From Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists, Chapter 10


B.C.’s new human resources minister Norm Levi was besieged by women in his first year in office. By all accounts, he didn’t mind much. He was a charming man, English-born, witty and sympathetic to the feminist movement. A trained social worker who had once worked for the John Howard Society in Vancouver, the NDP MLA found himself under pressure from all sides in 1973 — the Y, the Vancouver Status of Women (VSW), community activists, feminists from all corners — to fund a transition house in Vancouver.

He had already been softened up to the cause by the eloquent women of Ishtar, who ambushed him after a speech in Surrey earlier that year to lobby for stable provincial support for their new shelter in the Langley area.

Another politician might have become testy or defensive.

Levi thought it was funny. But even with Rosemary Brown as his colleague in a left-leaning B.C. legislature, Levi still often expressed the fears of many of that time, from the church to politicians to mainstream media — that by providing a place where women could leave their marriages, feminists would ultimately and inevitably destroy families. No politician could afford to be seen as “anti-family.”

Certainly the young feminists of Ishtar fought this mindset in their conservative community. But so, too, did their older more mainstream counterparts in Edmonton. “The government did not want to give us money,” Beaudry said. “[Some MLAs] plain told us that the women should be at home…. That was an education in itself.”

The conversation often ran along the same lines at public meetings.

“We’d say it’s a crime, and the women can’t get out,” explains Gene Errington, Vancouver Status of Woman’s second ombudswoman. “People would ask, ‘Then why doesn’t she leave?’ And we’d say — ‘well, who’s going to help her?’ It was up to us.”

Discouraged by lack of funding and political traction on the issue, many of the Vancouver Women in Transition group had drifted away from the cause by 1973. The VSW was distracted by many other feminist issues, from pay equity to sexual harassment, and only a handful remained focused on the need for a transition house in Vancouver.

Errington recalls a few public consultations on the issue, though, including a big meeting at Christchurch Cathedral, where they advocated for the shelter. “There was a lot of media attention,” Errington said. “A lot of the public came. And that’s where this one man stood up and shouted, ‘If we have a house like that in my area, my wife will leave me!’ He was outraged.”

They kept up the pressure. “One thing about those times,” Errington noted, “it was extremely easy to get publicity. There were talk shows all over Vancouver, so we could immediately begin talking about this stuff. There was a climate, at least, where it was being discussed. But we started to get a lot of flak.” The public was “shocked” by what they had to say, Errington remembers, and the reaction was often highly polarized.

She notes that the “breaking up of the family” spiel they often heard was preferable to some of the other backlash. “The other was just awful — the ‘what you need is a good fuck’ sort of thing. So there was that range. But it was the ‘You’re trying to break up the family’ [argument] that was the big barrier.”

June Dunlop continued to be a force to be reckoned with. She was determined to build a safe home in Vancouver, and “she was tough as nails,” Errington said. They met with service clubs and foundations, they spoke everywhere they could find a podium. For a few weeks, the group entertained the idea of taking over rooms at the Bridge YWCA at the north end of the Granville Bridge. But then a better opportunity came along.

Vancouver City Council had a strong feminist, Darlene Marzari, at the head of its Social Services Planning Committee. Val MacDermot and Gloria Greenfield (whose “commitment was total. She made things happen,” said Frances Rooney, one of Vancouver’s first shelter workers) met with Marzari and found her enthusiastic about the project. When the group applied for funding from the city, council agreed in September 1973 to support the project on a cost-share basis with the province. And that’s when a frustrated Dunlop decided to go directly to Norm Levi’s office and demand he set up the house.

Errington recalls the meeting. “He was a really nice guy, but he was stuck with this thing — you’re trying to destroy the family — so we gave our little speech and stuff. Finally he said, ‘If you get a house, I will fund it.’”

At that time, Errington noted, children’s aid societies were all private, and the NDP was just in the process of taking them over. Dunlop somehow managed to have a conversation with a children’s aid director who explained they were in the process of winding themselves down. They just happened to have an extra house, he told them, on the east side of Vancouver on Victoria Drive, and they could have it if they wanted it, rent-free. “So we went running back to Norm Levi and said we’ve got a house, and he leaned back in his chair and said, “Oh you guys are good.” But he did, he funded it. And of course, then other communities could tap into that. We set the precedent.”

Vancouver Transition House opened its doors on December 23, 1973. It was staffed by ten women (some part-time), including founders MacDermot and Greenfield, and funded by a one-year contract from the province. It had an advisory board consisting of women from the Vancouver Status of Women group and the Children’s Aid Society. Between 1974 and 1976 it would also receive minimal funding through the Vancouver Resources Board, an independent and publicly elected body (like a hospital or school board) set up by the NDP to deliver municipal social services.

Three months after it opened, Jillian Ridington got a job there and described a slow start due to the holiday season and the need to make referring agencies aware of their services. “By early in the new year (1974), however, the house was full, proving again the truth of [author] Del Martin’s remark to me, “You don’t need statistics. All anybody needs to know is that whenever and wherever a refuge has been opened, it has been full and turning people away within two weeks.” (Del Martin is the author of the 1976 book Battered Wives.)

Two reports from that time best describe Vancouver Transition House, Canada’s fifth battered women’s shelter. One was written by Joyce Marvin (now Resin), a CBC-TV researcher in Vancouver, and Arlene Gropper (now Gladstone), then a staff member for B.C. Berger Commission on Family and Children’s law, and published November 20, 1976, in The Canadian magazine.

It was the cover story, titled “Violence Begins at Home” and subtitled: “For many men, a marriage licence is also a licence to beat.”

Other than Chatelaine magazine, this was one of the first national news media reports on “wife-beating,” and the two writers spent months on their research.

At the beginning, Marvin wrote in her preface, silence surrounded the topic. “Now it’s the issue on everybody’s lips.” That silence was, course, one of the greatest barriers shelter founders had to overcome. What happened between a husband and wife largely happened behind closed doors and was regarded as nobody else’s business.

The only reason violence against women became “the issue on everybody’s lips” was because the early shelter workers broke that silence in 1973, compiling their own statistics and campaigning to raise public awareness…