New book chronicles advances in women's rights in Kentucky

agarau@herald-leader.comJune 14, 2014 

In 1838, Kentucky became the first state in the country to give women the right to vote. That is, as long as women were widowed and had children attending schools in rural districts, the ladies had the right to vote for school board members.

Along with that distinction, Kentucky, in 1902, became one of only two states to ever rescind a woman's right to vote.

This is one of the many facts from Carol E. Jordan's fourth and newest book, Violence Against Women in Kentucky: A History of U.S. and State Legislative Reform (University Press of Kentucky, $40). The book chronicles the progress of women's rights in Kentucky since the 19th century.

Jordan, who has worked as an advocate for women's rights for more than 30 years, is founding executive director of the University of Kentucky's Office for Policy Studies on Violence Against Women.

"There are a lot of people in the field who were asking me to write the book because a lot of us realized that we didn't have a chronicle of what we have accomplished over the last 40 years," Jordan said.

In the book, Jordan details how advocates acquired state funding for domestic abuse centers, state payment for forensic rape examinations, the removal of the spousal exemption from rape, more accessible mental health services for people who had been raped, and many other reforms.

By describing these legislative battles, she shows readers the complex nature of legislation regarding violence against women and the determination of the advocates who have fought for that legislation.

"As I talked to young practitioners and advocates who are in the field, I realized that a lot of them began their careers after the big reforms had been made," Jordan said. "If most of the people in our field started their careers after the laws were changed, then they don't have a full appreciation of what it took to change those laws.

"If we don't know our history, we're at risk of losing our reforms."

Alongside the technical descriptions of Kentucky legislation, Jordan tells some of the stories of Kentucky women whose lives have been changed by violence.

One chapter includes a firsthand account from a daughter who watched helplessly as her father killed her two brothers before paralyzing her mother and killing himself. The daughter, Burniece Whitaker, wrote, "I had two choices in life: to let what happened take me down or use what happened to make me stronger. I chose to use it to make me stronger."

Though these stories are grueling to read, they allow readers to fully grasp the scope and effects of the legislation.

"I think we miss the importance of our reforms if we think of them only in abstract terms," Jordan said. "If the book has a heart, you will find it in the stories of Kentucky women whose lives were so dramatically impacted by domestic violence or stalking. The fact that they can turn around and put their heart and soul into working for other women inspires me to turn around and do that as well."

A tribute to women who have been affected by domestic violence, the book is also a celebration of the determined advocates and policy makers.

"So often advocates are just down in the trenches doing work, and Carol was able to pull back and actually chronicle the history of what they've achieved," said Rebecca Campbell, a professor of community psychology at Michigan State University. "I think it's uplifting and inspirational for everyone who's been doing this to be able to look up and say, 'Oh, wow, we really have come a long way.'"

In addition to women's rights activists, the book appeals to those working in criminal justice, mental health, public policy and on university campuses, Jordan said.

"We know that violence happens on university campuses," she said. "Hopefully students can learn about Kentucky's history and see an example of how you can take a crisis that a state has and, through the use of legislation reform, you can make a change and make lives better."

Though Jordan's book highlights progress over the years, she is quick to acknowledge that women have a long way to go. Jordan is concerned about the decline in the number of bills adopted in Kentucky that deal with women's issues. One reform in particular that she wants is an amendment to the Domestic Violence and Abuse Act to extend protections to dating couples.

"We're never finished," she said. "Recently, legislation was passed to address crimes regarding stalking on the Internet, so times are ever-changing and we need to change the ways we reform laws."

Campbell thinks the book will help other states and the federal government work for reforms.

"Because this is a national issue, actually a global issue, it's important to understand what efforts have been done and what challenges have been faced at the individual state level so that as we look at federal and national issues, it will be easier to see what changes still need to happen and how we can successfully make those changes," she said.

Jordan also hopes advocates will learn from the book as they work toward making a difference in their own fields.

"I hope that people in other states will be able to look at the chapters about national history and also see how one state championed causes, brought together advocates and legislators, and was able to make a difference," she said. "Some of the book is funny, some of it's really difficult, but all of it is poignant."

Annie Garau: (859) 2321-1685. Twitter: @agarau6.

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