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The War on Women: Elly Armour, Jane Hurshman, and Criminal Violence in Canadian Homes

by Brian Vallée

At a time when the tally of women killed by their male partners far outnumbers the victims of terrorist acts, Brian Vallée’s  book would seem a welcome perspective on a global crisis so commonplace that it rarely makes headlines.

Vallée is a documentary researcher and filmmaker whose bestselling Life with Billy covered the same theme 20 years ago. He decided to return to the subject when he realized that, despite an explosion of educational efforts, training programs, and white ribbon campaigns, the crisis of violence against women continues to escalate worldwide.

The War on Women is structured around two landmark Canadian cases of women who, having suffered years of violence at the hands of their male partners, killed their spouses in acts of self-defence. Vallée focuses on the numerous parallels between Jane Hurshman, whose tragic life was chronicled in Life with Billy, and Elly Armour, whose exploits as a country music promoter overshadow the significant but long-forgotten acquittal she won in the early 1950s after shooting her husband.

Vallée’s passion is unmistakable. Unfortunately, he gets so caught up in the personal lives of his subjects, providing the kind of anecdotal detail and dialogue re-creation more befitting a true-crime potboiler, that he sometimes misses the bigger picture that his title promises. While he does bring in references to studies and experts whose opinions illuminate the awful truths lived by Hurshman and Armour, he then falls into endless pages of extraneous family narrative that distract from the main message.

As well, some of Vallée’s choices may reinforce the stereotypes he is trying to break down. He glosses over the fact that the war against women is about more than the over-the-top brutality of a few bad men, and includes economic exploitation, media manipulation, psychological abuse, and the continued silence of men. His focus on two working-class women may feed the widely held belief that a trailer park is a more likely location for such abuse than a Rosedale mansion.

Vallée is also unable to extricate himself from the contradiction underlying much of his thesis: while he notes the widespread attempts to “gender neutralize” such violence, Vallée himself continues to use the gender-neutral term “domestic violence” to describe what many in the women’s movement have long called “male violence.”

The book’s final chapter includes recommendations from a variety of survivors, shelter workers, and activists, but readers may find little here that connects with the rest of the text.