Joe And Jill Biden: Relationship Abuse Is 'Worse Than Being In Prison'
By Liz Brody and Wendy Naugle
Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, have a stake in the issue of relationship abuse: He wrote the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which funds services for victims and pushes to put more assailants behind bars. And as an English teacher not far from the White House, Dr. Biden has had students confide in her about their abuse. The Bidens' first joint print interview since the inauguration appeared in the June 2011 issue of Glamour. Below is more from the interview, in which the couple talked to Glamour executive editor Wendy Naugle and editor at large Liz Brody about their fight to keep women safe.
GLAMOUR: You've been working on this issue for more than 20 years now. Do you ever get discouraged?
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No. It's amazing to me that no matter what city, what state, no matter where I am, a woman will come up to me and say [whispers], "Thank you, thank you."
DR. JILL BIDEN: Several times [on the campaign trail] a woman would say, "You know my sister would be alive today if we'd had VAWA sooner." It's just story after story.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: So when you ask, "Do you get discouraged?" No, I get angry. This is about one woman at a time. I think the scariest thing, the thing that makes my stomach just sink, is knowing how alone in a crowd these women are. [An abusive relationship] is worse than being in prison. I mean literally, not figuratively.
DR. BIDEN: It is a prison.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: It is worse than being behind bars. And to tell you the truth, [when I first started working on this issue], we didn't initially think about the [National Domestic Violence] hotline. We had over a million people calling the hotline, and we got to the point where we didn't have the technology to capture every call; some calls were being dropped. So I called the guys at Cisco and Dell and said, "I need your help. I need you to put together, gratis, a back office that is equally as sophisticated as the biggest international bank you represent so we don't drop these calls." I said, "I want you to come [and see]." So we went down and there's a big bullpen [of] stalls where they are answering the phones. And I asked them to put one of the women on speakerphone. And the call went [whispers], "I am standing between Gap Kids and RadioShack and I'm in the mall in Minneapolis. Oh my God. Oh my God. He's coming. I see him. Oh my God, oh please, please help me." They heard that, and every one of these guys went back and [helped]. When you realize how much courage it takes for a woman to just pick up the phone. I mean, it takes an enormous amount of courage, and when people feel it and see it and taste it, it changes the way they look at this.
GLAMOUR: Since the 1970s, the overall number of female domestic violence deaths has dropped by about 20 percent. Yet when we looked at the statistics for women who are dating, we noticed the homicide rate has actually gone up.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: This is a cultural problem. This attitude of how society views women as chattel -- that's the biggest thing to overcome. When I first started this, I got really beat up by the Christian right because I was interfering in what was a personal family affair. It's a "family matter." That's why I wish we'd drop the phrase "domestic violence." It sounds like a domesticated cat. It is the most vicious of all crimes -- to be abused by someone you had a relationship with! Because then you blame yourself.
GLAMOUR: How do we get young women the help they need?
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: We are going to start a new initiative. Under Title IX, a woman is entitled to equal access to everything on a college campus. That includes being safe. The most devastating thing is a young girl who reports something and ends up three days later in biology class with the young man still sitting next to her. So we are trying to work on three things: Make it clear that colleges have an obligation to publicly report [cases of violence against women] and to take action against a perpetrator. We are also going to be doing college tours [to raise awareness]. And the third thing is literally the education of young men, like my father did with me, her father did with his daughter [points to Dr. Biden]. I want parents talking to their kids about this.
GLAMOUR: Your daughter Ashley said at a very young age that when she grew up, she wanted to help abused women. And your son [Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden] is taking a real lead on this. What did you say to your kids that made such an impact?
DR. BIDEN: It was just part of the dialogue. When we would have dinner together, we would start talking about it. I always brought home stories of my classes. ... I got an essay from a student [once]. She wrote, "He controlled me, beat me whenever he wanted to." [Another woman read her essay] and wrote, "I can relate because I was in an abusive relationship as well." So we'd talk about stories like that.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: But they'd ask questions, and I remember one of the boys saying, "But Daddy, why would a woman stay in that condition?"
GLAMOUR: And people still ask that.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: I've [spent a lot of time] speaking to men's organizations, and I'd say, "Hey, guys, how many of you have seen the movie 'Deliverance'?" And they'd all raise their hand. And I'd say, "How many of you badass guys would have come out of the woods, gone to the sheriff and said, 'I was raped in there'?" Silence. I'd say, "How many of you work in a big law firm, and what if one of the partners was gay and every time you left the office he'd pat you on the ass? How many of you would report it?" Nobody. I'd say, "Why? Because you are ashamed." People think, Why wouldn't she just leave? When you explain it, they get it. You can just see it in their eyes.
GLAMOUR: VAWA helps fund the National Domestic Violence Hotline. There was a surge in calls to the hotline in 2010, and about 7,000 calls a month on average go unanswered. To cover those calls for the whole year would cost about $900,000. To put it in context a little bit for our readers, [at press time] the military efforts in Libya cost us $550 million for just 10 days, according to the Pentagon. Isn't $900,000 a small amount to pay to help women?
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: It is. That is why we're working to get the reauthorization of VAWA and more funding.
GLAMOUR: Will the reauthorization fund the hotline completely?
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: We hope. ... And we want to start to use all of the technology that is available to young people -- encourage young women to share their stories so that they realize they are not alone, they're not the only one that this has happened to. And to [help them] know there is no circumstance under which a young man or an old man has the right to raise his hand. None.
GLAMOUR: You've mentioned big societal changes, in the home and culturally, that need to happen to really make an impact on this issue. Can the government -- the Office on Violence Against Women -- really make a difference?
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Great question. One of the things I did was go to each of the departments, and I said, "I want you to do two things. One relates to the middle class. I want you to have somebody in your department who literally, when he gets up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor and says, 'What can we do inside this department to make life easier for middle class people? And secondly, what can I do about the abuse of women in society?'" [For example, so many] of the children out in the street and homeless are there because their mothers have been abused. [Often] women who stay [with an abusive partner] stay because they have no alternative means to [support themselves]. Or a woman might say, "Wait a minute now. I go out there and I leave this SOB, but I've cosigned on everything from the house to his business. I've cosigned on that $1,500 set of golf clubs he bought. What am I going to do? My credit's done." So [Secretary of the Treasury Timothy] Geithner is trying to figure out ways in which we can restore a woman's credit. The same with what we are doing at the Department of Education and the Department of Housing [and Urban Development].
GLAMOUR: Of course, 2012 and 2016, maybe beyond, are coming up pretty quickly. What will your work on this issue look like once you leave political life?
DR. BIDEN: I'll still be trying to empower young women through teaching or women's organizations.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: I have been working on this for too long. I just can't imagine walking. If a little genie came down and said, "You get one wish. What would it be?" It would be to end the abuse of women. Why? [Some studies have shown] close to 70 percent of men who are in prison have one of two things in common: One, they can't read. And two, they witnessed violence or were victims of violence as a child. You would think that if you had seen your mother get beaten when you were 10 years old, you'd never raise your hand to a woman. Not true. The prospect that you will increases dramatically if you witness violence. So it's so much bigger than just about women. It's about our society. It's about our culture. It's about who the hell we are.
How you can help: Text TELLNOW to 85944 to make a $10 donation that will go toward keeping a domestic violence hotline open. The Avon Foundation will match every dollar you donate up to $200,000. Find out more about our texting campaign.