Editor’s Note: Leslie Morgan Steiner is an advocate and expert on violence against women. She is the author of The New York Times best-selling memoir, “Crazy Love.” Her TEDTalk on why victims stay in abusive situations has been viewed by more than 4 million people. She serves on the board of the One Love Foundation and DC Volunteer Lawyers Project. She lives in Washington. The views in this commentary are solely hers.
Sen. Joni Ernst surely did not grow up on her parents’ Iowa farm dreaming of becoming a victim one day.
Instead, like many girls raised during the 1970s amid the flush of second-wave feminism, she notched achievements according to traditionally male yardsticks of success: becoming high school valedictorian, serving for 23 years in the Army Reserve and National Guard (including stints in Iraq and Kuwait), and becoming the first woman elected to Congress in Iowa.
Impressive, yes, enough so that the Republican Party selected Ernst to deliver the GOP response to President’s Obama’s 2015 State of the Union speech.
But ironically, being a domestic violence victim and sexual assault survivor may turn out to be 48-year-old Ernst’s best chance to make our country a better place for men and women alike.
Ernst has been an advocate for survivors since college, and during her time as a legislator, she has worked to combat military sexual assault, including sponsoring legislation with then-Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat. But now she is in a different position, one I understand all too well.
Ernst did not choose to reveal her domestic violence status; “I was not ready,” she told Bloomberg in an interview published Wednesday. A signed affidavit alleging her husband’s infidelity with their babysitter and his physical abuse during their 26-year marriage inadvertently became public earlier this month, when the 2018 Ernst divorce was finalized. A technicality allowed the divorce documents to become temporarily public. CNN has reached out to Ernst’s husband, Gail Ernst, for comment on the abuse allegations but has not received a response; in the affidavit, he denied allegations of infidelity.
“I didn’t want to share it with anybody, and in the era of #MeToo survivors, I always believed that every person is different and they will confront their demons when they’re ready,” Ernst said in the Bloomberg interview. She also said she had been raped by a boyfriend in college and told reporters while holding back tears, “I’m still the same person as I was a week ago. The only difference is you know more about me now.” Her disclosures prompted emotional and supportive responses, including a tearful exchange between CNN’s Kate Bolduan and Rep. Debbie Dingell on Thursday.
Ernst’s story shows that abuse happens to women of all races, religions, ethnic backgrounds, income levels, and levels of education. Strong, smart, independent women like Ernst are as likely as all other women to be victims of abuse at the hands of men we love.
I was one, too, a young woman playing by the societal rules of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s: working hard in school, getting degrees from Harvard and Wharton and toiling long hours at corporate positions within Johnson & Johnson and The Washington Post. Like Ernst, I hid it when my first husband started hurting me. He choked me and held loaded guns to my head. To protect his future, as well as to hide my shame about being a battered wife, I lied to neighbors, family, friends, work colleagues and classmates at business school.
The two people I couldn’t deceive were the police officers who found me bloodied and bruised in my apartment on a dark winter night, after the final beating when my husband came within seconds of killing me. Telling those officers the truth saved my life.
In speaking publicly about her experiences, Joni Ernst now stands at the crossroads of perhaps one of the most significant opportunities of her career. Ernst’s story shows how dangerous falling in love can be for women. No matter how intelligent or tough or accomplished we are, love makes us exceedingly vulnerable to troubled, predatory partners; more than half the women killed in 2017 were murdered by family or friends, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Additionally, Ernst’s husband allegedly threatened to divorce her if she ran for re-election in 2020 (allegations he has denied), and this lack of support at home is another common, destructive force many women face. All too often the men we marry, along with societal stereotypes of femininity, pressure us to sacrifice our economic and career independence to put family members before ourselves.
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This toxic masculinity has to change. And men are the ones who need to change it. Women like Ernst and the millions of women who march and advocate and stand up for women’s dignity are already doing our best to create a more perfect union. Joni Ernst and other abuse victims can take the simplest, but most powerful step: admitting the dangers women face by falling in love with the wrong men. We shouldn’t have to pay for it; that burden falls on the men who abuse us, and the society that allows it to happen.
A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Gail Ernst is a lawyer.