Opinion: Why Do Women Remain in Abusive Environments?

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Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen testifies before Congress. Courtesy DHS

By Colleen O'Connor

President Trump’s vitriol towards women spewed forth again last week.

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This time his raging bull fury was directed towards the newly minted Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen. Less than one year on the job, Nielsen was blasted for almost a full half hour—in front of the entire Cabinet—for not securing the border, for not reducing illegal crossings, and for not building the wall faster.

After the humiliation, she reportedly drafted a letter of resignation, but demurred. Why did she stay?

This is a conversation no woman wants to have. About other women—not just those in Trump’s orbit—but, in every profession, relationship, and circumstance that qualifies as cruel, abusive and insulting.

Why so much repeated domestic violence? Why do so many women seem unwilling to run, hide, or fight back?

Inferiority complexes? The “Stockholm Syndrome” of believing the captors’ degradation has merit? Fear for her children?

And this is not just a conversation about the poor, uneducated, or once innocent women who remain trapped. Their predicament is more easily understood.

What about those women with lots of money, power, and the ability to escape. Yet, they stay. Why? Consider the following examples.

The President’s wife, Melania Trump. The silent Slovenian. Dispatched for runway model photo-op performances, amidst those hand-swatting strolls and frigid stares and dances alongside the President.  His boorishness is beyond humiliating. Yet, she stays. Why?

Harvey Weinsteins’s wife, Georgina Chapman. Weinstein stands accused of sexual harassment by over 80 women. His wife claims ignorance: “Absolutely not. I never knew.” And still contends that her marriage was “happy.”

“That’s what makes this so incredibly painful: I had what I thought was a very happy marriage. I loved my life,” she admitted. Plus, he was absent a lot.

They separated and eventually divorced—close enough to the 10-year anniversary for her to garner a more generous pre-nuptial payout of $10-15 million and custody of their two children.

Why did she stay? Her explanation: “I was naïve.”

Anthony Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison for sending sexually explicit photos to a teenage girl. Huma cannot claim ignorance or naiveté. His proclivities surfaced in 2011. Yet Huma stayed with him for several more years.

Ironically, she and Weinstein’s wife both bonded in an elite kind of self-pity club.

As Abedin told Vogue, “This particular club, ironically, it’s not such a small one: women who have had to endure it in such a public way, women like Georgina and me. People don’t feel sorry for us; you don’t get that empathy. People think you’re beautiful, you’re thin, you’re rich, you’re photographed on the red carpet, and you get stuck in this category.”

Bill Clinton’s wife, Hillary. She stood by her man, attacking the President’s accusers. Hillary labeled the multiple affairs and lies that led to his impeachment by the House (but not conviction in the Senate) as “a vast right-wing conspiracy.” They’re still married after all those years.

These women all knew what they were getting into.

And then there are the others too numerous to detail.

Bill Cosby’s wife, Camilla. She calls his conviction for drugging and rape “a lynch mob” verdict.

White House aide Bob Porter’s wives. He was defended by Trump and Chief of Staff John Kelly (plus women on Trump’s staff) until the black eye photo was released.

New York Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman’s mistresses. They are educated, yet endured the physical abuse of choking, slapping and ridicule.

#MeToo cannot catalog all of these “alleged” offenders. But, the massive Women’s March certainly suggests the magnitude of the problem.

It’s a problem hidden in too many places, among too many relationships, and in too many neighborhoods.

But, what is wrong with the women mentioned above—rich, educated, and often accomplished—who take the abuse—verbal, sexual, physical? Or even worse, who become defenders and silent accomplices?

Many reasons exist why they stay. Disbelief, lifestyle privileges, depression, or perhaps they believe they deserve the contempt.

But, as Eleanor Roosevelt admonished, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Perhaps the cause is something more sinister and pervasive. Something shared by all women of all cultures and strata. Fear.

A fear more powerful than the abuse.

That is the conversation no woman wants to have.


Colleen O’Connor is a native San Diegan and a retired college professor.

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