When President Biden met at the White House in March with advocates, survivors, and legislators to celebrate the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (the first iteration of which then-Sen. Joe Biden had shepherded through Congress in 1994), he told them, “Change the culture, not just the law.” The assembled frontline domestic violence prevention workers nodded in agreement when the president reminded then, “It really wasn’t so long ago this country didn’t want to talk about violence against women, let alone it being a national epidemic—something government had to address. As a society, we literally looked away.” The bill had expired under then-President Donald Trump in 2019. What follows is an edited version of President Biden’s remarks.
The idea that this took five years to reauthorize—I was out of office those years—drove me crazy. (Laughter.) The point is it’s wonderful to see so many brave survivors and dedicated advocates and—and, truly, old friends—so many who have worked so hard to modernize the Violence Against Women Act to make it stronger and make sure that it endures. And the reason we’ve been able to do so much, make so much progress in the past 20 years is because of all of you… You changed the culture, not just the law.
Look, thank you for coming together and never giving up. You know, the fact is that it really wasn’t so long ago this country didn’t want to talk about violence against women, let alone [it] being a national epidemic, something the government had to address. As a society, we literally looked away… In many places, it wasn’t a crime. I don’t recall how many times I was told in the prelude to writing the legislation that it’s a “family affair… You don’t understand, Biden. It’s a family affair.”
When I began, along with others, to pursue this legislation to change this issue, we were told that we would literally be responsible for the “disintegration” of American families in the major press. It wasn’t just the wackos—it was in the mainstream press!
We talked about creating shelters to give survivors a way out because so many don’t have a way out [for them] and their children. By the way, the vast majority of children on the street with their mothers are there because she’s a victim of domestic violence. And here’s what they wrote: They said these shelters— providing shelter—[were] nothing more than “indoctrination centers” for women’s liberation issues. I can get you the articles. It’s a fact. Not a joke…
Calling the police meant having to stand in front of your abuser—your significant other, your husband, whomever—and say[ing], “He did it.” And I’d get heat on this when I spoke. I remember making a speech to the Chamber of Commerce, and someone said, “Well, you’re going overboard here.” I said, “Let me ask you, Jack. If you had a 320-pound guy who could bench 400 pounds standing in front of you and beat the—…smacked you, are you going to say he did it? Because you know he’s going to come back.”
There were very few police departments that had trained personnel… very few. I’m sure there were some; I just can’t remember any of them. (Laughter). And as a matter of fact, I don’t think there were any Special Victims Units in most of the police departments around the country before this legislation was written.
Now there [are] programs that are on TV for the last 25, 30 years [addressing domestic violence]. I really mean it. It mattered. That’s what I mean about changing the culture. There were too few places you could go for advice or for help… I remember the biggest fights I had the second time around [reauthorizing the bill] were with universities. Where do you show up? Where do you report this? … I mean major universities — not Podunk universities. Major universities. It took time to change the culture, and you did it. You did it.
There was no national hotline… [Now] there have been millions of women who’ve hit that hotline button. You know, all the brave guys I talk to, they say, “Biden, you’re overdoing this.” And I’d say, “Tell you what: If somebody who was twice your size, beating the living crap out of you and you were in the same apartment with them, how do you go and pick up the phone and call for help?”
Women would hide and say, “I can’t say where I am. I don’t know. Help me. Help me.” That’s how we got Microsoft and others… to help us physically locate [victims] so the police could pick up where that call was coming from.
That was the background when I first wrote the Violence Against Women Act in 1990: to provide more protection against domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault; to support survivors and help them find ways out of their abusive situations.
They’d say, “Why didn’t she leave?” Well, she didn’t leave. She had no place to go, and she had two kids with her. No money. Nothing. No family to go to. Leave?
The most oft-asked question for the first three years of the act was, “Well, why are you so passionate about this? Was your mother a victim of domestic violence? Was your sister or your wife? Were they victims?” I swear to God. That was the most oft-asked question of me. And I’d say, “No, that’s not the answer.” I happened to be raised by a gentle, decent man, who taught all of his children—and I mean this from the bottom of my heart… My dad would say the greatest sin of all that anyone could commit was the abuse of power, and the cardinal sin was for a man to raise his hand to a woman or a child. That’s what this law has always been about: the abuse of power. Whether it ends in a rape or just the physical [beating]— it’s about the abuse of power… I believed that, too, as many of you in this room did… [That] the only way we could change the culture was by shining an ugly, bright light on it and speaking its name.
You can make all the speeches you wanted, but until those women had the courage [to speak out…] I remember [being backstage in a holding room] and they said [to these women], “It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.” Can you imagine being among the first to stand before the whole damn world and millions of people to hear you recite how you were abused?
It took enormous courage. And at the time (the Majority Leader may remember), we both got criticized for wanting to make it public. “We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to do that.” That’s why we held public hearings for this law when there were senators and others who said it was too salacious for this to be public, for people to see… I believed—and a lot of us did—that we had to let America know what was going on. Take the blinders off. Make them look at it square in the eye—all the ugly sides of it. Because I believed, as all of you did, that Americans are basically decent and honorable people. But they didn’t want to get involved. Didn’t want to get involved.
How many times have you been in a crowded airport or in a circumstance where you see a man not physically beating, but abusing a woman and you just say, “You know, I don’t want to hear that… I don’t know what to do.” Well, I believe that if they could see the truth as to what was going on, we could begin slowly to make change. And that’s exactly what you all did and that’s what happened.
This law broke the dam of congressional resistance and cultural resistance. And it brought this hidden epidemic out of the shadows… It introduced our nation to so many brave survivors [whose] stories changed the way America saw the issue… it’s hard to believe when I go back and think of when [and] how it started and where it was.
As a practical matter, things began to shift—the legal and social burdens— away from survivors and onto perpetrators… where they belonged. It made addressing gender violence a shared priority with a determined, coordinated response. It created a hotline, as I said, for millions of women who have used the hotline. And again, I’ll never forget being told the first time [when I asked], “What did you do?” She said, “I got behind the drapes and I held the phone. And I prayed to God—don’t let him hear this. Pray God. Pray God.”
[The Violence Against Women Act] supported shelters and rape crisis centers, housing and legal assistance, creating lifesaving options for women and children all across the country. And it helped train police officers, advocates, prosecutors, judges, court personnel, to make the entire justice system fair and more responsive to the needs of survivors.
I’ll never forget [when] I went to the family court when I was writing this—and the family court in my state is like many of yours. And I watched—because I was told this would happen—I watched a woman come up to the desk and say, “I want to report that my husband is beating me up.” “Well, why don’t you have a seat over there.” Not a joke. Go back and check your family courts back in the day. (Applause.) That’s what happened. “That’s okay. You go over here. We’ll get to that.” “No, no, I—I need help now. Now.” You know, the law has saved lives. It’s helped women rebuild their lives.
The hardest thing to get done was arrest on information. Because what used to happen is a cop may be in the street and see a husband or a boyfriend or a man—anyone—smack his wife. And he’d come over and say, “Do you want to bring charges?” What the hell is she going to say? “Yeah, I want to bring…” We got the law changed to say the cop can arrest [based] on information. He saw it happen. He saw it happen. (Applause.)
Even in 1994, we knew that there was much more we had to do… that it was only the beginning. That’s why—because of all of you in this room—every time we’ve reauthorized this law, it’s been improved. It’s not like we didn’t know we wanted to do these other things in the beginning. It’s we did as much as we could and keep trying to add to it. You remember. You sat at my desk—a lot of time with me on this. Broadening from domestic violence to include stalking and sexual assault in 2000. That was the change made [then]. Expanding access to services for immigrants, and communities of color in 2005. That was a change. Restoring jurisdiction of Tribal courts — (applause) — over non-Native domestic violence offenders who abuse women in Indian Country. We did that in 2013. Extending protections to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, also in 2013. (Applause.)
I’m sorry to go on, but… the country owes you—all of you. I really mean it. Thank you. The law kept growing stronger. It’s not like we didn’t know in 2005 we should be dealing with the things we dealt with in 2013. It was getting it done. Each link in the chain that we’re building made a difference— makes a difference.
Yesterday, I signed the Bipartisan Government Funding Bill. (Applause.) And, consequentially, we forged the next link in the chain. Not only did we reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act through 2027—and I have to wonder why the hell we can’t reauthorize it [permanently]. It’s like the Voting Rights Act. I thought we had won when I got Strom Thurmond to vote for it and extend it for 25 years, and then the [Supreme] Court came along. But at any rate, that’s another issue. (Laughter.)
But look… just think about this. If this [violence and abuse] affected manhood—men—I don’t think we’d have a problem, you know, [reauthorizing it] for even longer, making it permanent… Today, one year since a gunman killed eight people in Atlanta, six of whom were women of Asian descent, these horrific murders are a reminder that we still have work to do to put an end to misogyny and racism and all forms of hate we have.
We’re never going to get it all done, but we can’t ever stop trying. As long as there are women in this country and around the world who live in fear of violence, there’s more we have to do to fulfill this sacred commitment. No one—no one, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, should experience abuse. Period. And if they do, they should have the services and support they need to get through it. And we’re not going to rest.
But in the meantime, all of you should be enormously proud of what you’ve accomplished. This reauthorization is testament to the power of your voices and your tireless dedication to changing things for the better… Let’s keep going.