The Institute for Citizens & Scholars recently selected UC Santa Cruz politics doctoral candidate Natali Levin-Schwartz as one of 22 winners of this year’s Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship. The national award provides a year of funding for dissertation writing to scholars who work on ethical or religious issues.
Levin-Schwartz’s dissertation research is focused on how women resist and organize against sexual violence and the role that testimony plays in that process. Within the legal system, women who testify in cases of sexual assault are often subjected to victim-blaming stereotypes and are structurally limited in how they can express themselves, Levin-Schwartz explained. Many women ultimately choose to speak up outside of the legal system, as they seek justice and the political power to enact change.
“Women who were violated by sexual violence often experience a second assault by the criminal justice system when they give testimony,” Levin-Schwartz said. “But testimony can also be a political tool to challenge both sexual violence and the undermining of women in the legal system, and my focus is on civil society as a place where the more disruptive work is happening toward that end.”
Women’s testimony in the civil arena has taken many forms over the years, and Levin-Schwartz’s research explores a few prominent examples. In the 1970s, the anti-rape movement brought a wave of social and political activism in the United States that was fueled in part by women sharing their experiences of sexual assault in consciousness-raising groups, speakout rallies, conferences, marches, and other forums. These efforts brought changes to culture and laws, which Levin-Schwartz says demonstrates the political power of civic testimony.
“In many cases, change doesn’t come from within the law,” she said. “We need to put pressure on these systems in order to institute changes, and civic testimony is a way of doing that.”
More recently, the internet has offered new forums for testimony. Levin-Schwartz’s research explores multiple forms of digital testimony, including the #MeToo movement, through which online testimony spread globally on social media, drawing attention to the widespread nature of sexual assault and harrassment and publicly calling out powerful perpetrators.
“With testimony in the internet era, we see global connectivity, where movements that start in one place can spread around the world, with each country adopting its own iterations based on unique cultural background, legal battles, and broader societal and political context,” Levin-Schwartz said.
However, civic testimony also comes with challenges and barriers, especially around whose voices are heard. Levin-Schwartz says a common critique of the anti-rape movement of the 1970s and the #MeToo movement is that both centered white women, while marginalizing the queer community and women of color, who face increased risk of assault and harrassment and more systemic barriers in seeking justice. Tackling these issues will be crucial to the significant amount of work that still lies ahead in combatting sexual assault within the U.S. and globally.
“Conviction rates for sexual assault show that, despite the changes and progress we’ve seen, we still have a long way to go for women to stand as equal citizens before the law,” Levin-Schwartz said. “Civic testimony can work toward that, while also promoting solidarity among survivors, empowering women, and driving social change. ”