Remarks on Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act
Thank you. Please, thank you. Thank you. Thank you, thank you. Thank you. I should be clapping for all of you.
Zahara, do I have permission to proceed? All right.
Well, first of all, as I was standing there listening, I should say that—thank all of you, everyone in this room. We didn't change the law; we set out—I remember some of you way back when I first wrote this legislation—to change the culture—to change the culture. For real. So it's great to be with you all. And, Ruth, it's been an honor to stand with you through these years. And she was a serious victim of violence—left for dead, basically—before this law was written.
And you make me think of the women who were willing to come and testify before the whole world when I first started those hearings. It wasn't viewed, even among the advocacy groups, as necessarily a particularly positive thing to do. It was—because—anyway, you know. Thank you for your courage, for being a hero, sharing your powerful voice, and standing up for thousands of women. And that could be said about most of you in this room.
I want to thank the members of the Senate and the House, members of my Cabinet for all you've done. The idea that this took 5 years to reauthorize—I was out of office those years—[laughter]—and it drove me crazy. No, I—that's not why it didn't happen, but it drove me crazy. [Laughter] It drove me crazy, the rationale for why we weren't—anyway. I won't get into that. [Laughter] I know some of you think maybe I should be out of office for another 4 years. [Laughter]
But the point is, it's wonderful to see so many brave survivors and dedicated advocates and—and, truly, old friends—so many who have worked so hard to modernize the Violence Against Women Act to make it stronger and make sure that it endures.
And the reason we've been able to do so much, make so much progress in the past 20 years is because of all of you. And I know some of you aren't even 28 years old, so it doesn't count for you guys. [Laughter] But all kidding aside, it really does—again, I keep coming back to you—you changed the culture, not just the law.
And I want to thank the bipartisan members of Congress who helped get this latest reauthorization done. Dianne—Dianne Feinstein, Joni Ernst, Lisa Murkowski. And in the House—in the House of Representatives, nobody worked harder than Sheila Jackson Lee, and—and I thank you. I learned a long time ago: When Sheila wants something, just say yes. It saves time. [Laughter] And Jerry Nadler, a great friend and a great Congressman. And Brian Fitzpatrick—Brian, thank you.
Look, thank you for coming together and never giving up. You know, the fact is that it really wasn't so long ago this country didn't want to talk about violence against women, let alone as being a national epidemic, something the government had to address. As a society, we literally looked away. We looked away. In many places, it wasn't a crime. And I don't recall—I don't recall how many times I was told in the prelude to writing the legislation that it's a "family affair." "You don't understand, Biden. It's a family affair."
When I began, along with others, to pursue this legislation to change this—this issue, we were told that we would literally be responsible for the "disintegration" of American families in the major press. It wasn't just the wackos; it was in the mainstream press. And we talked about creating shelters to give survivors a way out because so many don't have a way out, and their children—by the way, the vast majority of children on the street with their mothers are there because she's a victim of domestic violence. And here's what they said, here's what they wrote: They said these shelters—providing shelter was nothing more than "indoctrination centers" for women's liberation issues.
No, I can get you the articles. It's a fact. Not a joke. Not a joke. And calling the police meant having to stand in front of your abuser—your significant other, your husband, whomever—and say, "He did it." And I used to say, when I'd get heat on this, when I spoke—I remember making a speech to the Chamber of Commerce, and someone said, "Well, you're going overboard here." I said, "Let me ask you, Jack." I said, "If you had a 320-pound guy who could bench 400 pounds standing in front of you and beat the—smacked you, are you going to say he did it? Because you know he's going to come back."
Looking, few—there were very few police departments that had trained personnel. I mean very few. I—I'm sure there were some, I just can't remember any of them. [Laughter] No, I really mean it. And as a matter of fact, I can't—I don't think there were any Special Victims Units in most of the police departments around the country before this legislation was written. Now there's programs that are on TV for the last 25, 30 years. [Laughter] No, but I really mean it. It mattered. That's what I mean about changing the culture.
Look, and there were too few places you could go for advice or for help. Where would you go? And how many times—I remember the biggest fights I had were the second time around with universities—with universities. Where do you show up? Where do you report this? "Well, we don't want to"—I mean major universities, not podunk university. Major universities. It took time to change the culture, and you did it. You did it.
There was no national hotline. I remember going—all kidding aside—there have been millions of women who've hit that hotline button. You know, all the brave guys I talk to, they say, "Biden, you're overdoing this." And I'd say, "Tell me—tell you what: If somebody who was twice your size, beating the living crap out of you and you were in the same apartment with them, how do you go and pick up the phone and call for help?" Women would hide and say, "I can't—I can't say where I am. I—I don't know. Help me. Help me."
That's how we got Microsoft and others in this—in this fight with us, to help us physically locate so the police could pick up where that call was coming from. That was the background when I first wrote the Violence Against Women Act in 1990 to provide more protection against domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault; to support survivors and help them find ways out of their abusive situations. They'd say, "Why didn't—why didn't she leave?" Well, she didn't leave. She had no place to go, and she had two kids with her. No money. Nothing. No family to go to. Leave?
I've been asked, time to time, was there—the reason, I guess, I got a little overwrought about this legislation early on—not that I ever get overwrought. [Laughter] But—and I—literally, the most oft-asked questions for the first 3 years of the act was, "Well, why are you so passionate about this? Was your mother a victim of domestic violence? Was your sister or your wife? Were they—were they victims?" I swear to God. That was the most oft-asked question of me.
And I'd say, "No, that's not the answer." I happened to be raised by a gentle, decent man, who taught all of his children—and I mean this from the bottom of my heart—Lisa, you know this; you knew my dad. My dad would say the greatest sin of all that anyone could commit was the abuse of power, and the cardinal sin was for a man to raise his hand to a woman or a child. That's what this law has always been about: the abuse of power. Whether it ends in a rape or just the physical be—it's about the abuse of power.
So, I believed, as many of you in this room did, that I believe that too. And the only way we could change the culture was by shining an ugly, bright light on it and speaking its name. You can make all the speeches you wanted, but until those women had the courage—and I remember—I remember in a backroom hold and they said, "It's going to be okay. It's going to be okay." Can you imagine being among the first to stand before the whole damn world, and millions of people hear you recite how you were abused?
It took enormous courage. And at the time, the Majority Leader may remember, we both got criticized for wanting to make it public. "We don't want to do that. We don't want to do that." That's why we held public hearings for this law when there were Senators and others who said it was too salacious for this to be public, for people to see. You know, we—but I believed—and a lot of us did—that we had to let America know what was going on. Take the blinders off. Make them look at it square in the eye. All the ugly side of it. Because I believed, as all of you did, that Americans are basically decent and honorable people. But they didn't want to get involved. Didn't want to get involved.
How many times have you been in a crowded airport or in a circumstance where you see a man not physically beating but abusing a woman—and you just say, "You know, I don't want to hear that. I don't want to—I don't know what to do." Well, I believe that if they could see the truth as to what was going on, we could begin slowly to make change. And that's exactly what you all did and that's what happened.
This law broke the dam of congressional resistance and cultural resistance. And it brought this hidden epidemic out of the shadows. You know, its introduction—it introduced our Nation to so many brave survivors who those stories changed the way America saw the issue. I mean, in the literal sense, it's hard to believe—even when I go back and think of when—how it started and where it was.
As a practical matter, things began to shift—the legal and social burdens—away from survivors and onto perpetrators, and where they belonged. It made addressing general—excuse me—gender violence a shared priority with a determined, coordinated response. It created a hotline, as I said, for millions of women who have used the hotline. And again, I'll never forget being told the first time—I said, "What did you do?" She said, "I got behind the drapes and I held the phone. And I prayed to God—prayed to God—don't let him hear this. Pray God. Pray God."
It supported shelters and rape crisis centers, housing, legal assistance, creating lifesaving options for women and children all across the country. And it helped train police officers, advocates, prosecutors, judges, court personnel to make the entire justice system fair and more responsive to the needs of survivors.
I'll never forget, Chris, I went to the family court when I was writing this—and the family court in my State is like many of yours. And I watched—because I was told this would happen—I watched a woman come up to the desk and say, "I want to report that my husband is beating me up." "Well, why don't you have a seat over there." Not a joke. Go back and check your family courts back in the day. That's what happened. "That's okay. You go over here. We'll get to that." "No, no, I—I need help now. Now."
You know, the law has saved lives. It's helped women rebuild their lives. The hardest thing to get done was arrest on information. Because what used to happen is a cop may be in the street and see a husband or a boyfriend or a man—anyone—smack his wife. And he'd come over and say, "Do you want to bring charges?" What the hell is she going to say? "Yeah, I want to bring"—we got the law changed to say the cop can arrest on information. He saw it happen. He saw it happen. And all of these bad—these tough guys. [Laughter]
Even in 1994, we knew that there was much more we had to do—you know, that it was only the beginning. That's why, because of all of you in this room, every time we've reauthorized this law, it's been improved. It's not like we didn't know we wanted to do these other things in the beginning. It's we did as much as we could and keep trying to add to it. You remember. You sat at my desk—a lot of time with me on this.
Broadening from domestic violence to include stalking and sexual assault in 2000. That was the change made. Expanding access to services for immigrants and communities of color in 2005. That was a change. Restoring jurisdiction of Tribal courts—[applause]—over non-Native domestic violence offenders who abuse women in Indian Country. We did that in 2013. Extending protections to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, in 2013. And I'm sorry to go on, but you all should—the country owes you—all of you. I really mean it. Thank you. The law kept growing stronger. It's not like we didn't know in 2005 we should be dealing with the things we dealt with in 2013. It was getting it done. Each link in the chain that we're building made a difference—makes a difference.
Yesterday, I signed the Bipartisan Government Funding bill. Thank you very much for that. And, consequentially, we forged the next link in the chain. Not only—not only did we reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act through 2027—and I have to wonder why the hell we can't reauthorize it. It's like the Voting Rights Act. I thought we had won when I got Strom Thurmond to vote for it and extend it for 25 years, and then the Court came along. But at any rate, that's another issue. [Laughter]
But look, you know, I don't—just think about this. If this affected manhood—men—I don't think we'd have a problem, you know, doing it for even longer, making it permanent. But at any rate, that's a different thing. Look, we delivered more help to survivors in rural areas—we understand—and in underserved communities for a simple reason: There is no place to go.
You know, whether it's Arizona or whether it's Michigan, wherever it is, you're in a rural area, you call, you get help, and you do get help, and then they leave. And the next nearest—and the next nearest town is 20 miles. How long does it take for the cop to get there? Tribal courts will now be able to exercise jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault, child abuse, sex trafficking, and so much more. You have all added new services and resources for folks in most underserved communities—the LGBTQ community, survivors of those rural communities—providing more support and legal services, for law enforcement to get training they need to help handle the trauma of—survivors are experiencing.
And, by the way, it's not a criticism of the police. We—for all the mistakes police make and all the things they do wrong—we expect them to be everything from a counselor to a expert on sexual violence to an expert on all these things. But, you know, these are vast majority people with, you know, degrees that are two-year degrees after school. I mean, they're the smart, but they—I mean, we expect them to be psychologists; we expect them to be everything.
So we established a new civil rights—a new civil rights cause of action for those whose intimate images were shared on the public screen. How many times have you heard—I'll bet everybody knows somebody somewhere along the line that in an intimate relationship, what happened was the guy takes a revealing picture of his naked friend, or whatever, in a compromising position, and then literally, in a sense, blackmails or mortifies that person—sends it out, put it online.
We're giving survivors real resources against abuse now. Ex-partners and stalkers who seek to humiliate and hurt them. We've created—you created new programs to help end the backlog of the rape kits. And those rape kits, by the way, I don't know—you ought to go to your major cities, those of you in the House and Senate—this group probably has—which I have done. And this backlog is so significant. You could solve literally a significant portion of——look, the only thing I learned that's worse than—for a woman—worse than a woman who is abused or raped and says, "It's Charlie who did it," and no one believes her—him against her. And when—you can take a look. If you take a look at those rape kits and you went through them all, you could identify and arrest probably 40, 50 percent of the rapists in America. They're all there. Their DNAs are there. It's all in line. And run it against the whole panoply. Very few rapists rape only once.
So, look, that—you know, there's a lot that goes unprocessed. And we have to make sure survivors get compensation, and if there have been delays in their cases—you know, we've made improvements in the National Criminal Background Check System to help States investigate and prosecute cases when abuses—when abusers who are barred from purchasing firearms attempt to do so. That, we've done Federally. Quite frankly, this held—that's one of the things that held up this bill for much too long. Much too long.
Those are just a few of the ways we've strengthened—you, not we—you've strengthened the law. Because I just came on the—back on the—on the range again. [Laughter] I haven't been—but look, it comes on top of the work we've done together over the last years to make progress. We know the pandemic only exacerbated instances of domestic violence and sexual violence. It's shot up like a Roman candle.
And through the American Rescue Plan, the administration directed $1 billion in supplemental funding for domestic violence and sexual assault services because they're badly needed. And we've worked with local public housing authorities to make sure that survivors trapped in a bad situation can find safe new housing options in public housing. Because they don't have—[inaudible]—to go. You.
And we also made landmark reforms in military justice to help end the epidemic of sexual violence and harassment in our armed forces, fundamentally changing how the military investigates, prosecutes sexual assault, domestic violence, and other related crimes. Thank you, Kirsten Gillibrand. Thank you, Jackie Speier. Is Jackie here? Stand up, please. Stand up. You did an incredible job. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Earlier this month, I signed a bar—bipartisan bill that ends what we know as forced arbitration. That's wonderful, isn't it? No, no, but I mean the small print to sign a contract, and the small print says you can't do anything if your boss, male or female—if you end up getting abused and if you end up doing something—you know, you can't—you have to do it internally. No more. No more. Really. And 80 percent of the people who sign those don't even know what's in the—in the contract. The mechanism has prevented too many survivors of abuse and harassment in the workplace from having the choice to get their day in court. Look, these are just a few of the steps you've all taken and how much you've improved this legislation. But as everyone in this room knows, this work is not going to stop. It never stops.
Today, one year since a gunman killed eight people in Atlanta, six of whom were women of Asian descent, these horrific murders are a reminder that we still have work to do to put an end to misogyny and racism and all forms of hate we have. We're never going to get it all done, but we can't ever stop trying. As long as there are women in this country and around the world who live in fear of violence, there's more we have to do to fulfill this sacred commitment. No one—no one, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, should experience abuse. Period. And if they do, they should have the services and support they need to get through it. And we're not going to rest.
But in the meantime, all of you should be enormously proud of what you've accomplished. This reauthorization is testament to the power of your voices and your tireless dedication to changing things for the better. And one last thing: Some of you in here helped me work on the International Violence Against Women Act. I'm coming back. Seriously. And I'll tell you a very short concluding story.
When I was Vice President—I can't remember, probably the seventh year in or thereabouts—I was in India, and I met—at the home where Mahatma Gandhi was able to be hidden for a long while. And—and—and I met with two of the daughters of India's most serious liberators. And, you know, I thought they were going to ask me questions about, you know, U.S.-India relations. They said, "Can you help us write a Violence Against Women Act?" Not a joke.
Just by some of you speaking out—Republicans and Democrats—just by your speaking out about how we abhor those nations that do, in fact, call for—and go through the list—it's changing behaviors. I think we have to even be stronger than that, but that's another—that's another boring speech. [Laughter]
But, look, let's keep going.
Thank you all. May God bless you all, and may God protect our troops. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
NOTE: The President spoke at 2:09 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Zahara Jolie-Pitt, daughter of actress Angelina Jolie; Ruth M. Glenn, CEO and president, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who introduced the President; and Sens. Dianne Feinstein; Joni K. Ernst; Lisa A. Murkowski; Kirsten E. Gillibrand; and Christopher A. Coons; Rep. K. Jacqueline Speier; House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer; and Robert A. Long, gunman in the March 16, 2021 shootings in Acworth, GA and Atlanta, GA. He also referred to H.R. 1620 and H.R. 2471, approved March 15, which was assigned Public Law No. 117-103.
Joseph R. Biden, Remarks on Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/354966