From Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists, Chapter 11
HOW THEY OPERATED
“We were all at the same level; there was no holier-than-thoukind of thing, just women helping women. But we did it.”
— Billie Stone
If there is any line that binds the women who founded the country’s first shelters for battered women and their children, it’s this: “We were flying by the seat of our pants.” Many of the founders look back and laugh at their naivety, their idealism, their passion. There is a huge sense of pride and quiet satisfaction in what they achieved decades ago. They reflect on who they were and what they created — with no support, rulebooks or role models — and marvel.
“We were complete hackers. We were young feminists. We had no clue about anything we were doing,” said Darlene Lawson of Toronto’s Interval House. “Every single thing we did we had to learn as we were doing it. How to get funding, how to get furniture in the house. How to make liaisons with the referral services. How to set up a schedule for the shifts — I remember doing that in my parents’ backyard.”
Lawson went on to work for other social services (Elizabeth Fry Society, the Barbra Schlifer Clinic) and as provincial secretary of the Ontario New Democratic Party, learning a whole lot about how government and social services work along the way. But, “at that point, we were rogue,” she points out. “We weren’t part of some government strategy. We weren’t even getting any government money. So nobody had any regulations and rules and expectations of what we should do. “The good thing was we could do whatever we want — thank God the place didn’t burn down or anything. The bad thing is there were no requirements for any of that (documentation, records).”
“We just made it all up,” Lynn Zimmer said serenely. “It wasn’t rocket science. It was very practical.” They were all driven to build the same thing, a temporary home for women who had to leave their homes. “It came out of simple women’s knowledge and experience about what home is like, what belonging is like,” she said, “and about help and support: What needs to be done.”
Staff met regularly as a collective to work out a million daily details. “The fact that no one had done what they were now doing helped avoid rigidity,” Ridington noted in her thesis on Vancouver Transition House. “No one could say ‘But this is the way that has always been done.’”
Saskatoon’s Karen Wasylenka speaks for all when she remembers those early days. “This wasn’t social workers with process and structure. It was flying by the seat of your pants. Everyone kind of gathered around the kitchen table and everybody pitched in. Everybody helped out. We had some very bare intake forms to begin with, they evolved over time as well…. This was brand new…. And who were we? None of us was qualified. We just had this vision and this passion. And away we went.”
They pitched in however they could to fix up their “crummy” homes (as Currie describes their wee place in Aldergrove), scrambled to get them furnished and kitchens properly equipped, surviving on donations and the kindness of volunteers and their own subsistence level wages.
“Every step of the way was a learning curve,” said Toronto’s Billie Stone. And learn they did. “We had these funny ideas about food (at the start),” Zimmer recalled. They were given no funding initially to operate Toronto’s Interval House, just their own wages. “So we each chipped in $5 from our paycheques, and because none of us were really cooks, we decided to hire a chef from Marilyn’s neighbourhood — a health-food-style cook. “She advised us on pots and pans, stocked up the kitchen with soy grits and whole wheat everything. So of course the women moved in and there was no way they were going to eat that shit.” Zimmer laughed. “They’d go out and spend good money on burgers. We weren’t even that interested in eating it.”
So, very quickly, their focus and approach to food shifted. If the women wanted Wonder Bread, so be it. “We decided food had to be comfortable for everybody. When we were doing the shopping, we tried to get everyone involved, encourage people to cook their own food. We had this huge multicultural assembly of clients, and would encourage them to share recipes.… One of my best memories of that house was being in the kitchen,” Zimmer says with some satisfaction. “I did some of my best (therapeutic) work there with clients, just learning to cook. That was pretty cool.” To her, the most important dynamic at Interval House was the clients interacting with each other— cooking meals together, sharing their stories, just being with each other in a safe and supportive environment. She also joked that she did the grocery shopping for a while but lost the job “because I was spending too much money.”
In B.C., where two of the country’s first women’s shelters were virtually born out of consciousness-raising groups, another lesson was learned quite quickly. Their residents were not interested in feminist ideology; they just wanted a safe place to stay. At Ishtar in Aldergrove/Langley, they would soon split the shelter off from women’s centre activities. In Vancouver, Ridington writes, “Staff came to the realization that overt feminist ideology and theory were inappropriate in the Transition House context.” Clients were not there to debate patriarchy. Their needs were urgent and practical. By their actions, though, the founders sent a powerful message of self-reliance and resourcefulness, as well as their unconditional support. “I have always argued that the concrete aid of the house, and the open fridge, is at least more important than any kind of counselling we could do,” said early shelter founder Lee Lakeman.
Women were coming to them in crisis, deeply disillusioned with themselves as well as their partners. Many were dependent on their husbands and had internalized their abuse to the point that they were convinced it was their fault. If and when they confided in their doctors, they were dismissed with prescriptions for antidepressants or tranquillizers. The shelters were full of demoralized and despondent women armed with pills to make them happy.
Gale Carsenat remembers the women coming in, “so distraught. We would sit them down in this ratty room on this ratty chair, and we’d say, ‘We just need a few particulars, your name, number of children.’ And then we always had this question, ‘Are you on any drugs?’ And they always said no. And I would say 85 percent of them opened their purse and there would be barbiturates and speed and I would ask, ‘But what is this?’ ‘Oh! These are my happy pills. And those are my sleepers.’ That amazed me, back then. That these women, when I told them those were drugs, they’d say, ‘Oh, no, my doctor gives them to me.’”
A great many clients believed they have “failed as women, wives and mothers,” Ridington wrote. So it was a bit of a revelation for them to enter these shelters, built by and for women, staffed with women who were there solely to help in any way they could. Bottom-line qualifications for all the early shelter workers were “common sense, empathy and an intense belief in what they are doing,” Ridington said.
They would very quickly acquire knowledge of welfare regulations, the local police, the job market and family court procedures, but most importantly, what they called “active listening.” The women knew that was one of their primary roles, after the provision of sanctuary. “We were just going by the seat of our pants. No expertise,” said Toronto’s Billie Stone. “But we listened. That’s the most important skill to have.”
“We had two staff on during the day and two staff on nights,” said one of Vancouver’s first hires, Frances Rooney. “A woman could tell her whole story within 24 hours to four or five people. They talked and they talked and they talked. You could see it working out of a lot of them…”