By any reckoning, the Violence  Against Women Act (VAWA) should be celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. But the reality is, the landmark law is just a little over 20 years old—a sign of both how far women have come and how far there is yet to go on their behalf. Sally Goldfarb, a professor of law at Rutgers Law School, is one of the architects  of the act that put a suite of laws on  the federal books seeking to eradicate sexual assault and domestic violence.

“If you face violence in your home, on a college campus, or in your workplace, it undermines your ability to enjoy all the other rights that the law should offer,” she says. “What could be more fundamental than the right to be physically safe? And yet we have not achieved that for all women.”

“One of the biggest problems we continue to face is the persistence of myths about rape and domestic violence—myths like the idea that women ask for it by the way they dress or where they go,” says Goldfarb. “These stereotypes have proven very hard to eliminate. They continue to influence police officers, prosecutors, judges, juries, and everyone else who has a role in the legal system. That is the biggest challenge we face: entrenched attitudes.”

And so the battle continues to achieve the basic civil right for women to be safe in every home and on every street, a fight that has occupied most of Goldfarb’s professional life and will stretch clear to its horizon, she says. As just one of the acknowledgments for waging the fight, Goldfarb received the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence 20/20 Vision Award during the summer, alongside others like vice president Joseph Biden and U.S. senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. She is participating this fall in a summit at the White House honoring the act’s landmark passage and its three reauthorizations by Congress since then. Since joining the Camden law faculty 20 years ago, she was named “Professor of the Year” three times and received the Camden Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence. Yet, Goldfarb is not one to rest on her laurels. Her advocacy comes through in every sentence she uses to describe the goals that the act has advanced—and in her frustration with the same battles being fought over and over against gender-based violence.

VAWA, as the act is called by both its champions and detractors, marked the first time the federal government approached gender-based violence with laws, funding vehicles, programs, and educational efforts aimed at the entire nation. Before VAWA’s passage, the relevant laws were patchwork and varied from state to state with such flimsy protections that they often worsened the plight of victims. Goldfarb remembers watching president Bill Clinton sign the act into law in 1994, one of the most thrilling moments in her career.

One of the biggest problems we continue to face is the persistence of myths about rape and domestic violence.

VAWA was not just one law, Goldfarb points out. It sought to improve services for sexual assault victims, overhaul the justice system’s treatment of women who came forward, and toughen punishments for gender-related crimes. It also created the first national 24-hour, toll-free hotline for victims of domestic violence and provided funding to train police officers in dealing with this most  intimate form of violence. It limited the admission of evidence concerning  a victim’s sexual history. And it strengthened protections for immigrant, poor, and minority women, often the most underserved and besieged demographic.

Goldfarb came to the work in the early 1990s, already with a solid record of experience. Her interest in the subject of domestic violence developed while she was a student at Yale Law School, taking a course on sex discrimination with a charismatic professor who awakened her interest in the field’s possibilities. She later worked for the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., and then at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund in Manhattan (now known as Legal Momentum).

“At some point,“ Goldfarb says, “I became increasingly aware that violence stood between women and the full realization of equality. Clearly, there is a close link between violence against women and discrimination against women. Violence is one of the main ways in which sex discrimination expresses itself.”

As a legal construct, VAWA’s most innovative feature was its insistence that protection from gender-based violence be seen as a basic civil right. That conception reflects Goldfarb’s view that American law is a brilliant work-in-progress, plastic enough to allow for unrelenting, creative improvement.

To Goldfarb, being a lawyer is less about learning the answers to questions and applying precedent to static interpretations. Instead, she approaches law as if it were a complex puzzle to solve, requiring ingenuity, the right allies, and a whole lot of energy—sometimes decades of it.

“It’s very satisfying to work in an area of law where individuals have been wronged and the law has denied them remedy,” she says. “With sufficient effort and the right strategies, you can change the process so that people get their day in court.

“The hope is that legal reform and social reform will reinforce each other as the law becomes more effective at communicating the message that domestic and sexual violence are unacceptable.”

So, where does Goldfarb go from here? Straight down the same road, she says, because there is still so much work to be done, particularly since VAWA has only been a law in the land for just two decades.  •