal victimization seriously. Local rural police (county sheriff's departments and municipal police) are more enmeshed in what I call the rural “ol’ boys network” and, for a multitude of reasons, are less likely to enforce the law and protect battered women in ways that those women appreciate. Police agencies that are more detached from this rural political milieu (e.g., the Kentucky State Police) are more likely to be seen by women as doing a better job at domestics. Put simply, the police responses to woman battering seem to be linked, in many cases, to agencies’ degree of enmeshment in local patriarchal culture. Nevertheless, the compromised response of some police agencies to the plight of battered women does not just stem from officers’ involvement with the ol’ boys network. Tax bases are much lower in rural communities, especially in some of the Eastern Kentucky counties where the bite of poverty is particularly severe. This means that resources for local police are few. If this low resource base is combined with the problems of negotiating often difficult and remote rural terrain, then there are real “physical” reasons that impede the delivery of police services to battered women.

    Through interviews with battered women, rural judges, attorneys, and legal advocates for battered women, Chapter 5 weaves a complex picture of the judicial disposition of rural domestics. While the law itself clearly relegates domestics to the stigmatized status of “misdemeanor” offenses, battered women report that with the support of their legal advocates there are ways they can use the courts to their own advantage. However, using the words of women, I introduce incidents where rural judges humiliate and dismiss the victims of interpersonal violence. I also point to the connections between judicial decisions and patriarchal beliefs about the social place of rural women. In particular, I highlight the way some judges, like some police officers, engage in victim blaming. Given that judicial decisions in rural domestics can save women's lives, I scrutinize those cases where some parties to domestic cases feel that judicial mistakes have resulted in loss of life. Putting all of the ethnographic evidence together leads me to the conclusion that battered women court revictimization when they enter some rural courtrooms. A significant number of rural judges behave like the rural patriarchs women are beaten by in their own homes.

    My ethnography is also devoted to understanding the complex role of the patriarchal state in both confronting and, paradoxically, reproducing the subordinate position of rural women vis-à-vis men. In Chapter 6, I explore the efforts of welfare and other agencies of the liberal-democratic state and juxtapose these responses alongside those of what Mazur and McBride-Stetson (1995) call the agencies of state feminism. From battered women's perspectives, a mosaic of problems exists when it comes to the state's delivering various services to rural women. Some of the difficulties stem from the remoteness of rural regions and the sociocultural and physical isolation of women. Other problems emerge because of the lack of privacy in rural areas or the interconnections between those who provide services and those who consume them. Still more problems arise from the generalized dearth of state services in rural communities brought about by a combination of factors including the inability of the state to infiltrate or access rural communities. When services are delivered, some women report them to be highly beneficial, others say they feel stigmatized or blamed as they claim what is rightfully theirs. All of these themes characterize the relationship between the state and the rural citizenry. In addition, I also explore the contradictory relationship between rural beliefs in self-sufficiency and the need for many rural dwellers to survive from meager state provisions.

    The three chapters on the response of the “justice” system to rural woman battering invite certain specific policy suggestions as to how we might better confront the social problem of rural woman battering. In the final chapter (Chapter 7), I offer some policy proposals based on the recognition that rural battering is intimately associated with the disadvantaged social condition of women. Drawing upon the overall findings of the ethnography, I recommend a coordinated multiagency approach to rural battering that is spearheaded by the agencies of state feminism. These agencies include the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association (KDVA), the Kentucky Commission on Women, and of especial importance in rural communities, the spouse abuse shelters themselves. The shelters are the crucial grassroots agencies in rural communities and I recommend using them and their outreach services as the core agencies for strategizing and improving the overall delivery of state services in general. My logic here is that these agencies are more in tune with the needs and experiences of battered women themselves. Essentially this is an argument for the extension of the services of the agencies of state feminism. It may seem naive to point to such a direction in the formulation of state policy because such a policy may on the surface appear to “ask” the patriarchal state to turn against itself. However, I argue that the state does not operate in a monolithic manner with regard to the social regulation of women. Rather, there are democratic spaces and these spaces can be worked more effectively for battered women by state feminist organizations.


    1. From the song “Democracy” on the album titled The Future, Columbia, 1992.

    2. For details of this case see the Louisville Courier-Journal, December 23, 1990, pp. A1, A7; Lexington Herald-Leader, December 30, pp. A1, A10; and Lexington Herald-Leader, March 27, 1991, pp. A1, A6.

    3. I interviewed 50 battered women, all of whom were residents of one of seven shelters; 17 police officers; 11 judges; nine advocates for battered women; four attorneys; three journalists; and two social workers.

    4. See Appendix 1, where I engage in a lengthy discussion about the role of the ethnographer and the many problems with ethnographers contributing toward the “othering” of the cultures and ways of life they attempt to interpret.

    5. I elect to validate and make use of the concept of “experience.” I make this affirmation based on my (not unproblematic) observations that the word experience has meaning for battered women. Such an affirmation flies in the face of postmodernist feminist challenges to concepts like “experience” and places me closer to the standpoint feminism of Dorothy Smith (1987, 1990, 1993). Unlike feminist cultural theorists, and particularly feminist psychoanalytically oriented semiotic theorists, Smith (1990) insists that “there is an actual subject prior to the subject constituted in the text” (p. 5). The subject position of human beings is grounded in everyday life and exists prior to its construction, insertion, and embodiment in discourse. For Smith, people's lives represent a point of departure for sociological inquiry rather than a phenomenon that is textually bound and in endless need of being deconstructed (Smith, 1993, p. 183). See also Walby (1990) and Delphy (1977). For a critique of the realist position, see Barrett (1980) and Clough (1993).

    6. Indeed, many researchers argue that women who enter shelters are among the most severely abused battered women of all. For example, Straus and Gelles (1995), citing the research of Giles-Sims (1983) and Okun (1986), suggest that women in shelters are abused at roughly 11 times the annual rate of battered women in the population at large (p. 85). Schecter (1996) estimates that 43,000 married and cohabiting women in Massachusetts suffered severe domestic violence in 1991 (p. 54). A further 149,000 experienced other forms of abuse, such as slapping and punching. However, in the same year only 1,900 used shelters as a refuge, and only 8,700 attended support groups.

    7. I explore this issue of incongruence at greater length in Appendix 1.

    8. All victims of battering mentioned in the book appear under an alias. Likewise, the people they talk about and the communities they come from appear under pseudonyms.

    9. In a roundabout attempt to obtain data on rape, the NCVS asked respondents “whether anyone had tried to attack them in another way?” or “whether anything else happened to them which they thought was a crime?” Respondents voluntarily communicated they had been the victims of rape or attempted rape. NCVS respondents’ own classifications were then accepted and recorded. As Eigenberg notes, the actual number of rapes may be up to 15 times greater than that reported in the NCVS. The NCVS has now changed its way of accessing rape data. For further discussion of the need for a range of agencies to ask women about their experiences of marital rape, see Raquel Kennedy Bergen (1996, pp. 101–104). Kennedy Bergen points out that not to ask whether women have been raped by their husbands may be to perpetuate the notion that this form of abuse is shameful and beyond discussion.

    10. Dale Spender (1985) argues that language is man-made and is not amenable to women expressing their own experiences. In a similar vein, Margorie DeVault (1990) points to the way in which words like leisure and work are problematic for many women (p. 97).

    11. Clearly, Knight in Shining Armor Syndrome is not limited to men interviewing battered women. Rather, this “syndrome” may be present whenever the power differential between interviewer and interviewee is great.

    12. We may of course ask similar questions of the interview exchange between people from different social classes, races, ethnic groups, and so on.

  • Appendix 1: Methodological Considerations

    The Ethnographer as Invader

    Whatever culture an ethnographer studies, there will always be limits to his or her understanding of that culture. Unfamiliar cultures have regularly sabotaged those of us who purport to understand social life. Classic ethnographic research (Malinowski, 1926, 1944, 1948; Mead, 1935; Radcliffe-Brown, 1948) involved cultural anthropologists immersing themselves in “strange” cultures in an attempt to describe and explain those cultures. These anthropologists described “primitive” peoples living in small-scale, preindustrial societies. Many of these classic studies provided an ideological justification for colonialism. Through long periods of fieldwork and by getting as close as possible to native culture, the cultural anthropologist aimed to produce an objective and scientific account of that culture. Denzin and Lincoln (1994) characterize the work of the classic ethnographer in the following terms: “The field-worker, during this period, was lionized, made into a larger-than-life figure who went into and then returned from the field with stories about strange people” (p. 7).

    Borrowing from the logic of the early cultural anthropologists, a number of sociologists also engaged in ethnographic research. In a number of influential studies, sociologists did not seek out the “native” or “primitive” of preindustrial societies, but instead trained their gaze upon certain deviantized inhabitants of the burgeoning American city. The Chicago School sociologists developed rich descriptions of urban life through extensive observation and interviewing. The “other” in urban life was written into the tapestry of modern sociology through these research projects. These projects focused on the ecological distribution of social phenomena in different zones of the city. We learn in rich detail about “natural areas” such as the Jewish ghetto (Wirth, 1928/1956), Little Germany (Park, 1922/1971), Chinatown (Wu, 1926), hobo jungles (Anderson, 1923/1961), and places where the suicidal (Cavan, 1928/1965), the drug addicted (Dai, 1937/1970), and the mentally ill (Faris & Dunham, 1939/1965) congregate.

    According to the Chicago School theorists, the distribution of urban deviance was governed by the degree of social disorganization in an area. Behaviors were deviant and certain urban zones socially disorganized if they departed from the middle-class norms of small town America and the wealthier suburbs of the cities. In the Chicago School analysis, the “primitive” studied by the cultural anthropologist was replaced by the “underclass deviant” constructed through the value judgments of the middle-class sociologists of the Chicago School. As with the cultural anthropologists, the Chicago School theorists constructed the “other” out of their own constellation of values and particularly their sense of what was normal and deviant. That labeling an urban zone “socially disorganized” was somewhat arbitrary is evidenced in William Foot Whyte's (1943) research into similar zones in the North End of Boston. Through his use of participant observation in the Italian American communities, Whyte argued that slum neighborhoods display high levels of social organization and cohesion. However, this cohesion may not be immediately apparent if sociologists enter the scene with a preconceived grid of ideas and questions based on their own (different) life experiences.

    One of the strengths of Whyte's work was his keen appreciation of just how he differed from those he was studying. This appreciation allowed him partial entrance to the world of the Cornerville boys. In this sense, Whyte's appreciation of his own “otherness” as researcher is echoed in the work of a number of postmodernist ethnographers who openly acknowledge their limited ability to “tell it like it is.” Michelle Fine (1994) discusses how qualitative researchers have created the “other” through their texts, which in some cases speak for and therefore simultaneously silence the “researched.” She recommends that researchers acknowledge their own political role in the research and “position ourselves as no longer transparent, but as classed, gendered, raced, and sexual subjects who construct our own locations, narrate these locations, and negotiate our stances with relations of domination” (p. 76).

    Fine also warns of recreating the exploitative colonial relation between cultural anthropologist and native through qualitative researchers purporting to “help” the researched. Instead, Fine alerts us to the dangers of speaking for the researched “other,” at the same time remembering that valuable insights can emerge from outsiders studying insiders. She rejects the essentialist argument that only people of color can and should do race work, and only women can and should do gender work. However, the problem of what she calls “imperial translation” remains.

    There are a number of parallels between the desire of ethnographers to acknowledge the role of their own political stance and the work of feminist criminologists in pointing out the political basis of traditional positivist criminology. Feminist criminologists have called for methodologies that debunk the objectivist posturing of the social scientific paradigm. Gelsthorpe and Morris (1990) call for an enrichment of criminology through the utilization of feminist approaches that accentuate “engaging with the ‘researched,’ … and using sensitive research methods which maximize opportunities to reflect more accurately the experiences of ‘the researched’” (p. 88).

    Feminist criminologies have moved away from what has sometimes been called “malestream” criminology (see Gelsthorpe & Morris, 1990) and have broadened the research agenda to include topics hitherto ignored or marginalized by traditional criminology and the crime statistics and official (impersonal) data it feeds off of. These topics include studies of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault. Feminist criminologists have also accessed the experiences of women and in so doing have contributed to an ongoing critique of empiricism in criminology. Their critique is not confined to epistemologies informed by feminist ways of knowing, but is embedded in the well-established tradition of ethnographic research.

    Research Concerning Men Interviewing Women

    There are few studies on the impact of gender incongruence between interviewer and interviewee. Among the few, most have studied structured interviews. For example, Hyman (1954) found that women were more likely to give conventional responses to male survey interviewers. Benney, Reisman, and Star (1956) found that male survey interviewers elicited fewer responses during interviews than women interviewers. Solicitation was lowest of all when men interviewed men. Landis, Sullivan, and Sheley (1973) report on 45 structured interviews of women by male interviewers and 45 by female interviewers. The interviews supposedly accessed interviewees’ attitudes to feminist statements such as: “Women are definitely discriminated against.” In comparing the outcomes of the interviews, Landis et al. note, “For eleven of the thirteen items, the response to the male interviewer was more ‘feminist’ than was the response to the female interviewer” (p. 309). This finding confounded their original hypothesis that women would present themselves as more feminist in the presence of female interviewers. Landis et al. suggest that their sample of women interviewees, drawn from college women, were at pains to assert themselves more in the presence of male interviewers.

    Carol Warren (1988, p. 44) notes that women researchers may be better able to access to the inner world of feelings. A number of writers have suggested this might be because the “researched” open up more to women because they see women as less threatening (Codere [1986], Golde [1986], and Whitehead & Conaway [1986], all cited by Warren, 1988, p. 44). It may not always be desirable that women interviewers and ethnographers in general are perceived as less threatening. A number of researchers point out that in some field situations “anonymous, tense and even conflictual interactions may best elicit information” (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 1988, p. 617; see also Warren, 1988).

    Notwithstanding the virtues of woman-to-woman research, there is evidence that sometimes women may not be able to interview other women successfully. Catherine Riessman (1987) reminds us that gender congruence may not be a sufficient condition for ensuring an empathetic exchange between interviewer and interviewee. She cites the discordance between a middle-class Anglo female interviewer and a working-class Hispanic woman (Marta). In particular, the interviewer attempted to control the interview process by trying to solicit a chronologically ordered narrative from Marta. Such solicitation was incongruous with Marta's ethnic background and life experiences. The middle-class Anglo interviewer was more successful when interviewing a white middle-class divorcee (Susan) who offered up her life as a “temporally ordered narrative” (p. 176). The lesson from Marta's interview was that, “Gender congruity is not enough … to overcome the ethnic incongruity” (p. 188). There have been a number of other examples in which gender congruence is not enough. These examples raise the question, just how much of an insider does one have to be to gain rich insights into the lives of interviewees? Nancie Gonzalez (1984) found that married Guatamalan women with children found it discourteous and embarrassing to discuss issues such as childbirth and pregnancy with women who were unmarried, childless, or both.

    In their study of the effects of interviewer gender in in-depth interviews, Williams and Heikes (1993) found that “people used the interviewer's gender as a cue to gauge the interviewer's orientations and opinions, and they developed their responses within that gendered context” (p. 288). Williams and Heikes found a number of subtle differences in the way male nurses responded to male and female interviewers. Male nurses were more direct and forceful with male interviewers about expressing stereotypical views of women and the occupational place of women in nursing. Likewise, male nurses, in talking with female but not male interviewers, did not interject comments about their own sexual orientation. The nurses, when talking with female interviewers, were quicker to criticize the sexism directed at women. According to Williams and Heikes, the more “open” response to male interviewers may in part be a product of the “social desirability effect,” whereby interviewees want to “look good” in front of the interviewer. For example, male nurses, not wanting to offend female interviewers, may have toned down their expression of stereotypical beliefs about the (gendered) place of women.

    In spite of the profound influence of the gender of the interviewer upon the outcome of the interview, Williams and Heikes (1993) conclude that “the gender of the interviewer is not an insurmountable barrier to establishing rapport and achieving reliable results in in-depth interviewing” (p. 289).

    However, they caution that,

    Men who study women using qualitative interviews may confront more formidable obstacles to rapport. Members of a subordinate group may be more wary and careful about what they say—as well as how they say it—to someone who represents the interests of powerful groups in society. (p. 289)

    Other studies of the interview medium attacked the structured interview itself as being too impersonal and “objective” and especially unsuited for interviewing women about their life experiences (see Finch, 1984; Oakley, 1981). Ann Oakley (1981) identifies the traditional social scientific interview as masculinist. She argues the traditional interviewer is ideally objective; a mere conduit who elicits information from “respondents.” The term respondent is a telling one for Oakley because it conveys the reality that interviewees are non-participating objects who essentially reply to questions. According to the textbook model, interviewers are ideally “friendly but not too friendly” (p. 33). Since the interviewer remains emotionally detached, he or she is less likely to contaminate the “yield” from the interviewee. Interviewers must strike the difficult balance between establishing enough rapport so that the respondent is sufficiently forthcoming, and yet remaining suitably detached so as not to contaminate the “data.”

    The traditional interview is designed to elicit a certain type and amount of information. According to Oakley, the traditional interview takes one of two forms. In the first, the interviewer assumes the role of phonograph and recording system. Here, the interviewer and interviewee are depersonalized. In the second, the interviewer assumes the role of psychotherapist. As an all-knowing listener, the interviewer makes nonjudgmental statements in order to build a permissive atmosphere that encourages openness on the part of interviewees. In both forms of traditional social science interviewing, the interviewer remains objective and the “yield” more scientific if the interviewee is objectified. Such interviewing assumes that “truth” awaits discovery and that only through the appropriately detached and clinical method can the interviewer approach that truth. This truth takes two forms. First, the interviewer elicits “the (little) truth” from the interviewee. Second, because the approach of the interviewer was standard in any number of interviews, the multiple truths can be compared to see if there is some “overriding (big) Truth” about the social phenomenon in question. By remaining detached, clinical, friendly, and professional, and by building suitable rapport, the interviewer ensures that little or no bias creeps into the interview exchange. Interview outcomes directed at the same topic can then be compared.

    For Oakley, traditional interviewing styles will be particularly problematic for feminists who are interviewing other women, who may or may not be feminist. Here the hierarchical mode will be counterproductive because it is the experiences that women share that can be accessed through mutual and empathetic exchange that will tell us the most about women's lives. Rather than building rapport, the feminist interviewer already enjoys a certain level of rapport with women participants. This type of exchange is the antithesis of the traditional textbook interview. The nonhierarchical interview makes no pretense at being objective or unbiased.

    If, according to Oakley, the traditional interview is masculinist, then do all men who interview women end up reproducing this hierarchical relationship? Is the interview exchange between men and women always doomed by wider structural constraints to be of a certain (exploitative) nature? or, can the adoption of subjective, qualitative methods by male, especially pro-feminist, interviewers sufficiently compensate for the political/emotional/experiential divide between men and women? While Oakley's pathbreaking analysis argues the masculinist interviewing mode is poorly suited to feminists interviewing women about their personal lives, she does not fall into the trap of essentialism by explicitly stating or, in my opinion implying, that when men interview women the result inevitably reproduces the masculinist paradigm of traditional textbook interviewing.

    The interviewing work of both Oakley and Finch has been criticized for its insensitivity to the racial and class dynamics of the interview exchanges between women. Oakley (1980) withdrew minority women from her sample of interviewees to ensure “cultural homogeneity” (p. 99). She then proceeded to talk about “women” in general as a result of her findings. There are at least two problems here.

    First, if feminism is concerned with inclusion rather than exclusion, the marginalization of minority women is deeply problematic, bell hooks (1982) sees the absence of black women from white feminist's accounts of women's lives as follows:

    The force that allows white feminist authors to make no reference to racial identity in their books about “women” that are in actuality about white women, is the same one that would compel any writer writing exclusively on black women to refer explicitly to their racial identity. That force is racism. (p. 138).

    Edwards's (1990) interviews with black women in London found that these women were much less willing than white women to share information with her. She reports that the building of trust was not based on gender congruence alone. In fact, Edwards reports that

    rapport was easier after I had signaled not a non hierarchical, non exploitative, shared-sex relationship, but rather an acknowledgment that I was in a different structural position to them with regard to race and did not hold shared assumptions on that basis. (p. 486)

    Second, Oakley interviewed both middle-class and working-class women in her culturally “homogeneous” sample. To suggest that the experiences of women from different classes can be conflated is to deny social class biography, or at least subsume it to the lived realities of gender oppression.

    Rather than ruling out the possibility of men “successfully” interviewing women, some feminists have pointed to the experiential congruence between women as women that assists female interviewers and interviewees to explore hitherto marginalized areas of women's lives. Janet Finch (1984) observes,

    there are grounds for expecting that where a woman researcher is interviewing other women, this is a situation with special characteristics conducive to the easy flow of information … the structural position of women, and in particular their consignment to the privatized, domestic sphere makes it particularly likely that they will welcome the opportunity to talk to a sympathetic listener. (p. 74)

    Importantly, Finch also states that while woman-to-woman interviewing constitutes a special situation, “This is not to say that men can never make good interviewers.… Men … can be very effective in getting both women and men to talk about intimate aspects of their lives” (p. 75).

    As a pro-feminist man, I readily acknowledge that feminism has enlivened academic discourse and forced sociologists to reassess their ontological, epistemological, and methodological axioms. By profeminist men, I refer to those men who are sympathetic to the broad aims of feminist perspectives and recognize the systemic and historically enduring oppression of women, but who have not felt the weight of that oppression firsthand. I emphasize pro-feminist men here, not in the sense of privileging them vis-à-vis research on gender issues, but because I think pro-feminist men might be among those most interested in and knowledgeable about the oppression of women. Part of the reason for my stressing pro-feminist men is that I am working from the assumption that good ethnographic research and interviewing is best achieved by establishing some rapport with researched subjects. Rapport building requires a familiarity on the part of the interviewer with the life “issues” of researched subjects.

    However, few men conduct personal interviewing with women from a pro-feminist stance. Male researchers’ lack of interest in women's issues is probably one reason why they have not interviewed women. In addition, the job of interviewing requires listening skills and empathy. These qualities have stereotypically been associated with women. Employers have therefore been more likely to hire women as interviewers. Moreover, interviewing work has been traditionally poorly paid and often part-time. These factors have also reduced the willingness of men to be interviewers.

    My Conversations with Battered Women

    By setting up a situation in which many women came to the interview as “battered” women (and many other kinds of women, be they “religious,” “working-class,” “Caucasian,” etc.) wanting to tell their stories, I hoped to break down some of the obvious barriers to sharing. The battered women I talked with were living in the shelter because they had been battered. They came to the interviews knowing that I wanted to talk to them about some of the offenses committed against them. It might be objected that battered women on their way out of abusive relationships, or at least strategizing about how to change them, would resist/be incensed by an interviewer reminding them of their victimization. I have no easy way of knowing how this resistive effect played out. It is likely that women resisted my questions in ways that I was not (and still am not) aware of. Suffice it to say that overt and covert resistance in interviewing is probably an ever-present aspect of the negotiated encounter between researcher and researched.

    I conducted focused or in-depth interviews with women. The types of questions varied considerably among interviews and similar questions were not asked in the same order or the same way. Interviews were taped and transcripts made available to interviewees. Only one woman objected to taping (in this case I took notes with her consent) although a number asked questions about my reasons for taping and how the tapes would be used. Many interviews took the form of partial life histories because I was interested in exploring the familial and cultural backgrounds of women. Usually, life history themes opened our conversations. Although I followed a “key words” card that reminded me of certain themes to raise, the directions taken by the interviews were heavily influenced by the women themselves. Usually we moved from a discussion of life history into conversations about her relationship with her abuser. This led into conversations about the interviewee's experiences of abuse. Having learned of her place in the community, her background, and her experience of abuse, I raised issues related to the state response to her victimization. Unlike Oakley (1981), who was able to engage in longitudinal interviewing and build personal friendships with some of her interviewees, my interviews were “one-offs.” There were a number of reasons for this, most important of which was the personal safety of women. To “track” women once they had left the shelter would not have been safe for them (or myself).

    Raised as a Caucasian male in a working-class British community, I had many things in common with interviewees around the axis of social class. In addition, all but five of the women I interviewed were Caucasian. As well as experiential incongruence based on gender, the cultural incongruence between us was marked. I, a college professor with a British accent, and they, women immersed in an impoverished rural cultural setting that, according to several women, dictated that women be “barefoot and pregnant.”

    It is important to note that during my conversations with women (battered and nonbattered) I did not directly ask questions like: “How do you feel about being interviewed by a man?” or “Are there things you might not feel comfortable talking with me about because I am a man?” To ask such a question early on may have primed the interviewee that there are things that should be withheld from a male interviewer. I did not want to set up a self-fulfilling prophecy. Neither did I later ask the question: “During the interview would you have given different answers if the interviewer was female?” I did not want to embarrass or indeed potentially harass women by asking them if they had not covered certain topics because I was male. Perhaps mistakenly, I felt that questions about the possibility of my maleness taking the conversations in different directions might be construed by women as insensitive or pushy.

    It is possible that the effects of gender incongruence work themselves out in unforeseen and rather discrete ways. While women may not have openly refused to divulge sensitive information, the gender incongruence between us may have impacted the interview exchange in other ways. In talking about her dealings with a woman judge, Deanna comments:

    Deanna: She was nice. I thought she would be more understanding toward women because she was a woman judge [Belson] herself.

    However, later in the interview Deanna reports Judge Belson failed to live up to her potential as a sensitive ear.

    Websdale: So what did you think of Judge Belson's decision in the case?

    Deanna: I thought it was unfair [The judge slapped a restraining order on Deanna based on the fact that Deanna had assaulted her husband].

    Our discussion about the gender of Judge Belson did not seem to be hindered by gender incongruence. Deanna was not shy about expressing her initial thoughts that a woman might make a more sympathetic judge. Consequently I did not get the sense that the social desirability bias was at work at this stage of the interview. Had it been, Deanna may have been reluctant to tell me that she thought female judges had the potential to be more understanding. It was not until a good bit later in the interview that Deanna reported she was unhappy with Judge Belson's handling of the case.

    Mimi also went before a female judge to obtain a restraining order against her abusive husband. She reported that the judge was overly sympathetic in a manner bordering bias. The conversation developed as follows:

    Websdale: How did you find the judge?

    Mimi: I found her extremely sympathetic to me. I would say she was biased in favor of me.… I'm not sure what word I'm looking for. It's not “hostile.” She just seemed extremely biased. If, if I have any criticism of the handling of the case (and I'm not sure that I want to think of it as a criticism) it was Judge Cole's attitude toward my husband.

    Here we might be seeing the operation of the social desirability bias, as Mimi tells me that she may have been favored because she was a woman. In deference to my status as a man, she may have been telling me that her abuser was unfairly treated because he was a man. However, this is a difficult judgment call because Mimi also says that even if the judge did have a bias against her husband solely because he was a man, Mimi is not sure if she wants to criticize that bias.

    In the final analysis, I concluded it was impossible to tell how the mixed-sex conversations between us were shaped by gender incongruence. In my interviews with African American women, my (uncertain) sense is that race trumped sex as the key point of difference between us. Then again, it is difficult to tell how the role of local rural culture and my position as outsider affected exchanges.

    Conversations with Other “Others”

    In addition to the 50 battered women, I also interviewed 46 people including police officers who worked “domestics,” judges who deliberated over domestics, social workers who worked with families in which domestic violence was occurring, shelter personnel who worked with women and families in shelters, attorneys who worked domestic cases, leaders of the spouse abuse shelter movement in Kentucky, and journalists. Many of the points I have made above about experiential incongruence would also apply to these interviews as well. However, none of the 46 professionals I talked with occupied the same social position as the battered women. Put simply, the professionals are other “others,” insofar as the power differential between myself and them tended to be much less than it was between myself and battered women. In many of my interviews with professionals, the interviewees not only knew a lot more about certain aspects of “domestics” than I did, but they also occupied positions of high social standing in the community. Among those of high social standing I include judges, attorneys, and some local sheriffs. Often, I had to ask favors of people to arrange these interviews for me.1

    Academic knowledge is seen by many people as somehow abstracted from the real world. In these hard times, college professors are often regarded as privileged people who live in an insulated ivory tower of books and obscure knowledge. This perception is not without foundation. In my interviews with professionals I was aware of this rift between myself and them. Some interviewees directly reminded me of the worth of their practical everyday experience versus “book knowledge.” I tried to use this rift to my advantage wherever I could by telling interviewees up front that I had no firsthand experience that could compare to their own and that that was why I wanted to interview them.

    I interviewed 17 police officers of varied rank and from various rural jurisdictions.2 The idea was to tap the experiences of those officers who dealt firsthand with rural domestics. I was introduced to these officers in a variety of ways and by a number of different people, some of whom were involved in the spouse abuse shelter movement in Kentucky. My conversations with police officers, as with battered women, were open ended and covered a wide range of topics. Although they knew I wanted to address the topic of domestic violence, they talked freely about a variety of issues. Conversations normally began with a brief life history and career sketch and then moved on to a general discussion of policing issues in the particular locale where they worked. Only then did we move on to talk about violence within families and the criminal justice response to it. In particular, the officers shared their perceptions of how they and other officers dealt with rural domestics. They also addressed diverse topics such as the role of training in improving police responses, the role of liability issues and the officers’ legal responsibilities at the scene, and the problems associated with patrolling in difficult rural terrain.

    Nearly all of the officers had lived in their rural communities all their lives and knew those communities very well. They were virtually unanimous in their perception that rural policing is very different from big city or even small city policing. In particular, they stressed their connectedness to the public. Having talked of the technicalities of policing domestics and their broader role in the community, we discussed some of the thornier issues with regard to their response to rural battering. These issues included discussing the patriarchal attitudes of police; and the compromised nature of rural policing, especially when officers know batterers personally, or, on rarer occasions, when batterers may know that attending officers sometimes engage in illegal activities.

    I also interviewed 11 judges, all of whom had considerable experience dealing with domestic cases.3 These included one state Supreme Court Justice, whom I interviewed face to face; 4 circuit court judges; and 6 district judges. My conversations with these judges covered a vast amount of ground and did not dwell too long on the legal technicalities of disposing of domestic cases. I was much more interested in their perceptions of the communities in which they worked and their general feelings about violence against women in rural communities. We talked a lot about politics in Kentucky and legal change. Since 3 of the judges were women, our conversations also explored the position of women in Kentucky. With all judges I delved into their understanding of the gendered dynamics of violence within families.

    The nine advocates for battered women I interviewed worked in shelters or for what I call in the text “agencies of state feminism.” These nine women were incredibly knowledgeable about rural domestic violence and also had a fine read of local and statewide politics, particularly as those politics impact the battered women's movement in Kentucky. It was during these interviews that I was able to glean information that allowed me to construct a number of bridging links between acts of battering, the local patriarchal milieu, and the specific elements of the state response or lack of response to violence within families, between intimate partners, or both.

    I also interviewed four attorneys who all had experience working domestic cases. Two of the attorneys had served on advisory boards and task forces on domestic violence and had worked with poor clients in rural communities. Both had worked domestic cases involving severe violence. One had worked a recent and well-publicized rural domestic homicide case, successfully prosecuting a batterer who had murdered his wife. These interviews provided yet another lens through which to visualize the phenomenon of rural battering and the criminal justice response to it. My intent in interviewing these attorneys was not to gain any “representative” insights into how lawyers worked rural domestics, but rather to gain a general sense of how the law applied to various aspects of domestic cases. In addition to these four interviews, I talked with a dozen attorneys to clarify smaller points about specific cases I was interested in. Some of these attorneys I talked with on a number of occasions. These became more like key informants, often providing helpful leads to sources of information (and controversy).

    As with the four attorneys, I interviewed two social workers to gain an entrée into the world of social work and rural domestic violence. Spouse abuse shelter employees provided the names of both social workers. One social worker was supportive of battered women and worked well with them. The other had a reputation for wanting battered women to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” and was not liked by spouse abuse shelter employees. The two represented opposite ends of a continuum of social worker involvement in domestics from supportive/understanding to dismissive/unsympathetic.


    Direct and overt observation of police behavior is a well-established ethnographic method in criminology and sociology (see Bittner, 1967; Black, 1971; Black & Reiss, 1967; Chambliss, 1994; Ferraro, 1989a; Piliavin & Briar, 1964). Different researchers have immersed themselves to different degrees in police subculture in order to observe behavior. Some have ridden with police officers and otherwise observed interactions between the police and the public. Other researchers have immersed themselves in police culture for much longer periods of time and engaged in what is more aptly called participant observation (see Punch, 1979). Regardless of the degree of immersion in police subculture, there are a number of problems and limitations with observation or participant observation work with police. Most important perhaps is that police may alter their behavior because of the presence of the observer. Punch (1979) spent 6 months observing the same group of police officers to produce only a partial account of their behavior. He notes the limitations of his own method by documenting what happened at a social event with police officers after he had ceased his field observations of them:

    One evening I went to Ivan's flat for a celebration and several policemen began talking excitedly about corruption. I learnt more in that evening, thanks to the liberating effects of alcohol, than in all my fieldwork. It was not so much a series of shocking personal revelations … but more a subterranean police culture which had largely escaped me. (Punch, 1979, p. 13, cited in Brogden, Jefferson, & Walklate, 1988, pp. 45–46)

    As Punch found, secrecy is a key component of police subculture, and as one officer told him at the social event referred to above, “We only let you see what we wanted you to see. You only saw about fifty per cent” (Punch, 1979, p. 13, cited in Brogden et al., 1988, pp. 45–46).

    For the purposes of learning more about the policing of rural woman battering, I made limited use of direct observation of police intervention. In total, I spent 24 hours riding with and observing officers in rural locations. Some of this time, officers worked domestic cases. It became clear to me that officers were understandably reluctant to allow a member of the public access to a heated domestic scene. Officers communicated this danger to me in different ways. Before our ride commenced, one officer opened the trunk of the vehicle and showed me how to use the shotgun, just in case “we” got into trouble and I was left on my own. I clearly did not engage domestics in the same way officers did. In one incident, we rode to a domestic at a remote house several miles up a hollow in Eastern Kentucky. Two officers approached the premises where a suspect was believed to be armed and dangerous. I was told to remain behind the vehicle while officers intervened and apprehended the offender, who had assaulted a woman he was living with. It was not my desire to approach the residence and observe while officers handled the situation. In fact this incident, among many, reminded me of my cushy number in the academic ivory tower.

    It also became clear to me that I would not be able to observe many of the behaviors that battered women had complained about police officers engaging in. While I had no way of knowing whether officers I rode with concealed their true beliefs about domestics, my sense is that my presence limited how they behaved and what they revealed. Knowing that I was interested in the policing of domestic violence, and knowing that the press had been very critical of some police action at domestics in rural Kentucky, it is reasonable to assume officers would have been wary of me. Consequently, I chose to use the observation time to talk more with officers and scout out the communities officers policed. These observations of rural policing were, in many ways, more helpful than many of things I heard from officers about domestics.

    Participant Observation

    In addition to my interviewing and limited observation work, I also participated in a number of activities that increased my understanding of rural woman battering. For a year, I served on the advisory board of a rural spouse abuse shelter and became familiar with a number of different aspects of running a shelter, including building maintenance and security, the relationship between the shelter and the criminal justice system and the shelter and the community, fund-raising, the transportation of women, the networking between the shelter and the courts and social services, and the hiring of shelter personnel.

    For 2 consecutive years (Websdale & Johnson, 1993, 1994) I acted as the evaluator of a U.S. Department of Labor demonstration grant in 7 of the 15 spouse abuse shelters in Kentucky. This demonstration grant provided approximately $500,000 per annum to provide homeless battered women with job training, job leads, and independent housing in an attempt to empower them. In the space of 2 years I conducted more than 100 in-depth interviews with spouse abuse shelter staff, battered women who were participating or had participated in the program, job trainers, social service providers in the community, and teachers. Three of these seven shelter sites are located in rural areas, and the other four, although located in urban areas, serve large numbers of women from the rural hinterland. The findings from these two evaluations form the subject of other research and, for the most part, are not reported in this book. However, the problems of rural women who entered the job training program are similar to those of other rural women who have not had the choice to participate in such a program. Consequently, although I do not report excerpts from these interviews with rural women who participated in the job training programs, the general themes from those interviews consistently blend with the themes from my conversations with battered women noted above. Most important, the job training interviews added to my beliefs that the rural sociocultural context is profoundly constricting for battered women.

    Finally, in my role as a researcher, I presented a number of findings on woman battering and the criminal justice system response to it, to the Kentucky Legislative Task Force on Domestic Violence.4 My interaction with members of the Task Force is discussed in Chapter 6. Suffice it to say at this point that the preparation, presentation, and discussion of these research findings provided rich insights into the mechanics of formal political processes.


    1. My interview with Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Stumbo took a couple of months to arrange. This was not because of the judge's reluctance to talk, but because of the problem of going through intermediaries who had very busy schedules and who trod very delicately in the political arena. When I finally did talk with this judge, the conversation was long, cordial, and extremely valuable.

    2. These included one police chief, three sheriffs, seven municipal officers, three state troopers, and three sheriff's deputies.

    3. In addition to these 11, I also contacted a number of other judges who disposed of some of the cases I discuss in Chapter 5. Given the negative press a number of these judges received, I wanted to give them a chance to respond. While conversations were often long, I do not include these judges among the ranks of interviewees because they explicitly stated they did not want to be cited in the book. One of these judges told me he could not “take on the press.”

    4. This presentation was given with a coresearcher on some later research, Dr. Byron Johnson. I presented material on urban and rural violence against women and rural and urban policing. Dr. Johnson presented findings from a needs assessment survey funded by the Jewish Women's League. The hearing took place in Frankfort, Kentucky on August 22, 1995. See Lexington Herald-Leader, August 23, 1995 for a brief summary of the hearing.

    Appendix 2: Regional Map of Kentucky


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    About the Author

    Neil Websdale is Associate Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Northern Arizona University. He has published work on violence against women, the policing of class and gender relations, and the discursive representation/construction of intimate partner violence. He has presented his research findings to the Kentucky Legislative Task Force on Domestic Violence, and is currently working on a study of domestic fatalities for the Florida Governor's Task Force on Domestic and Sexual Violence. He is also engaged in writing a book based on case studies of intimate partner homicide, titled Death by Intimacy. In addition, he is coediting two anthologies: one with Jeff Ferrell, tentatively titled Cultural Constructions of Crime and Deviance, and the other with Byron Johnson, concerning the implementation of Full Faith and Credit under the Violence Against Women Act.

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