Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Roy Moore, females, and small-town access to justice

Media accounts sometimes implicate rural access-to-justice issues, though the connection is not always obvious at first blush.  Perhaps no story better illustrates this point than the recent allegations against the candidate for U.S. Senate from Alabama, Roy Moore.  Moore, a small-town lawyer turned-twice-removed Alabama Supreme Court justice, is now facing multiple allegations of inappropriate conduct with underage women in the 1970s.  Many have asked why the women (girls, some of them, at the time) did not come forward sooner.  I assert that the answer to this question lies in the complex barriers that have long deterred those in rural communities from pursuing legal redress.

By now, we are all familiar with the allegations against Alabama Senate Republican nominee Roy Moore. The salacious accounts, initially published by the Washington Post, paint Moore as an opportunistic predator who used his power and influence in the small city of Gadsden, Alabama as a means to attract and "romance" teenage girls. A report from a former co-worker notes that Moore's affairs with teenage girls were "common knowledge." Moore himself issued a sloppily worded defense on Sean Hannity's program, where he stated that he could not deny that he had dated teenage girls in the past.

Many, including Moore himself, have asked why these women would wait four decades to come forward with their stories. Steve Bannon has even accused Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos of engaging in a  conspiracy to destroy Moore's candidacy. The people who ask these questions seem  ignorant of the social dynamics of tight-knit rural communities and the secrecy that can often times be fostered by these communities.

As the WaPo story notes, Moore was seen as a local hero. Like many rural communities, Gadsden (population 37,000), has been in a state of decline brought upon it by a loss of manufacturing jobs.  With opportunities few and far between, the fact that Moore had managed to gain admission to West Point and then to law school was seen as an inspiration to the people of the town. As is common in many rural communities, being a lawyer also conferred a certain amount of social capital upon Moore. The level of admiration for Moore was such that when Debbie Wesson Gibson asked for her mother's permission to date Moore, her mother told that she would be the "luckiest girl in the world" if Moore, then 34, were interested in her.

To make allegations against Roy Moore in 1970s Alabama would have been a tremendous uphill climb for anyone, much less a teenager. Even his co-workers viewed Moore's tendency to date teenagers as essentially a personality quirk, not anything that warranted investigation and possible prosecution. As Moore himself noted in his interview with Sean Hannity, he never dated a girl without her mother's permission. The WaPo story even notes an instance where Moore stopped dating a girl when her mother did not give permission for the relationship to continue. From the evidence presented, it seems that Moore was careful to target girls whose parents were okay with the age difference and at least, in one case, encouraged the relationship to continue.

In small towns, relationships and social standing are both very important forms of currency. In sociologist Cynthia Duncan's book Worlds Apart, Duncan tells a story about a young man in a small town in Appalachia that is able to secure a bank loan with no questions asked because of a familial relationship with a person with whom the banker had done business.  The young man's relationships and social standing made him inherently trustworthy and conferred upon him a certain amount of credibility. Roy Moore was certainly a beneficiary of being seen as trustworthy because of his social standing as well.

The standing of women in Alabama in this time period also presented a barrier. The most famous illustration of this from Alabama came from 1961 when Alabama First Lady Lurleen Wallace was diagnosed with uterine cancer. As was standard practice at the time, the doctor told only her husband, Governor George Wallace, who then insisted that the diagnosis be kept from his wife. First Lady Wallace did not find out that she had cancer until 1965. Wallace would later die from this cancer during her own term as governor, which she was serving as a surrogate for her term-limited husband.

If the First Lady of Alabama was seen as so lowly that a cancer diagnosis was hidden from her, what hope would a young girl in a small town have of successfully seeking justice against a respected local attorney?  indeed, against the local district attorney/prosecuting attorney?

Another barrier is the lack of general knowledge of how to avail oneself to the protections of the legal system. In 1969, the Duke University Law Review conducted a study on the legal issues of the rural poor. Their focus was an unnamed county in eastern North Carolina. What they found was that a very small percentage of people sought legal action when wronged by either the government or another private party. The study also found that many of them were unaware that they could even do so.

The idea that Roy Moore would have been prosecuted for his actions in 1970s Alabama is laughable at best.  Moore was insulated by a culture that knew of his actions but did not take action to stop them.  He was also enabled by parents who felt that dating Moore was advantageous for their daughters, regardless of the implications of the age difference. In a small city going through economic turmoil, Moore was seen as a shining light, proof that you could escape your circumstances and make something of yourself. The notion that the credibility of the accusers is impeached by their "failure" to come forward 40 years ago is intellectually dishonest.

While Moore's actions are egregious and--we would hope--atypical of any community, they do point to the vulnerability of people who are facing injustices and have nowhere to turn. As the Duke study notes, the issue of justice in rural communities has long been hampered by a lack of resources and knowledge of the legal system. While many communities have access to civil legal aid programs that can help people, particularly victims of domestic violence, seek protective orders and other remedies against abusers, many of those programs are increasingly facing cuts on the state and federal level. In fact, President Donald Trump's proposed budget from earlier this year called for the elimination of the LSC, which provides grants to legal aid programs.

Before asking why these women did not come forward 40 years ago, perhaps we should examine the barriers that made doing so effectively impossible.

Another post about Roy Moore and rurality is here.

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.  By Christopher Chavis 


Suzanne Connell said...

Professor Pruitt,

While reading your post I found myself drawing link after link between the inability of many women to make allegations against Roy Moore in the 1970s rural landscape, and the treatment of victims of child sexual abuse at the behest of the Catholic Church, specifically in Ireland. While a similar epidemic also occurred in the American branch of the Catholic Church, the scandal has really engulfed Ireland in recent years, presumably due to the historical dependency the Irish State has had on the Church in order to establish its precarious national identity. My early teenage years were coloured with news report after news report detailing the systematic sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual abuse that occurred in places where people were 'supposed to' feel safe; mainly schools and churches. Evidence of this abuse of children by the clergy was everywhere, and plain as day. However, I'll always remember people asking the same irritating questions every time another news report came out or another element to the scandal unfolded. If this abuse really happened, why didn't the victims come forward sooner? Why did they wait half of their adult lives before speaking up?

You spoke about the idea of Roy Moore being prosecuted for his actions in 1970s Alabama being laughable at best. The same analysis applies to Ireland for the majority of the 20th Century. The clergy exerted a chokehold over Irish society. Indoctrinated as we were, a child attempting to tell their parents of a priest inappropriately touching them, or worse raping them, in the vast majority of cases a) wouldn't have been believed, or b) even if it was believed, would be shushed for fear of the neighbours finding out.

So yes, I agree that within the Roy Moore context (which evidently isn't uncommon), we need to question why society made it impermissible for victims to comfortably come forward and be believed. Instead of pointing accusatory fingers at them, shouldn't we really be pointing the fingers at society and at ourselves?

Aoife Mee said...

Each time I see another news story detailing sexual assault or harassment allegations against a politician or high profile celebrity, I am appalled, but unfortunately less and less surprised. It seems to me that the veil of "celebrity" and all the power, wealth and social capital that accompanies it provides a perfect guise for perpetrators of sexual assault. This perhaps, is what has allowed people like Moore and Weinstein to get away with their abuses for so long.

However, I am heartened by the support Moore's victims have received from senators and many of Moore's colleagues in the Republican party who have condemned his actions and are urging him to step aside. It is unlikely that these women would have received such widespread support in the past.

In addition, many women, including celebrities are speaking out against Moore on social media through the #Meat14 campaign. As a way to express their solidarity with Moore's victims, particularly 14 year old Leigh Corfman, women are sharing photos of themselves at the age Leigh was she was molested by Moore, to highlight the fact that no one is capable of consenting to sexual contact at 14.

While I realise that there remains significant barriers, even today, that prevent victims of sexual assault from coming forward, I see the increasingly positive support victims of sexual assault are receiving from celebrities, politicians and social media as a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, there is still a great deal more that needs to be done to reduce these obstacles, particularly for rural women.

Glen Oh said...

Professor Pruitt,

I absolutely agree with the sentiment that people who devalue the credibility of accusers by their "failure" to come forward earlier are being intellectually dishonest. It seems these people who are rushing to Roy Moore's defense are not entering into the space with an open mind.

I want to preface my comment by saying that, prior to doing the readings on the intersection between rurality and sexual assault, I too was ignorant on the material conditions of small-town living that severely diminished sexual assault survivors' access to justice or legal recourse. However, this is not to say that the defenders' of Roy Moore get a free pass because of the nuance involved in sexual assault allegations situated within a rural space. If anything, I mean to say the opposite. If an individual wants to comment or allegations made in a rural setting, they should first take the initiative to educate themselves on the obstacles and barriers sexual assault survivors face in rural settings.

I recall in the article "Place Matters: Domestic Violence and Rural Difference," there was a discussion of several factors that diminished the agency of women in rural settings when it came to reporting domestic violence. I would like to imagine that the same analysis would carry over to sexual assault allegations in rural settings. There were a number of factors mentioned: (1) the duality of "space" in rural and urban settings (whereby large open spaces would be viewed as a positive in urban settings, the large open space in a rural setting might be viewed as isolating for rural women); (2) the population density of small rural towns; (3) and the emphasis of community of the individual. This post introduces yet another factor that I was not previously aware of: social currency. If Moore is seen as a local hero and an exemplary figure of excellence in Gadsden, situated in this context, then a teenage girl being reluctant to come forward about Roy Moore's inappropriate and predatory behavior becomes more sympathetic and understandable.