Like many noble causes, we often designate an annual day or month of observation for national attention and awareness, and October was National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Symbolized by the purple ribbon, last month’s opportunity to reflect on the impact of domestic violence in our community and state is nothing to take lightly as more than 20,000 phone calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines across the nation on a daily basis (2013 census data presented by National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV).
For many of us, the tireless efforts of individuals working in this field- providing logistical and emotional support, legal protections, physical safety, recovery services, and fostering individual, systemic, and social change, is monumental. In line with the larger national agenda, and for our inaugural interview for the “Engaging Notable Women” blog series, I had the privilege to speak with Emily Sack on her professional experience working in and teaching law, specializing in areas around domestic violence.
Currently, Emily Sack is a Professor of Law at Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, Rhode Island. She teaches Domestic Violence Law, Criminal Law, Feminist Legal Theory, and Juvenile Justice. She is also the co-author of the leading casebook, Domestic Violence and The Law: Theory and Practice. Professor Sack serves on the Board of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, where she chairs the Governance Committee.
She previously practiced in the areas of criminal defense and family law in New York City, and before joining the Law School faculty at Roger Williams University, Professor Sack served as the Deputy Director of the Center for Court Innovation (a New York-based foundation that plans and operates court demonstration projects). Additionally, Professor Sack has conducted extensive trainings on topics around domestic violence and sexual assault, and has worked with several jurisdictions (in Alaska, Maine and Puerto Rico) assessing and improving their response to domestic violence. Sack is a graduate of Swarthmore College and New York University School of Law.
Have gender politics played a role in your work? If so, have there been notable changes, for better or worse that you want to comment on?
My focus is really on domestic violence work. Before I became a law professor, I worked as a criminal defense lawyer and in that role, I represented a battered woman who had killed her husband. We were arguing self-defense. This was in the early 90’s and in that time, domestic violence was treated very differently than it is now. That’s the best example of how I’ve seen a shift in terms of the portrayal and perception of battered women.
At the time my client was in the situation, the police response was entirely different. She had called the police and they hadn’t done very much. She had no one to talk to. Her family was not really interested in knowing about what was going on and she was really completely isolated... She felt completely alone and her husband was extremely violent. Since then there have been substantial changes in the police response to domestic violence.
There’s also been a change in prosecutors’ offices and now there are specialized domestic violence bureaus. For example, the prosecutor we had was not trained in domestic violence and working with battered women who were defendants. Now there are specialized prosecutors that are much more savvy about understanding the dynamics of domestic violence. And the courts and juries are much better educated.
Unfortunately, I lost my case. My client was in prison for over 20 years and she was recently released on parole. Things are so incredibly different now that if the kind of abuse she was suffering had happened now, I would love to think that things would have been different because she would have had other options. I think that's probably the most significant change for me in gender politics or certainly the treatment of battered women.
On a different topic, what’s been a bit depressing to me is that Anita Hill testified in the Clarence Thomas hearings the year after I graduated from law school. I was really horrified at the time. And in the feminist legal theory class I teach, we look at film of the Anita Hill hearing. Until recently, I would point out that this is in the early 1990’s and I would tell my students that some of the things the senators said to her would never happen today. But then, what we just went through with the Brett Kavanaugh hearings... I have to say, that was very disillusioning to me because I really had thought things had changed.
Obviously some things did change; there were some women on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and there was a lot of support publically for Dr. Blasey Ford, but some things really had not changed. I happened to be teaching criminal law at the time of these hearings and I had just finished talking about the law of rape since the 1970s and reforms to decrease the hurdles for convictions in rape cases. One of them [the reforms] was that the law no longer requires corroboration of victim testimony. In other words, the defendant can be convicted on the victim's testimony alone. So when the class was discussing this and then Dr. Blasey Ford testified, one of my students raised her hand and said: “I thought you told us that there didn’t need to be corroboration.” And it was very poignant to me because legally that’s true, but culturally, we still have a long way to go. I felt encouraged by the public reaction and my students’ reactions but I also felt discouraged by the fact that things didn’t change as much as I thought they would have in the 25 years since Anita Hill.
Do you have any lady shout-outs you’d like to make of fellow change-making-women in or outside of your field?
When I went to law school in the early 1990s, there were a minimal number of female law professors, maybe two or three. Now the numbers are much greater. Still not equal but much greater. So who I remember as having as my role model was not from my own law school, but a professor who was one of the first to focus on domestic violence, Liz Schneider. She’s a professor at Brooklyn Law School and she both practiced in the field of domestic violence but then wrote some of the first scholarly and professorial articles about domestic violence law. And she was one of the first people to really identify how to introduce testimony related to battering into a trial and how to influence a jury and help them to understand the context of battering. She was very influential both pragmatically and academically in creating the field of domestic violence law. I found that very important to me because that was a field I was really interested in and she was so helpful to me when there were very few women in legal academia. I have been fortunate because now we are co-authors on a domestic violence law textbook and I have had the chance to work with someone who has been a real mentor to me.
The second person I was thinking about was the client I have mentioned, her name is Vicky Rossakis. She’s about my age. She was in her 30’s when all of this happened and she had two small children and was unfortunately convicted of murder. Her sentence was 15 years to life, which meant she was not automatically released on parole. She came up for parole several times before being released.
She had a very long journey in prison and she was able to do some tremendous things during that time. She obtained two associates degrees for college, she helped other prisoners who were battered women, and she helped in the child care center of the prison. To me, she was really heroic because during this entire period she never gave up hope and was really insightful in addressing her own issues and coming to terms with what happened. She was able to both help other people and to have incredible perseverance. And so she’s another type of role model for me.
Is there any burning information you want to share to the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island audience regarding domestic violence? Any must-know or take-home messages?
Domestic violence is not limited to any particular group or class. Domestic violence really surrounds us. As someone who works in this field, I am approached all the time by people from all walks of life, at my job, with clubs I’m involved in, and community groups. I want the readers to realize that domestic violence is not just something that happens to someone else. It’s something that happens to you, your friend, your relatives, your sister etc. It’s very important to be there and to be supportive to victims and to connect them to resources and to really try to understand the challenges they’re facing and why they may not, be able to leave the relationship immediately but that they still need support and help.
What resources should people utilize if they need more information or help?
There's a domestic violence advocacy organization in each part of the state (of RI). I would recommend if you need resources and you’re not sure which organization is in your area of the state, that you go to the website of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (www.ricadv.org). There’s a list of organizations around the state and they all provide counseling and many have a shelter, court advocacy, and other sorts of services for people who need help.
Do you have any favorite quotes related to justice for women?
This quote is from Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my heroes: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” And to me, that’s very meaningful because I think women tend to be self-deprecating and always say "I am not qualified to do XYZ," and usually they are a lot more qualified than a lot of people out there. And I try to tell that to myself a lot.
What does womanhood, sorority, and feminism mean to you?
I’ve been a feminist my entire life. I was a young teen in the seventies when the first modern feminist movement was starting and that had a major impact on me. That, and the fact that my mother was an early feminist in my life and always supported me in having a career. And so it’s always been part of who I am. And even though I feel discouraged, with things like the Kavanaugh hearings and how much we still need to do, I still feel in my bones 100% committed to doing this because it’s who I am.
About Krystal Sarcone: Krystal is a volunteer with the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. She holds two master's degrees in Public Health and Public Affairs both from Brown University. She has a myriad of diverse aptitudes and experience in international and domestic health care, policy and nonprofit management but has a particular passion for accessibility and advocating for equity, justice, inclusion, and celebration of marginalized persons.