“I got in the car with my kids and I thought, now what? Where do I go, what do I do? I was not going to my family, because I knew he’d go there first. So I hit Highway 94 [traveling] west. I thought, there are some big cities this way; maybe I can find a job. It was July but it was kind of cool out. I had brought eight sweaters for my kids. They were 11, 10 and 7 years old then. I hit a phone booth and asked for directions to the women’s shelter.”
The bad old days
When Cecelia Jones (name changed for safety reasons) fled her abusive husband in the early 1980s, battered women’s shelters did not exist in every state and the prevailing public opinion was that what went on at home was a private matter. The women’s liberation movement, with its insistence that the personal is political, set the stage for the battered women’s movement.
Minnesota women led the way: Women’s Advocates, the nation’s first shelter for battered women and their children, was founded in St. Paul in 1974. Others followed its lead. And four years later, the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women (MCBW), a statewide organization, sprung up to bring together advocates across the state.
Not far enough
MCBW has just celebrated 30 years of representing the needs of battered women and those who advocate for them-a good time to look back at how far the organization has come, ahead to the change that is still needed and take stock of where the movement is today.
Though the domestic violence movement still faces significant challenges, there has been considerable progress, said MCBW Executive Director Cyndi Cook. “Perhaps most importantly, we now live in a society where, for the most part, we understand that it is not OK to beat up your wife, girlfriend or partner. Domestic violence is no longer accepted as valid behavior, and is a crime in every state in the country. That simply was not true 30 years ago.”
Cecelia Jones can attest to that. She had been married just six weeks when her husband hit her for the first time. In those days, domestic violence considered a family problem. She recalled, “Right after [he hit me] I got into a discussion with my mother about marriage and I took my ring off and threw it. My mother said, ‘Hey, you can’t do that, you just got married.’ So we [Cecelia and her husband] made up.”
But we haven’t come far enough, said Raeone Loscalzo, executive director of Women’s Advocates. “It’s a double-edged sword. While many people have a better understanding of domestic violence, the general public has no idea how prevalent the issue is,” she said. ” The media covers domestic violence but not until a situation gets really bad or it’s too late. For the most part, domestic violence is either hidden or nobody admits that it is as bad as it is.”
One change that has led to increased awareness is the increased visibility of battered women’s shelters. Robin Yaffe-Tschumper of Houston County Women’s Resources in Hokah said, “It’s safer to have shelters visible. Personally, I believe that because a shelter is a visible part of a community, a battered woman is more likely to know where she can go.”
It hasn’t always been that way. In the 1970s the location of many shelters was kept secret to protect the residents. Cecelia Jones remembered that when she first visited a women’s shelter, not only was the location a secret but also residents were told not to have any contact with their abuser. “Even after we got to the shelter, I was terrified he would find me. It was terrible. I had to cut it off with my parents for a while, because he might find me … even after I left, my parents would have to call the police because there were threats, and I didn’t want to endanger them.”
Women’s Advocates shifted from a secret location to an open address one year after it opened its doors. The staff found that the secrecy of the shelter increased the vulnerability and powerlessness that the women felt. Open addresses actually created a sense of security and a more relaxed atmosphere.
Battered women’s services have always struggled financially. While community awareness has meant that more women can seek help, funding has not always kept pace with needs-in particular, in greater Minnesota. “Little guys like us don’t always get sufficient funding and it is difficult to obtain funding from the community,” Yaffe-Tschumper said. There are 13 counties in the state that do not have victims’ services due to a lack of funding. In addition, there are other challenges unique to rural communities. Women in rural areas are less likely to seek shelter from domestic abuse, Yaffe-Tschumper said. “Not only is there a stigma attached to domestic abuse, but the town is so small that everybody knows you. However, the community is more aware of the work we do and are more accepting of us than they were 25 years ago.”
Similarly, Native communities and other communities of color face unique challenges. Due to sovereignty laws, tribal communities have been able to access federal money from the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and have created many programs to combat domestic violence. But because federal funding is handed down through the state, other communities of color have not had the same experience. Activist and advocate Eileen Hudon believes that not only are current resources inadequate overall, but is also concerned about how those resources are managed and if they will be sustained. “Collaborations need to be created with communities of color. It’s not just an issue of the services available,” she said.
For the last several years, MCBW has been working on a Women of Color and Native Women’s Leadership Project. Deb Foster, director of development and communications at MCBW, said that the leadership project is an opportunity to give a greater voice to women of color and Native women in the battered women’s movement. Hudon, who consults on the project, believes that the importance of the project is to create anti-oppression work at a program level. She said, “We need to hear other women’s stories and be telling our stories so that we can relate to each other and make our programs stronger.”
Beyond buildings and beds
Shelters have also increased programming to help residents reach goals of self-sufficiency. Thirty years ago, few services existed to help women escaping violence get back on their feet. Cecelia Jones remembered that finding an apartment after her stay at the shelter was difficult because she had no money and no references. However, Jones said, she lucked out. “I met the landlady, and she was sympathetic to my plight. I found out later it’s probably because she was in the same situation.”
Not all women were as lucky. Many had limited access to job training, medical care and other necessary services for self-sufficiency. Today, most shelters work with a full continuum of services to assist residents with the transition from living in a shelter to living independently. Raeone Loscalzo explained, “To have an impact in a woman’s life you need to address all the issues she is struggling with. Because domestic abuse is such a complex issue we [shelters] need to understand that we cannot do it all.” Shelters are able to meet all the needs of shelter residents through community partnerships, shared resources, and federal and state mandated funding. Funding is an ongoing challenge, especially when state and federal finances are tight; victim services can be an attractive target for budget cutters.
The last 30 years have created a wealth of resources and increased awareness in the domestic violence movement. Domestic violence advocates see their impact every day in the lives of the women they help. But there are scars that don’t go away. Many women continue to fear their abusers even when they are out of danger. Jones, who sought anonymity for this article though she fled her abuser 25 years ago, said, ” Every once in a while I still get paranoid. I keep hoping for the day when a letter comes that says he’s dead.”
There is still much work to do, Cook said. “Far too many women and children continue to be battered, beaten, raped and killed at the hands of perpetrators of domestic violence.” But she is hopeful that increased awareness and continued work will make the difference. “We can envision a future in which women are able to find safety for themselves and their children. More importantly, we can attain the goal of a world in which this violence no longer occurs.”
The nation’s first battered women’s shelter, Women’s Advocates in St. Paul, began as a collective operating a crisis line, which was intended to be an advice and legal information resource, in volunteers’ homes. The women soon realized that the majority of calls were from women seeking divorces due to domestic violence. The volunteers took women into their own homes, before purchasing a house that served as a shelter for women and their children escaping abuse. They raised money for two years to open the first shelter.
It’s a stressful job. It doesn’t pay well. In fact, in greater Minnesota, many volunteers do the work of paid staff. We asked leading advocates why the women who work in the field of domestic violence do the work they do. They told us:
“Those who work in this field tend to do so for reasons that are much more than most jobs. They often work long hours for very little pay. The reward is in not only helping individual women to escape violence to create a life of safety for themselves and their children, but it is also in doing our part to end this violence for all women. It is so much more than providing services, although that is an important part of what we do. It is also about creating social change and building a world where all people, women, children and men are safe and are treated with the respect they deserve.”-Cyndi Cook
“We’re really underpaid and overworked. Our (Houston County Women’s Resources) volunteers put in thousands of hours this year. You don’t give that much of yourself unless the work is personally meaningful. The large majority of people in this field do this work because they’ve all had their lives touched by domestic violence in one way in their lives. In fact, there is not one person in our office that hasn’t known a victim of domestic violence. We’re all here because we want to make a difference in a woman’s life.”-Robin Yaffe-Tschumper
“We feel like we make an impact every day when we see survivors of domestic violence reach their personal goals. Not only do you see so much growth and healing in this work, but you actually have an impact in breaking the cycle of violence.”-Raeone Loscalzo