We will harbor you


 

 

 

 

 
A few of the founding mothers
Women's Advocates first house
Residents and workers
Women's Advocates' houses
The Story
 

The battered women's movement is 40 years of
compassion, struggle, and change...

Our story begins in 1971. A small group of women, a loose collective, were searching for useful ways to extend their newly raised consciousness -- they wanted to do something for women, maybe something that would change the status quo. They brought in a speaker, a woman attorney from the county legal aid office. She told them of the many calls that came in from women who needed basic legal information, particularly on divorce.

The collective dove into their first project: a divorce rights booklet. Establishing a legal information crisis telephone line was next; and then came the idea of advocacy, a commitment to help, one by one, women who were stuck in the system. They incorporated, with tax-exempt status, as "Women's Advocates" in 1972, and were approved for two Vista positions. They divided this money among the collective members. The hotline moved to one of their apartments. They found they could refer a lot of the women to other services, but when the women and their children needed an immediate place to go, they discovered a big gap in the system. When they started to hear the immediate causes for these desperate inquiries for shelter -- lives of fear, violence and beatings -- they were shocked, and realized they were intercepting a widespread, ugly, well-kept secret.

"A young eighteen-year-old and her baby in rural Minnesota called and told of being slammed up against the wall and terrified as her husband started shooting bullet holes all around her head. "Do you know a place we could stay?" she asked. We drove north to rescue her, arriving just minutes before the husband returned home from work. They stayed at our apartment that night." - Bernice Sisson

This woman, and women like her who were abused by domestic partners, were soon given a new name -- "battered women";. Once named, the complexity of their problems was split open. The need was great: societal conditions were ready; the movement spread like wildfire across the United States, England, Australia, and other western countries. A feminist groundswell movement worked to provide battered women safe housing, respect, and hope for a future. They also began to talk about the root causes of battering, about oppressive patriarchal culture, a struggle with which many women could identify and wanted to change.

Our video reclaims the grassroots beginnings of the first shelter for battered women in the nation, Women's Advocates, in St. Paul, MN. The women who started that shelter, and the long line of women who followed them, learned to recognize the violence in our society. They systematically broke it down and exposed the culture's complicity in this violence. The power of women saying no to violence and supporting other women was enormous, and fills every frame of this video.

One of our goals is to document the stories of the founders here in Minnesota; several of them are in their seventies and eighties now. A number of these founders have stayed working in the movement continuously. These women who managed to change the systems over time tell us how exhaustive and exhilarating the work was: to raise the money, grant by grant; to write the bills, step by legislative step; to demand respect from law enforcement and the courts; and on the inside - to confront their own racism, classism, and gender preference prejudices; and to work compassionately and effectively with the women who were battered.

The women called themselves advocates, and focused on listening to the women who came to them, and believing their stories. In the mid 1970’s they were still the pioneers in this movement, and the national media sought them out. Crews came here from CBS, NBC, and National Public Radio; writers came from Newsweek, and authors of books, including Terry Davidson (Conjugal Crime) and Susan Schechter (Women and Male Violence), hung out at the shelter in St. Paul. From the beginning, Women's Advocates was deluged with requests for advice on starting other shelters and programs; they wrote The Story of a Shelter in response.

The movement, both here in Minnesota and nationally, slowly succeeded in changing laws and their enforcement, and provoked change within social service agencies and in the courts. Side by side, the founding women and the battered women empowered themselves, assuming leadership roles, and becoming the experts -- who else had such experience?

Minnesota became a microcosm for growth, activity and new thinking in the movement as a whole; the "Duluth Model" of coordinated community response begun in the 80's is one example. And there has continued to be much innovation here - Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights includes some of the founders of Women's Advocates. They are now global advocates, advising on legal systems, enforcement, and courts as well as shelters and programs in Russia, Eastern Europe, and other places where the violence against women is still "allowed" with impunity.

Our video also includes many women new to the movement --young advocates, new immigrants, the abused elderly--these also are "founders", constantly reinventing their power, creating and changing systems as needed to solve the problems of the day. Even the continuity of the national Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), so carefully shepherded through by Sheila and Paul Wellstone in 1994, cannot be taken for granted.

Our program, We Will Harbor You - after presenting the movement's birth, struggles and successes - must end by acknowledging the strengths and hopes for the future, yet also by reminding ourselves that much still depends on collective political will of our leaders and ourselves. At risk is the movement's finely tuned web of dedicated souls - sustaining programs for battered women, fighting for their safety and justice within the systems, educating about the root causes of violence against women, and holding on to its vision - the end of violence against women.

 

© 2013 Kathleen Laughlin laughlink@goldengate.net
    and Terri Hawthorne terrihawthorne@comcast.net