Attorney and social activist Dorchen Leidholdt heads up the Sanctuary for Families’ Legal Center in New York City, the country’s largest program of its kind, serving domestic violence victims. Since the mid-1970s, she has been a leader in the movement to end violence against women, and is the founder of The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. You won’t want to miss this eye-opening conversation.
Sandi: Welcome to another edition of Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein. The Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services, at Sanctuary for Families in New York City, is the largest program of its kind in the country for domestic violence victims. It provides legal representation in family law, civil rights, public benefits, housing, and immigration cases while also advocating policy and legislative changes to further the right of victims and gender violence survivors. In 2014, working in partnership with 400 pro-bono lawyers, the Center provided legal assistance to more than 4000 men, women, and children. The woman who has served as the Center’s director since 1994, is my guest today.
Attorney and social activist Dorchen Leidholdt has one hell of a resume. Since the mid 70’s, she’s been a leader in the movement against violence against women. Counseling and advocating for rape victims. Organizing against the promotion of violence against women in the media. Representing hundreds of victims of domestic violence, prostitution, trafficking, sex assault, female genital mutilation, and the online bride business. In 1988, Dorchen founded the Coalition against Trafficking in Women, and currently sits on the board. She has spoken in this country and others about gender violence issues. Testifying before Congress on economics of human trafficking. She’s trained prosecutors in Sao Paulo Brazil and local and federal police in Mexico City on gender violence.
Dorchen has written numerous articles and co-edited the Lawyers Manual on human trafficking, and the fourth and fifth editions of the Lawyers Manual on domestic violence. She’s received numerous awards and honors including the UN Capital Association Human Rights Award, the City of New York Award for outstanding leadership in breaking the cycle of domestic violence and the New York State Coalition against Domestic Violence’s 30 Years, 30 Leaders Award.
Dorchen. Welcome and thanks so much for joining me today.
Dorchen: Thank you Sandi, it’s wonderful to be here.
Sandi: My first obvious question to you is were born a social activist?
Dorchen: Probably. [Laughing]
Dorchen: Early on, I was aware of social injustice. I’m from a military family. My father was a career military officer. We lived on military bases in different parts of the country. I saw a lot of inequality.
Sandi: How so? What did you see on the military bases?
Dorchen: Well, the military is extraordinarily hierarchical, and back then, when I was growing up, one saw injustices on the issue of race. You saw very few people of color. As officers.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: No women.
Dorchen: It was a lesson in inequality and in hierarchy. I am your generation, I am a baby boomer.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: Became politically active as a teenager. Aware of these issues, but also aware of a growing social justice movement. I identified with the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement. I became an activist pretty naturally, although much of my childhood was spend in Virginia and I was a little bit of a, marching to a different drummer. A little bit of a fish out of water.
Sandi: For a military family?
Dorchen: Well, also in my high school. There were not many students focused on social justice issues. I was one. There were a few fellow travelers.
Dorchen: It became an increasingly important issue to me. Women’s rights became increasingly important issue to me.
Sandi: Were you supported by your parents?
Dorchen: My father, certainly wouldn’t have identified with my interest in the anti-war movement.
Sandi: [Laughing] Yea. That’s why I asked.
Dorchen: Both of my parents were really pretty supportive. Little bit of resistance on the paternal side, but my mother, I come from a long line of women who really supported and encouraged their daughters. I was very, very fortunate to have the mother that I have, who is still living at almost 94.
Dorchen: She will be very unhappy that I have disclosed her age.
Dorchen: I identified with the women’s movement very strongly, and then I had experiences like so many young women, that really further that identification.
Sandi: Share some of them me.
Dorchen: One, perhaps pivotal experience, happened. I’ve just started talking about this for the first time when I was about 19 years old. I was studying at the University of Virginia. Planning to go to Washington DC with a friend of mine to see an Almond Brothers concert and to see Raisin in the Sun at the Arena Theater. We were going to stay with a friend of hers, whom I didn’t know.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: Then my friend wasn’t able to join me, and I went alone. It was a very, very rough weekend with a lot of sexual harassment and an attempted sexual assault.
Sandi: Oh, yi, yi, yi
Dorchen: That’s the experience of so many young women. I was already politicized and at that point, I really committed myself to the women’s movement and to working on issues of gender based violence. I wouldn’t have used that terminology at that time.
Sandi: Back then.
Dorchen: I ended up in graduate school at the University of Virginia and worked as a rape crisis counselor. Just was overwhelmed by my inability to really do anything to assist the victims and survivors I was counseling. There was no justice. There egregious examples of abuse that women suffered. The police, prosecutors were really not helpful at all. The women were mobilizing. Then, something happened at the University of Virginia. There’s a place, a sort of student corner, called The Corner. Across from Mr. Jefferson’s University. A restaurant opened up for students. It was sort of a pub. It was called the Mineries, named after the district that Jack the Ripper prowled.
Dorchen: It was in many ways, a monument to the Ripper. The entrees on the meu were named after the women, the prostituted the women that he eviscerated and murdered.
Sandi: Are you serious?
Dorchen: It was. I with my burgeoning consciousness
Sandi: What’s in a name, Dorchen?
Dorchen: [Laughing] My work with victims, my own experience and just the University of Virginia there is a lot of, I’m sure there continues to be, but at that time there was a tremendous amount of massageny and violence on campus that was tolerated by university officials. I think that really radicalized me. I helped organize a protest of the Mineries. Ultimately we were successful
Sandi: In what? Shutting it down?
Dorchen: Shutting it down.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: That was a different experience. I realized that through organizing,
Sandi: You have power.
Dorchen: We could have an impact. It was interesting, the students that mobilized to shut that down, it wasn’t only the feminists on campus it was also gay rights activists, civil rights activists. I guess, at a school like that, that was pretty conservative, the progressive students came together. That was, really, a very positive experience. I
Sandi: Obviously a seminal moment for you.
Dorchen: I think, definitely. Then I came to New York, and I think one of my, the reasons I came to New York, is I knew that there was a great deal of important work happening here in issues of gender based violence. There was an organization called New York Radical Feminists that had held the first speak out on rape. The first speak out on prostitution. They were really looking at women’s condition. Deeply and thoughtfully and from a gender aware lens. Making all kinds of connections. It was a great place to be. I came here a little late. I came here in 1977 and New York Radical Feminists was disbanding at that time. I was the beneficiary of their brilliant theorizing and their work.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: I worked with a group, initially when I arrived, called Women against Violence against Women.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: Another group called New York Women against Rape. I was very active in its sort of public education wing.
Sandi: You were also involved in Women again Pornography.
Dorchen: Women against Pornography. Just doing a lot of learning and a lot of activism. I had the privilege of working with feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Susan Brown-Miller
Sandi: Sure. Huge names.
Dorchen: Dorcen, Cathryn McKinnen
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: I was very fortunate. A generation younger than those feminists.
Sandi: Were you a lawyer then?
Dorchen: No, no. I was working as an editor and I say I was an editor by day, and an activist by night.
Dorchen: And over the weekends. That’s just the way it was back then. It never occurred to me that this would be a career for me. That I would ever be compensated for this work. It was work I did out of a strong sense of mission. At some point, I realized that having a law degree would be valuable. I could be more effective as a leader, as an activist with a law degree. That had never occurred to me before. I remember the moment I had this epiphany. It’s a little bit irrational. Something really horrific was happening at that time. There was a young woman, the first African American woman to be crowned Miss America. Her name was Vanessa Williams.
Sandi: Uh, hello! [Laughing]
Dorchen: Is Vanessa Williams. At that time, there had been a photographer who had taken explicit photographs of her, and was publishing them.
Sandi: I remember this.
Dorchen: The Miss America organizers divested her of her crown.
Sandi: Crown. Mm Hmm
Dorchen: At the same time that Penthouse Magazine published those photographs of her. I was just enraged. I was enraged at the pageant officials. I was enraged at Bob Guccioni and Penthouse.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: To see this, certainly wasn’t a fan of the Miss America contest.
Sandi: Of course
Dorchen: But, understood that here was an African American woman who was really breaking through obstacles and at that point, I thought, if I had a law degree [Laughing]
Sandi: I’d have some power.
Dorchen: Maybe I could do something.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: To help women like Vanessa Williams and others. Really, that. I don’t know what I would have done now, I sort of laugh when I think about it. I’m not sure, even now, I could be effective in a situation like that with a law degree. It’s what prompted me to go to law school. I applied to various law schools. I was shocked to get into NYU. Shocked to get a close to full scholarship. I found that having that law degree, it actually was what I hoped it would be. It is a very, very useful tool to have. I’ve used it ever since.
Sandi: If you are just joining me, my guest today is Dorchen Leidholdt, who is a social activist and attorney. There was something that you said before that I want to pick up on. About being a rape counselor
Dorchen: Umm Hmm
Sandi: At UVA, back in the 70s and look what’s going on today.
Sandi: With women on college campuses. Feeling powerless. Does that, on some level, just make you nuts? That all these years later, there is not that much of a difference?
Dorchen: I’m actually heartened by what’s happening because I see, you know at this point in my career, I’m thinking succession. I’m thinking, where are the next
Sandi: next generation
Dorchen: Wave of feminist activists. What I’m seeing on college campuses is so, impressive to me. I’m seeing brilliant strategic young women and men speaking out, often at great personal risk, and having an impact. Governor Cuomo has purposed legislation that would strengthen college and university responses to sexual assault. That’s the result of those activists. I’m very heartened by what I’m seeing.
Sandi: It’s not, we’re still dealing with this.
Dorchen: Gender inequality and gender based violence has very, very deep roots. Goes to the core of our society and really, women didn’t take it on. Now, women and men, in an organized, focused way, until the late 70s. That’s really,
Dorchen: A very short period of time.
Sandi: Mm Hmm, Mm Hmm
Dorchen: Historically. Interestingly enough, the suffragists were also focused on gender based violence. That’s something that often isn’t understood. One of the reasons they so desperately wanted women to have the vote is so that women could affect legal reforms that would enable abuse victims to divorce abusive husbands. It’s not entirely a new issue, but we haven’t seen a mass movement, social change movement, focus on violence against women until the late 70s. I think we are making a lot of progress but we also still have a very long way to go.
Sandi: Talk to me about the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services Sanctuary. First of all, that’s your main occupation.
Dorchen: I actually, [Laughing]
Sandi: Sounds like you have got your fingers in five thousand different pies, but
Dorchen: I really see myself as leader in the movement.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: While I, Sanctuary for Families, I love Sanctuary for Families. I think it’s a wonderful and effective organization. That’s part of my work. A big part of my work. I came to the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services in 1994. I’ve been there for just over 20 years.
Sandi: That’s a long time.
Dorchen: It was, I came to my dream job in many respects. I came to the reason that I went to law school, because it enabled me to work on issues of violence against women and girls. Gender violence in a very focused and intensive way. Sanctuary for Families is an amazing organization. Not only is there a strong legal services, legal advocacy wing, but we provide shelter. Every night to more than 200 victims and their children. We provide trauma informed counseling. We provide economic empowerment. Help victims get the tools they need to become economically independent so they don’t have to depend on an abuser.
Sandi: Of course.
Dorchen: Can really obtain living wage jobs and provide a quality of life for their children that they weren’t able to previously. Most of our clients are women, the vast, vast majority.
Sandi: But there are men, aren’t there?
Dorchen: There are men. Mostly through our LGBT initiative.
Sandi: Ah, ha
Dorchen: Those men, who are victims of violence, have experiences very similar to our female clients. The forms of physical abuse, the sexual abuse, the psychological abuse. All those gender based epithets that are used against women are used against them by abusive partners.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: When I came to the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services, I was the director of one other lawyer. [Laughing] A wonderful paralegal, Evelyn Sepulveda, who is still with us. I came at a very propitious time. Again, I have often felt that I’m walking in big footprints. I came to New York City and there was so much amazing feminist work that was happening that I was the beneficiary of, as I mentioned. I felt the same way when I came to Sanctuary for Families. I felt that I had this amazing project that I could grow. What a great time it was to grow. The Legal Center at Sanctuary, because the Federal Violence Act, passed that year.
Sandi: In 94?
Dorchen: In 1994. All of a sudden, funding was directed to programs like the one I was running. There were new remedies available for abuse victims. One very important remedy, was, it enabled immigrant victims of domestic violence, married to US Citizens or permanent residents who dependent on their abusers for immigration sponsorship to self-petition. We’ve been able to assist, I would say at this point, thousands of immigrant women, bet on the path to permanent resident status, citizenship. That became available that year in 1994.
New York State passed sweeping legislative reform that very year, called the Family Protection Domestic Violence Intervention Act that had a mandatory arrest provision. Police officers would come to a home after a 911 call, and find a bleeding bruised woman, and pretty much respond by sending her husband out to the street to cool off.
Sandi: And calm down.
Dorchen: Not making an arrest.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: A complete failure to protect. That changed in 1994. New York State adopted a mandatory arrest law. Began to see the criminal justice system change. It still has a long way to go, but it was a great time to start doing this work and to begin to think about what are the most urgent needs of victims. How can we address them? We grew, we are now thirty-five attorneys strong. On an individual level, we’re having an enormous impact. For me, that’s really the heart of the work. What we can do for individual women. Helping them get safe. Helping them become empowered. Often, helping them become leaders. But, we are also able to engage in what we call systems change advocacy. Changing systems to make them more responsive to the needs of victims and having quite an impact. We’ve had victory after victory on the legislative front. On the impact litigation front. [Laughing] We had a strong effort that resulted in New York State having a law against stalking. Didn’t exist previously. We helped draft legislation against choking or strangulation. Previously, police officers would come to a home after a domestic violence call and the victim had been choked. But they wouldn’t see visible signs
Sandi: Signs. Mm Hmm
Dorchen: Injury. They wouldn’t respond. Actually, strangulation, choking, is a lethality indicator. Police were coming to the scene of a potential homicide and not recognizing it as such. We were able to change that law. Victims in non-traditional families weren’t able to access family court for orders of protection.
Sandi: What’s a non-traditional family?
Dorchen: People who are living together but didn’t have a child in common. LGBT families.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: Especially before marriage equality. We were able to open the doors of family court to those families with new reforms in 2008. Most recently, we have passed very strong laws against human trafficking in New York State.
Sandi: I want to talk about that too. Let’s sort of Segway over to the fact that you started this coalition against trafficking in women and you’re currently on the board.
Sandi: What’s the genesis of that? How did you two come together?
Dorchen: I was working on issues of sexual violence. I met a young woman. She was a working class young woman, who was working in the garment district. Her husband at the time was a subway conductor. She was trying to have a baby. She wasn’t able to succeed in getting pregnant. Then, I began to learn why. When she was fourteen years old she ran away from home because she was being sexually abused by her step-father. She fell under the control of a brutal gang of pimps who gang raped her, who seasoned her into prostitution.
Sandi: Here in New York?
Dorchen: Here in New York. Then, trafficked her all over the country. She was a child. She was a teenager. She became a heroin addict. Actually, her heroin addiction probably saved her life ironically. Because she became emaciated, she was not longer
Dorchen: a marketable commodity.
Dorchen: She ended up in a drug rehabilitation program on the West Coast, and then she made her way back to her family in New York and began to work on rebuilding her life. She was breathtakingly brilliant. She was my teacher about trafficking. I learned about trafficking from her experiences. I learned about its prevalence. I learned about how pimps operate. I learned about the role of the buyers.
Sandi: Let me interrupt and ask. What’s the difference between trafficking, for example, and prostitution?
Dorchen: There’s a
Sandi: Wasn’t she basically pimped out and she was a prostitute?
Dorchen: She was prostituted, and she was trafficked. That’s a really, really good question. There are many different definitions of trafficking but there is an enormous overlap between trafficking and prostitution. We know that most people enter prostitution as she did, as teenagers.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: Prostituted kids are trafficking victims under our federal trafficking victim’s protection act. If you’re a minor, and you’re prostituted, somebody is prostituting you, you are being trafficked. A pimp is a trafficker. So under our federal law, it’s a little bit complicated, because there are a bunch of different definitions. In my view, I actually would turn to the international definition that the United Nations embraces. If there has been an abuse of power or a position of vulnerability, to induce someone into prostitution, it’s trafficking.
The reality is, most prostitution is trafficking. Are there instances where someone is a volunteer and makes an affirmative choice to enter prostitution, of course.
Sandi: But you certainly aren’t volunteering to be trafficked.
Dorchen: But those are rare.
Dorchen: Rare. Most people who enter prostitution enter because there is someone else exploiting them.
Dorchen: Sometimes promising them a job that doesn’t really exist, or getting control over a vulnerable child or young person, who very likely has a preexisting history of trauma. The overlap between trafficking and prostitution is quite profound. Not everyone wants to recognize that. It is the reality.
She was a trafficking victim. Under federal law, she was beaten and brutalized by the pimps. She had scars on her legs from beatings with coat hangers. She had teeth that pimps had knocked out during beatings. There was, our federal criminal law defines trafficking in terms of force, fraud, or coercion. That was writ large in her case. She was an extraordinary teacher and she became a leader. She went on to found a group of survivors of trafficking and prostitution called Whisper. That stands for Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt. For me, it was, again, another epiphany I guess you would say. I learned so much from her and I went on with her to organize a conference.
Here, in New York City, in 1998, we reached out to leaders and activists all over the world. There was amazing work in this area at that time happening. In Asia, there was a Japanese feminist leader, Yo Yuri Matsui, who had organized Asian women in multiple countries to address the phenomenon of Japanese male sex tourists going to the poorest countries in Asia to buy the bodies of women and girls there.
Sandi: And bring them back to Japan?
Dorchen: They would go on sex tour junkets to those countries.
Sandi: Oh, silly me. Uh Huh.
Dorchen: Their corporations would cover the cost of their trips, and this was a perk for being a successful business man in Japan. Yo Yuri is such an amazing leader who’s no longer living, organized feminists in the Philippines and in Thailand to greet these businessmen when they arrived with picket signs
Dorchen: and chants
Sandi: Uh Huh
Dorchen: Really exposed them and stopped that. She joined us at our conference. An amazing leader for the Philippines named Arora Hivata Didoes, who had been an activist against Marcos and then part of a little group. Sort of a little, I would say radical feminist think tank, in the Philippines called Callahan, began to think about what was happening in the Philippines to women and essentially, the experience of women in Philippines was a colonial experience with Spain, the United States and Japan. A huge prostitution, military prostitution sex tourism industry that they were thinking about and becoming activists against. They joined us at that conference. So many others. An amazing nun from Peru, working with rural sex trafficking survivors. So, it was, again, another for me experience of learning.
Sandi: Mm Hmm Translated into doing.
Dorchen: The beginning of the coalition again trafficking in women, that is very, very powerful today on the international front with amazing leadership. Our executive director is Tina Beana Mae, a formidable leader. Taking on, right now, it’s focused on Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, denying the sexual enslavement of women throughout Southeast Asia during WWII. The so called Comfort Women. I don’t know if you’re following the Japanese government asked textbooks to take reference to the Comfort Women’s ordeal of sexual slavery
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: To take it out of the text books. The Coalition against Trafficking in Women is spearheading a campaign to really force Japanese leadership to acknowledge this atrocity and to apologize for it. Really, really following the lead of Yuri Matsui, who is no longer with us. Great, great work. Those are the origins of my work on trafficking.
Sandi: But today, in 2015, what are you working on?
Dorchen: I would say that we have really made a lot of progress on the domestic violence front. We’re seeing statistics
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: reflect that progress. For example, we are seeing a significant decrease in domestic violence homicide. I attribute it
Sandi: Country wide?
Dorchen: Country wide. I attribute it very much to the great work of activists. The fact that there are shelters for victims to go to. That law enforcement is more responsive to domestic violence than ever before. Many, many changes, that just public awareness, bystander intervention campaigns. Men, are speaking out. On the issue of trafficking and prostitution. I think we are sort of where we were thirty years ago with domestic violence. We have a lot of work to do. We have a situation now, where a person in prostitution who is likely to be a trafficking victim, is far more likely to be arrested by the police than, the trafficker. [Laughing]
Sandi: That doesn’t surprise me.
Dorchen: Or the pimp.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: Or the patronizer
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: Who is providing the economic incentive to this lucrative industry. We have a lot of work to do on the criminal justice front. We’ve achieved major, major legislative gains. I helped spearhead an organization in New York State called the New York State Ani-trafficking Coalition in 2004 that is responsible for the fact that we have strong felony laws against trafficking in New York State. More recently, we passed an omnibus bill that will, the New York State Legislature unanimously passed an omnibus bill called the Trafficking Victim’s Protection and Justice Act that really focuses on some areas where we needed to have legislative fixes.
Sandi: What just dawned on me is that you’ll never not have a job.
Dorchen: I’m seeing so many changes. I do think that we are making progress and there is so much more public awareness. One very exciting development is, we are seeing there are unlikely allies who are joining this effort. A lot of faith based folks joining this effort. Men, are increasingly becoming allies to women working on these issues. I think men are recognizing that their harmed by systems of violence.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Dorchen: Institutions of violence as well. I’m very hopeful. I think we, as activists and leaders, are doing it differently.
Sandi: Clearly, you’ve got a lot to say, because you have done so much, and there’s more to do. The more needs more Dorchen Leidholdts. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Dorchen: Thank you, Sandi. It’s such a pleasure to be here and thank you for your great work.
Sandi: Join us for another edition of Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein.