Sheila Thomas of Dayton feels so passionately about the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that she is delivering a petition signed by 215,000 Americans Thursday morning to the local offices of House Speaker John Boehner and U.S. Rep. Mike Turner.
Thomas, who was raped at gunpoint in 1983, believes the bill is vitally important for women’s safety. “I don’t know why they’re dragging their feet on such a life-altering thing as violent crime,” Thomas said.
The reauthorization was approved Feb. 12 with a 78-to-22 vote in the Senate, but it’s expected to face tougher opposition in the Republican-led House. Last year, the House voted down the act’s renewal over objections to new protections for gay, immigrant and Native American victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
In her online petition, which has by far the most signatures of any petition on the signon.org website, Thomas, 52, said it was “totally unacceptable” that Congress allowed the act to expire last year. “The Violence Against Women Act initially strengthened federal penalties for repeat sex offenders, mandated that women don’t have to pay for their own rape exams, and helped communities develop law enforcement units dedicated to violence against women,” the petition stated.
It was a bitterly cold winter evening in 1983 when Thomas, a college student with a 5-year-old daughter, had taken the bus home after an evening chemistry class at Sinclair Community College. As she was walking toward her apartment on Walton Avenue, a man approached her and asked for the time. “I looked down at my watch and looked up to see the barrel of a gun,” Thomas said. “He took me to a house up on the hill and raped me.”
No one was ever charged in the crime.
Thomas began her activism on a small scale early on, successfully lobbying the Dayton City Commission for better lighting and increased police patrol in her West Dayton neighborhood. A composite sketch of the suspect, who was believed to have raped other women, was distributed by police at the time. “The Dayton police were phenomenal,” Thomas said.
That earlier activism empowered her to continue her advocacy. “I decided I would not let this one event define the rest of my life,” Thomas said.
Local victims could see a reduction in services if the Violence Against Women Act isn’t renewed. The Artemis Center for Alternatives to Domestic Violence has applied for $60,000 in VAWA funding next year to hire court advocates for battered women. Executive director Patti Schwarztrauber said she is worried about the potential impact at a time when the agency’s budget has hit a 10-year low and the staff has been shrinking.
At a press conference about the Violence Against Women Act last Thursday on Capitol Hill, Boehner said, “We are fully committed to doing everything we can to protect women in our society. And I expect that the House will act in a timely fashion in some way. No decision has been made about how we whether we take up the Senate bill or move a version of our own version of the bill.”
Turner’s spokesman, Thomas Crosson, said, the Dayton Republican has supported “the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in the past and he looks forward to working with his colleagues on the issue in the 113th Congress.”
Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Thomas’ petition clearly struck a chord with many people across the country. One signer, Vivian Kent of Shippensburg, Pa., wrote that she was raped as a 12-year-old child by a policeman in 1943. “It was not reported and I didn’t tell anybody because I was ashamed and he told me everyone would believe it was my fault,” she wrote. “It took years of psychiatric help for me to feel ‘normal’ again.”