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Domestic abuse survivors amplify their voices as members of Congress

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, says she was raped in the Air Force by superior officer. | AP Photo

Tears ran down California Rep. Katie Porter’s face last month as she listened to Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell describe on the House floor the impact of growing up in a household with an abusive father.

Porter wasn’t sure she would be able to tell her own story of domestic abuse in such a public way.

But the freshman lawmaker stepped up to the lectern at a news conference Thursday where lawmakers were pushing for renewal of federal legislation to help victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

She knew Dingell would be there supporting her, as would Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore, another survivor of domestic violence.

And when Porter did choke up as she described the unhelpful response she received after calling the police, Dingell rubbed her back.

“It’s strength in numbers,” Porter told USA TODAY afterward about why she decided to face the cameras.

And those numbers have grown.

In the first few weeks of the new Congress, female lawmakers have been speaking out about their personal experiences, a consequence of both the record number of women in Congress and the continued reverberations of the #MeToo movement.

“I think it helps. I hope it helps inspire others – to get through their own dark times,” Arizona Sen. Martha McSally told CBS “This Morning” about her dramatic disclosure at a Senate hearing Wednesday that she was raped by a superior officer while serving in the Air Force.

In January, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst disclosed that she was raped in college, an emotionally wrenching story she decided to share after her separate allegations of assault by her then-husband inadvertently became public in divorce proceedings.

Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko, a survivor of domestic violence, likewise has said it took her years to find her own voice. But after being elected to the House in 2018 – in a special election to succeed a lawmaker who resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct – Lesko has been an outspoken advocate for abused women.

When the House debated last month a bill to extend beyond three days the maximum time allowed for a background check for gun purchases, Lesko offered an amendment to exempt domestic violence victims from a longer wait.

“Should we tell them: ‘Hopefully you can hide from your abuser for the next month?'” she asked on the House floor.

That prompted Dingell, who opposed Lesko’s exemption, to emotionally recount her childhood trauma of hiding from her mentally unstable father and stopping him from killing her mother one night.

“He shouldn’t have had a gun,” Dingell said. “No child, no woman, no man should ever have to go through that.”

Expect to see more of such public debates, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

“Women,” she said, “are taking back control of their own narrative and connecting their stories to the issues that they care about and that they’re going to be voted on.”

Walsh sees this as an extension of the 2018 election in which many women campaigned in a much more personal way. In the past, she said, female candidates were reluctant to even talk about their children for fear voters wouldn’t take them seriously.

But last year, Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin shared her mother’s fight with prescription drug abuse. A House candidate in Texas talked in an ad about how her father abused her mother. Rep. Cindy Axne, in a successful challenge to a GOP incumbent, recounted selling personal items on eBay to pay medical bills because she couldn’t afford maternity coverage offered by her health insurer.

“They just decided they were going to show the voters everything and let the voters decide,” said Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications for EMILY’s List, an organization that recruits and endorses Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights. “And the voters decided that they liked what they saw.”

A record 126 women were elected to the House and Senate, increasing from 20 percent to 24 percent the share of women in Congress.

The number of women senators grew by one more when McSally was chosen in December to fill out the remainder of the late Sen. John McCain’s term.

With federal data showing that one in three women have experienced sexual violence, it’s not surprising that there are now more victims of violence in Congress, said Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“When you have an increase in women present, you’re going to have an increase in those that are victims,” Glenn said. “Exponentially, it makes perfect sense.”

Sharing these personal stories should not only lead to a more nuanced policy debate but also increase the urgency or propensity of politicians to act, said Idaho State University assistant professor Malliga Och, who studies women in politics.

“The major reason why all countries – not just the U.S. – need more women in politics is that they bring different lived experiences into the political debates,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean they come to the same policy conclusions.

That was on display when Dingell, a Democrat, and Lesko, a Republican, debated the background check legislation from opposite positions. And, unlike some other military sexual assault victims, McSally does not want to take decisions to prosecute those cases away from commanding officers.

“This experience effects a lot of things in a person’s life,” said Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.) “But (victims) also bring their core philosophy to the analysis of the problem.”

Still, because Porter – a Harvard-educated lawyer – was willing to share her domestic violence experience, that helps other lawmakers take the issue more seriously, said Regina Malveaux, the CEO of the YWCA in Spokane, Washington, who attended the public push for renewal of the Violence Against Women Act. Too often, Malveaux said, the issue is seen as one that primarily affects poor women, or women of color.

“It’s not just those that too often are ignored,” Malveaux said.

When high-profile people come forward, it also prompts other victims to seek help.

Both the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Assault Hotline have seen substantial increases in use over the past year and a half as the #MeToo movement gathered steam and after high-profile cases became public.

“We know that powerful stories do prompt people to reach out and get services,” said Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which had a 40 percent increase in contacts last year.

Moore, who was one of the first lawmakers to speak personally about domestic violence on the House floor a few years ago, said victims “have been emboldened by how empowering the truth is.”

“It’s freeing,” she told USA TODAY. “It is a shared healing.”

Read more at usatoday.com.