George Mason University is dedicated to empowering women. Take, for example, the “Turn Off the Violence Week” event that ran October 3rd-9th.
The event, like similar events offered on college campus throughout the country, was a partnership between Mason’s women’s groups, various academic departments, the campus police department and local law enforcement. The week offered a host of activities that included a feminist professor of sociology who lectured on his theories connecting men in sports and sexual assault, a talk by a former college student who was a victim of rape, classes in self-defense, an art project commemorating the victims of sexual assault and a march on campus.
The goal of this event and ones like it is obvious: it seeks to eradicate violence against women and empower women to defend themselves. Yet it does not address the one thing women can choose to do to defend themselves from violent attack–it does not address women carrying firearms for personal protection.
I asked the organizers of this program about this omission. Dr. Nancy Weiss Hanrahan, director of GMU’s Women’s Studies Research and Resource Center explained to me that her group “like[s] to think about ways to empower women (and men) that mitigate, rather than escalate, the level of potential violence.” She said her organization wants “to focus attention on broader, societal responses to the problem of gender violence, as opposed to the individual solution of fighting force with force.”
Connie Kirkland, coordinator of GMU’s Sexual Assault Services echoes Weiss Hanrahan’s view. According to Kirkland, GMU is not equipped to teach women how to handle firearms–both practically and philosophically. “Our philosophy is one of empowerment rather than using guns for self-defense.”
“[Our] hope is for a greater awareness of the issues at hand with the goal of creating a need in women (and men) to increase their personal safety and security,” says Kirkland.
“The means they choose are purely their own,” says Kirkland. “However, I would never want women to believe that they could prevent their own victimization by becoming an expert in gun use.”
Not all GMU women agree with Weiss Hanrahan and Kirkland. Mary Walker, a 2004 GMU alumnus who currently takes courses at Mason in preparation for graduate school has a Virginia permit to carry a concealed firearm for personal protection.
“For me, knowing how to use a gun for self-defense is very empowering, and it is an essential and critical element of my personal self-defense,” says Walker. “Being able to defend yourself from serious harm or injury boosts your self-esteem; you go from a position of fear to knowing that you are able to protect yourself.”
Walker also disagrees with the premise that a woman defending herself from attack escalates violence.
“When you are attacked with violent force, the only appropriate form of empowerment to respond with is force,” says Walker. “Sometimes using a gun effectively is just as simple as pointing the barrel of the gun at an attacker. A gun can be effective without even firing a shot.”
“I do not see what could be more empowering than forcing a rapist to stare down the barrel of a gun,” says Walker.
Walker is right. Women deserve to be free from violence, but since no one can guarantee a violence-free world, women need to assert their right to effective self-defense.
And this is what makes the position of the leaders of GMU’s women’s groups so puzzling. They claim that feminism seeks to liberate women, unshackling them from mistreatment and injustice. But here the case is the opposite: feminism treats women as a member of a perpetually abused and inferior class. Here it neither unshackles women nor protects them from injustice.
If we were speaking of abortion, there would be no question among feminists that a women’s right to her life supercedes the potential rights of the unborn fetus. Yet GMU’s feminists reject the idea that a woman has a right to use deadly force to protect herself from violent attack on the grounds that it leads to violence against their attacker. Yet not all violence is immoral–a woman has a right to defend herself from rape. For GMU’s feminists to say otherwise is an egregious injustice to women–a way of enforcing victimhood, not liberation.
The headquarters of the National Rifle Association is just a few short minutes away from the GMU campus. I spoke with NRA spokesman Jorge Amselle who told me that the NRA offers firearms training to women in partnership with a host of college campuses across the country. “Anyone who wishes to receive firearms training from an NRA certified instructor can locate one through our web site or receive a list of instructors in their area by calling or writing NRA,” says Amselle.