Trump’s Nominee For Key Post On Gender Violence Alarms Advocates

Shannon Lee Goessling is Trump's pick to lead the Office on Violence Against Women. But critics have some serious concerns.
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Women’s rights groups are sounding the alarm about President Donald Trump’s nominee to head a key federal agency charged with reducing violence against women.

Shannon Lee Goessling, a Republican, is under consideration to lead the Office on Violence Against Women, which administers grants to support victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. Advocates say Goessling has limited experience working in the domestic violence field, and has a history of opposing rights for LGBTQ people and immigrants.

A date for Goessling’s nomination hearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee has not been set.

In a statement last year, the White House pointed to Goessling’s record as a district attorney in Georgia, where she prosecuted crimes against women and children in the 1990s. From 2004 to 2015, she was the executive director and chief legal counsel of Southeastern Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law firm and policy center with a record of advocating for gun rights and religious freedom.

During Goessling’s time at Southeastern Legal Foundation, the group filed an amicus brief arguing in favor of same-sex marriage bans, and sued the governor of Alabama for offering driver’s license exams in languages other than English.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to women’s equality, told HuffPost that Goessling is an unsuitable choice and wholly unqualified for the position.

“This is a top job, for God’s sake,” Smeal said. “You should have a person here who has experience in this field.”

Trump’s announcement about Goessling’s nomination noted that she previously worked as the director of the Crimes Against Women and Children Prosecution Unit in Atlanta after almost a decade as a state prosecutor. However, her LinkedIn page indicates she only held that position for nine months.

“Given her views, which are most obvious from her tenure at Southeastern Legal Foundation, we are very worried about her ability to enforce the Violence Against Women Act, and to understand all the complexities of the communities that it serves,” Smeal said.

Smeal noted that domestic violence affects people of all classes, ethnic groups and backgrounds.

“In each of these different communities, there [are] different complexities. The person who runs the office must not only understand that, but also be sympathetic to it,” she said. “We’re worried that a vote for her would exclude LGBTQ and immigrant survivors from protections and resources.”

Goessling did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article.

If confirmed, as the head of the Office on Violence Against Women, Goessling would have a large influence over which domestic violence and sexual assault programs get funding, Smeal said, and which issues take priority.

Smeal said she was especially concerned with Goessling’s record on guns. In 2008, Goessling authored an amicus brief arguing that firearms help protect women from violent attacks, and quoted a researcher who wrote that women who are confronted with a sexual assault are “significantly less likely to experience a completed rape if they resist with a weapon.”

However, Susan Sorenson, a gun violence researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that Goessling’s brief relied in part on research that is more than 30 years old.

“We have learned a lot about sexual assault and other violence against women in the intervening decades,” she said. “The person who is most likely to sexually assault a woman is a man she knows — and resistance takes a different form when it’s someone you know.”

Sorenson said she is unaware of any current research that supports the idea that a woman who resists with a weapon is less likely to be sexually assaulted.

“Some might find it to be an appealing idea, but we don’t have any research that supports it,” she said. “What we do know is that women who purchase a handgun are more likely, in the days, weeks, months and years afterwards, to be the victim of homicide and suicide.”

Guns are, indeed, known to make domestic violence incidents more deadly. One study found that victims are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser has access to a gun.

Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women, said that when she reviewed Goessling’s background, she was overcome with a sense of fear.

I don’t feel that she has the empathy or the emotional experience to do a good job in this role,” she said. “Once again, we are looking at another Trump nominee that will do the exact opposite than what is required of the position.”

In addition to distributing grants, the Office on Violence Against Women is meant to give victims a voice on the national stage, said Richard Gelles, professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

“That is not an exceptionally high priority of this administration,” he said.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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