Yes, there’s a story behind ‘runaway wives’

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A few (OK a lot) of people have commented on the title of this book. Rogue feminists, they get. But isn’t that ‘runaway wives’ line rather demeaning?

Yes it is. It’s so demeaning it stuck with the group who founded Canada’s first battered women’s shelter for more than forty years.

Four of them told the story over dinner one night in late 2012, still infuriated by a headline and story that they felt was a sly smackdown of their work, not to mention an odd take on the issue.

They had just opened on Spadina Street in Toronto, after months of planning and lobbying and hard work. Their families were all wondering what these 12 young women were doing (and they weren’t so sure themselves). So when the reporter from the Toronto Star, Sidney Katz, called and said he wanted to write a story about the shelter, they were pretty excited.

They invited him down for the day, showed him around, explained who was in the shelter and why, earnestly explaining the need for a temporary place for women to escape violence or crisis in the home. After he left, they could hardly wait for the feature to appear in the big metropolitan daily. And then it did. With the headline “The rising wave of runaway wives” and the subhead “Women are liberating themselves — they say to heck with it and leave.”

The story begins with a so-long-toots note pinned to some poor man’s pillow from a runaway wife named Sharon, who says there’s no use in going on with their stupid marriage. He makes her sound so cavalier and liberated.

“Add one more man to the brotherhood of deserted husbands, a fast-growing group,” Katz continues.

It takes a few paragraphs before Katz reveals the details behind this marriage. Sharon’s husband has become a heavy drinker, and the constant verbal and emotional abuse that began after the birth of their first child has escalated to physical abuse. The night before she left, he slapped her across the face while the couple next door were visiting.

“Before the days of women’s liberation many of those women did not leave home,” Katz pointed out. But now in 1973, he writes, there are places they can go. And “a growing number of women are unwilling to remain part of an unhappy union.”

He describes a number of ‘runaways’, including one who was thrown down the stairs for forgetting to take her husband’s suit to the dry cleaners. Another whose husband was so jealous he would stand guard — inside the bathroom — while she took a bath. He weaves in a few words from the Interval House women, but his bias shows through even from their answers. “It’s simply untrue that women are deserting their husbands because of the ideas put forth by the women’s lib movement,” Lynn Zimmer says.

He ends with the tale of one abandoned father who is looking after three children all by himself. After getting them off to school and day care in the morning, he works and after that, it’s “get supper. Talk to the children and find out what’s been happening. Wash them, get them to bed. By now it’s 9 o’clock. If not too exhausted and he wants to go out, get hold of a babysitter somewhere.

“Somehow, time must be found to shop for groceries and clothes, do the laundry, to take the children on an outing and visits to the doctor, etc. etc.” … “I’ve been living this way for eight months,” says the father, “and it’s hell.” (“The deserted father’s job could be simplified by hiring an efficient housekeeper,” Katz says, “but few men can afford that.”)

Forty years later, the women who founded Interval House are able to laugh just a little over this depiction of their work from the other guy’s perspective — their aiding and abetting of a ‘rising wave of runaway wives.’ So how could I resist stealing this very inside joke from my favourite rogue feminists?

 

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