Skip to main content.

Advocates: Sen. Joni Ernst allegations show domestic violence doesn't discriminate

Fellowship Story Showcase

Advocates: Sen. Joni Ernst allegations show domestic violence doesn't discriminate

Picture of Jayne O'Donnell
Senate Judiciary Committee members including Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, attend the confirmation hearing of William Barr.
Senate Judiciary Committee members including Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, attend the confirmation hearing of William Barr.
Hannah Gaber, USA TODAY
USA TODAY
Tuesday, January 22, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst is a combat veteran of the Army and the first women elected to Congress from Iowa.

When she arrived in Washington in 2015, she earned more than her husband. 

She says she's also a victim of domestic violence.

Ernst said in court filings that she was assaulted by her husband of 26 years after she confronted him about his alleged affair with their daughter's babysitter.

The couple's divorce was finalized this month. A judge sealed most of the records, first reported Monday by the alternative newspaper Cityview, at the Ernsts' request.

Survivors of domestic assault and their advocates say Ernst's story is yet more evidence that domestic violence can happen to anyone.

One in three teenagers say they know someone their age who has been hit, punched, choked or otherwise physically hurt by a partner. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one in three young women will be abused before they reach 25.

Ernst, a Republican, said in court papers that she was the victim of verbal and mental abuse and a physical assault. After the physical assault, she said, a victim's advocate wanted to take her to a hospital, but she refused. 

"Gail has been very cruel," she wrote in the filings. "This has been an extremely painful journey." 

Ernst described a history of emotional abuse, the Des Moines Register reported.  Her husband belittled her, she said. When she achieved her goals, he became angry.

Gail Ernst has not responded publicly to the senator's allegations. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday. A person who answered the telephone at his lawyer's office Tuesday said they were "not releasing statements at this time."

Author and domestic violence survivor L.Y. Marlow says the biggest myth surrounding domestic violence is that it's a problem primarily among the poor and minorities.

"I think that the Senator Ernst story reinforces that domestic violence does not have any biases against social status, class, education or economic conditions," Marlow said. "And, more importantly, that the sheer shame and silence of it perpetuates why women stay."

Marlow cites the stories of former victims Charlotte Fedders and Leslie Morgan Steiner,both of whom wrote books about alleged abuse by wealthy and prominent ex-husbands.

Fedders was married to a handsome attorney who became the enforcement chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission in the Reagan Administration and Steiner's husband was an Ivy League graduate and Wall Street trader. 

Steiner, a Harvard graduate and former Washington Post editor, wrote she was choked, pushed down the stairs and had a gun held to her head. But she stayed far longer than she ever thought she would – four years. 

"No one in my life had ever made me feel so safe, loved, beautiful and validated as he did during the early months of our relationship," she wrote in the Washington Post in 2014

Marlow said domestic violence often starts with emotional and verbal abuse, which can be as scary as the physical abuse it "more likely than not" will escalate to. 

Steiner's story, she said, "broke the barriers" on whether verbal abuse is domestic violence.

Marlow founded the domestic violence advocacy group Saving Promise, she said, to prevent her granddaughter from becoming the fifth generation of women to experience domestic violence in her family.

Her book, Color Me Butterfly, tells the story of the abuse she says her grandmother and mother suffered, along with what she says was her own abusive first marriage.

Marlow says her daughter was abused by her daughter's partner while their baby lay next to them. 

Marlow has partnered with Harvard's school of public health to launch a "learning lab" that is researching the causes and potential policy solutions to address domestic violence.

Marlow grew up in the public housing projects of Philadelphia projects. But she says she now knows the reach of domestic violence. 

"More affluent women hide behind that perfect economic status, as they have much more to lose," she said.

Ernst deployed in 2003 to Iraq, where she commanded a transportation company. She was elected to the Senate in 2014, and retired from the Iowa National Guard as a lieutenant colonel the next year.

Ernst wrote in court papers that her husband had a "special friendship" with their daughter's babysitter.

She confronted him, she said, and he attacked her.

"We went through a very dark and troubling time in our marriage," Ernst wrote. "I very nearly filed for divorce after a night that we argued, and it became physical."

Ernst wrote that she went with her daughter to her mother's house. Her husband followed soon after, she wrote, crying and apologizing.

The next day, a courthouse victim's advocate examined Ernst's throat and head, she said, but she was too  "embarrassed and humiliated," and did not want people to know about what she described as an assault.

When Ernst won her Senate seat, it was the first time in her marriage she earned more money than her husband, she said. She said he was not supportive of her career, and became mean when people asked her about work.

Her husband agreed to attend counseling to fix their marriage, Ernst wrote.

But she said he had one condition: they would not discuss the assault at the sessions.

"I stupidly agreed," she wrote.

 [This story was originally published by USA TODAY.]