Social issues

Unsuccessful? Then Maybe You Deserved It.

Or: How the Media Relies on the “Successful” Qualifier to Contextualize Abuse


“Successful Kitchener Lawyer to Share Her Story of Domestic Violence” was a headline in the Waterloo Region Record this past Tuesday, suggesting, once again, that in order for survivors of abuse to be taken seriously, they must meet an arbitrary threshold for ‘success.’

The article tells the story of abuse survivor Heather Caron – a practicing family lawyer in Kitchener – escaping domestic abuse and creating a better life, with much credit given to local Kitchener women’s shelter, Anselma House.

Canadian feminist blog

As it was when the survivors of Jian Ghomeshi were described as ‘educated women’, characterizing Caron as a ‘successful lawyer’ carries an implied subtext of, “IT’S OKAY GUYS!! LOOK HOW NORMAL AND SUCCESSFUL THIS LADY LAWYER! It’s okay to believe her!” However this also tacitly suggests that as a survivor of abuse, her story is more credible than, say, an ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘uneducated’ counterpart.

As Flannery Dean pointed out regarding Ghomeshi, describing survivors as ‘educated’, ‘employed’ or even the arguably more interpretable ‘successful’ suggests a correlation between how a woman is perceived personally and her credibility.

As so wonderfully put to Dean by Irene Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer, “What kind of woman do you have to be to be believed?”

A “successful lawyer” seems to be the right kind.

Not convinced? Would the article have been any less impactful had it been titled any of the following:

  • Kitchener woman to share her story of domestic violence at services fundraiser
  • Kitchener abuse survivor credits local shelter support for changing her life
  • Decades later, Kitchener women’s shelter still helping survivors of abuse
  • Women’s crisis services essential to victims of abuse, says local survivor

Last month when alleged rapist Bill Cosby visited Kitchener (not that everyone in Kitchener was too pleased about that), the Record reported “Cosby receives standing ovation.” At the time of the concert, the same organization highlighted by this article (Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region) was holding a fundraiser for survivors of abuse. That night, a brave woman by the name of Brenda Halloran first told of her experience with abuse.

Oh, and she used to be the Mayor of Waterloo.

Having traditionally “successful” women share their stories of abuse can absolutely have a positive impact. Knowing that a respected professional is a survivor of abuse can be comforting and often inspirational. But it should not be a prerequisite in order to be heard and taken seriously.

This is a call-out to media – stop attempting to portray or defend some survivors of abuse differently than others. Whether educated or uneducated, employed or unemployed, traditionally and normatively successful or not – abuse can happen to anyone; the act itself does not discriminate, so stop using a filtering process that does.

Titles aside, let’s take away the most positive aspects of the article: Caron was lucky enough to escape her abuser and it is because of organizations like Women’s Crisis Services Waterloo and shelters such as Anselma House that women like Caron are given a second chance. Thank you for sharing your story, Heather.

It’s a story that highlights the importance of local women’s shelters, which are instrumental in providing critical support. It’s a story that is inspirational and necessary to help guide survivors of abuse. And, importantly, it’s a story with a happy ending, something that is all too rare.

Canadian feminist blog


Believe Women.
(Photo: Alexis Kelsall)

For every ‘employed’ survivor, there is a mother who returns to her abuser because she has no other means of financial support. For every ‘educated’ survivor, there is a woman who is unable to even report her abuse due to seemingly insurmountable roadblocks. And for every ‘successful’ survivor, there is a woman who cannot come forward because she is afraid that what comes next might be even worse.

Close by? Check out the Terrific Tables fundraising event (mentioned in the article) for Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region happening on March 1.


You Might Also Enjoy…

Why Bill Cosby Matters to Canadians (And how Kitchener turned a negative into a positive)

Become a Citizen of Dal: Rape Culture and Restorative Justice at Dalhousie University

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