How A Feminist Activist Found Herself Working With Biden In The White House

Lynn Rosenthal, first-ever adviser on violence against women, reflects on her long career fighting for women’s rights.
Annie Flanagan for HuffPost

Photos by Annie Flanagan

When Lynn Rosenthal agreed to speak at a rally for women who killed their abusive husbands in the early 1990s, she had no idea she was embarking on a path that would lead to the White House.

At the time, she was a reproductive rights activist in Florida and didn’t know much about domestic violence. A little under two decades later, then-Vice President Joe Biden appointed her as the first-ever White House adviser on violence against women, where she directed the federal response to an entrenched, complicated issue that takes the lives of four women every day.

HuffPost spoke to Rosenthal about her early work in reproductive rights, her career as a women’s rights activist, and what it was like to be a lesbian in the White House before President Barack Obama or Biden publicly supported gay marriage.

What was it like when you started at the White House in 2009?

It was overwhelming and terrifying and exciting. And there was also the whole attack on the “Obama czars” around that time. Every night, Glenn Beck was going after the czars on his show. There was a chart of the faces of the 20 czars, and my face was on there. Every night at 5 p.m., I would watch Glenn Beck in my office to see which czar he was attacking.

That first year, I feel like a misfit in the White House, like maybe I don’t belong here. It was not, in 2009, all that comfortable to be a gay staffer in the White House. It was an uneasy feeling. For me and others, walking the halls, you felt like maybe this big dream isn’t going to be about us.

I remember bringing my partner to a party at the vice president’s residence and feeling kind of awkward. We were going through the photo line, and I was just awkward about it, honestly. I said, Mr. Vice President, this is my partner, Jennifer. And he grabbed me in one of those famous bear hugs and said to Jennifer, “Your partner is my partner every day, don’t you forget it. Don’t you forget how important what she is doing is.”

Jennifer remarked on the fact that the gay men’s choir was singing at the residence, and I said, “I bet that wasn’t the case with the previous occupants,” and Biden said, “Well, it’s the norm here.” It was obvious that he wanted us to be comfortable. I felt supported and like I belonged there.

But then the following year, when we got married in 2010, I didn’t invite a lot of people from the White House. Plus, there was Glenn Beck talking about the czars. ... It seemed like a volatile environment ― the last thing I needed was to be the poster child for marriage equality as a White House staffer.

Tell me about when Biden publicly announced his support for marriage equality.

I picked up my BlackBerry on a Sunday morning, and it said: “Vice President Joe Biden supports gay marriage.” It changed my life. It made me feel like this was real. It made me feel validated and supported by the highest levels of government. My relationship was legitimate and I belonged there.

What was it like to work with Biden?

Working with Vice President Biden was like being a student of the best professor of history and government. I learned a great deal from him. We worked closely together on Title IX and campus sexual assault, and his leadership created significant changes in the landscape.

What do you make of the recent controversy over Biden’s physical behavior around women, hugging and touching them without consent?

I am glad to hear of his commitment to recognizing women’s personal space and understanding the differences in how women and men experience the world. And he has broadened his understanding of gender as well, as evidenced by the Biden Foundation’s campaign to urge parents to love and accept their transgender children.

What are you proudest about from your time at the White House?

I will never forget being in the east room when President Obama gave the first speech a president has ever given on sexual violence. That was amazing.

Our work on campus sexual assault was very important. We started it before the wave of student activism, and it created a national conversation. We were very interested in what we could do for women aged 16 to 24 who were experiencing high rates of violence.

But I am proudest about the things you probably never heard about. Our work on AIDS and women. Our work on ending domestic violence homicides. [Editor’s note: Read this related feature on how to identify women at risk of murder.] We engaged with Head Start centers on what it looks like for children witnessing violence. We promoted best practices around enforcement of protective orders. We did work on the rape kit backlog.

This was really the story of the Obama White House. People were working at every level, every day to try to make a difference. We had these initiatives that might have seemed small, but were really outsized in their impact.

Let’s go back a little. How did you get interested in working on domestic violence?

When I got out of college, I spent 10 years working in women’s health and reproductive rights, and became the head of a clinic in Tallahassee that provided abortion services. It was the front line, providing abortions under extreme conditions in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I think about that time when I look at the young women involved today in campus sexual assault and #MeToo issues. They are working 24 hours a day, and that’s what that organizing period was like for us. Whether we were at the clinic providing services or counter-picketing or lobbying in the legislature, we were totally immersed in trying to secure abortion rights.

In the early 1990s, I was invited to speak at a rally on behalf of women who were in prison who had killed abusive spouses. The women in prison were organizing to try to get a clemency process happening. I didn’t know anything about the issue, and so I started studying the women’s cases. I was just stunned that they were in prison. They had suffered many years of abuse; their stories were overwhelming. They could have been anyone’s sister, aunt, mother. As a result of that work, I was recruited to go work at a battered women’s shelter in Tallahassee in 1993.

What was it like to run a domestic violence shelter at that time, before the Violence Against Women Act was passed?

It was hard. There wasn’t a lot of funding. We had a little broken down three-bedroom, two-bath house where we were trying to serve 22 women and kids. What I most remember was when I was being trained on the power and control wheel, and the dynamics of domestic violence. I realized that these were the women I’d been seeing in my [women’s health] clinic. I began to understand why they had repeated pregnancies or repeated STDs or couldn’t take their medication. I instantly got it ― this was abuse I’d been missing all those years. [Editor’s note: Read more about reproductive coercion here.]

At the shelter, I was surprised by the women’s spirits. No matter how bad things were for them, they had such strong survival skills. I was intimidated by my job. I was young to be an executive director, and I had to write grants and run the organization and figure out how to make the money work. I would say to myself, if women can get up every day and survive the lives they are having while they are experiencing abuse, surely I can do my part.

Annie Flanagan for HuffPost

How did you get involved in politics?

After three years at the shelter, I was hired at the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and went on to become their executive director. That’s when I started to do political work, testifying in the state legislature. I got involved in national efforts after Donna Edwards recruited me to sit on the board of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. When she was leaving, I became the director of NNEDV.

It was a very important time to be there. We worked on the Lautenberg amendment. Universal background checks. We were always working to secure funding. I testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the Violence Against Women Act and what we thought women needed. After six years, I left the organization and went back to Florida because my mom was ill. After that, I moved to New Mexico to run the state domestic violence coalition there.

And then the White House called.

Who called you?

Terrell McSweeny, the vice president’s chief policy adviser at the time. She said Biden would like me to come to D.C. and interview for this position. It was April 2009. I was surprised by the call. They could have hired an important legal scholar or a former prosecutor but they decided they wanted an advocate.

I said, “I’m going to go to this interview but surely they are not going to pick me.” My partner and I were happy in New Mexico. But a few weeks after the interview, I got a call asking me to come to D.C. You don’t say no if you are called to serve. But it was very scary. I felt like, who am I to be working in the White House?

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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