Rita Henley Jensen is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Women’s eNews, an independent online media outlet that covers women’s issues while providing women’s perspectives on public policy. A former senior writer for the National Law Journal and columnist for The New York Times Syndicate, Jensen shares her thoughts on issues ranging from the death of news about women in mainstream media, to the increase in cases of domestic violence, and why in situations like the Haiti earthquake, it isn’t such a good idea to give money right now.
As the founder of an independent news service that specializes in issues of importance to women, do you think that media coverage of women’s issues and point of views has improved or do we still have a long way to go?
Well I would say both are true. I think I would place us at a one or two, which is more than zero but it is a long way from ten. Take the case of our governor’s (Patterson) aide who battered his girlfriend. There is one sentence in the coverage that says that, to get an order of protection, the woman who was battered would have to personally serve the man she claimed assaulted her. That is the law in the state of New York. It was buried way down in this story and you never really see that type of news highlighted in any news story. This is just one example of the barriers women face in order to obtain protection. Can you imagine any other victim having to address their assailant directly without any protection and saying: “Here, I am serving you a complaint.” Yeah, like that is going to happen! However in the last couple of years, you have seen a growth in the coverage of domestic violence, which is why I would put it at a two.
After the recent earthquake in Haiti, many feminists have been emphasizing the importance of giving to women organizations that help women in Haiti. Do you agree with this position?
The short answer is yes. The belief is that you give women food and supplies then they will distribute them amongst the family and community members, whereas if you give to the men the case is often that they will keep it to themselves. In addition, the women are the caretakers. We ran a story about how many women were about to give birth in Haiti so that is another situation. But I also think it is not such a good idea to give money right now because people show up for the crisis and then leave you. Yes, they need water, supplies and antibiotics now but what is going to alleviate the overall poverty of Haiti? What Haiti needs is reforestation. Nobel Peace Prize Wangari Maathai planted forty million trees ending the desertification in Kenya. She also employed women to plant the trees so that they had an income and training in agriculture. I think that is what Haiti also needs.
What is the one thing you would like to see change in your lifetime?
I’d like to see a dramatic reduction of cases of domestic violence. The thread of violence is implicit in so many of our exchanges.
As a survivor of domestic violence, why do you think do so many women choose to stay with a man that physically abuses them?
I don’t like the question because it implies that the woman is not thinking clearly and making bad choices. Once you are in that situation, you are at the highest risk of being murdered when you leave. I think women take that into consideration and rather than putting their life at stake, they try to mitigate the situations. I think it’s also an economic issue, as batterers tend to be in charge of the finances in the relationship. There is also the fear that the man may get the custody of the children and to leave your children in the hands of a batterer is something unthinkable. Given all that it is not surprising and it is not a choice.
We recently covered a story about a man who was a victim of physical abuse at the hand of his girlfriend who tried to shoot him last month. He and others are trying to break the stereotype that physical abuse only happens to women. When statistics show that every year approximately four million American women are victims of a serious assault by an intimate partner, should time be spent focusing on domestic violence against men? Would it be sexist not to do so?
Most abusers are men but not all. I think we would be much happier if we didn’t have any family violence so I don’t need to argue with this man at all. Men shouldn’t be beaten up just like people shouldn’t be beaten up. However my focus would be on the majority who also don’t have access to political and economic power.
You also have a website of news in Arabic and have covered the French government’s plans to ban the burka from public buildings and transportation? Do you find this move legitimate or is it just another way of marginalizing Muslim communities?
They [the French Government] are not doing it because of what the burka stands for even though that is what they say. With this edict more Muslim women will be more compelled to stay indoors for longer periods of time and that will dramatically reduce their freedom of movement and access to basic public services like transportation and education. It makes me very sad. I mean if someone is sitting on an airplane covered from head to foot and people are worried about terrorism then that is one thing you have to deal with but to not allow the burka in public places seems at least an overreaction and at worst a reflection of France’s heritage.
How did you come to start “21 Leaders for the 21st Century?”
In our first year, I was in a meeting with our advisory board and I said we needed something to respond to Time Magazine’s Man of the Year (before it changed to Person of the Year) and the board said well we just couldn’t have one, that would be wrong! So we ended up with 21 [laughs] and we had no idea how we were going to do it! But it has grown and now we ask our readers for nominations from across the world and it’s so hard to pick and find the right mix.
You are not only a mother but a grandmother. How important is it to instill feminist ideals in girls at an early age?
I think it’s hard to be a grandmother who is a feminist and to watch your four year old granddaughter want to wear a tiara and tutu and be a princess. But it’s hard for them to figure it out and while it may sound corny what I can be is a role model. My grandchildren know that I won’t take them to violent movies or give them money for violent video games and those are statements. I am very proud of my older granddaughter because she decided to be Nancy Drew for Halloween. When we went trick or treating someone at the door said “Don’t you need a magnifying glass?” and she took it out of her purse and said, “Please, I have one!” I was quite impressed that she chose Nancy Drew but that she also talked back to the adult. I may have over-reacted by buying her several Nancy Drew books [laughs] but I think what we want in the end is for them to be autonomous.