For over 100 years, our National and International organizations have advocated and fundraised to support women’s issues from the right to vote and being officially classified as persons, to equal pay for equal work and the right to pursue higher education. But it took close to 70 years before the issues of domestic violence became part of our advocacy record. Historically, abuse within the family has been considered a private issue and not the concern of the community. There is such a stigma of shame and failure attached to it that victims often don’t report it and take pains to hide it. The earliest CFUW resolution on the topic I could find in the CFUW National Policy Book called for violence prevention education in 1992. The earliest GWI resolution called for support of a UN declaration opposing violence against women in all forms also in 1992. These seemed to be the only two that specifically cited domestic violence.
What got me thinking about this topic was the reading of a fascinating library book recommended by a friend titled Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists by Margo Goodhand, published in 2017. It traces the origins of the battered women’s shelter movement in Canada mainly through interviews of the founding pioneers.
Although the existence of family violence had always been known, it had for the most part been swept from the societal consciousness in the 50s and 60s. “Safe houses” consisting of women opening up their own homes to help other women did exist but were not government funded or regarded as a public obligation or responsibility. Then, remarkably, the five first Canadian women’s shelters all opened in 1973.
The question was why did separate groups of women from big cities like Toronto to small communities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and BC, all unaware of each other, suddenly implement the same idea? It seems that public consciousness was finally raised enough that women started to recognize the need for a safe place to go. The belief was that women living together could aid each other to cope and create a better life. Women in groups were looking for a way to provide a safe haven for others with children, to hide, think and plan. The pioneers were young, many in their 20s, and they learned on the job how to apply for grants, face down angry husbands, and they saved women’s lives. The shelters, transition and interval houses, whatever they are called, are among the first social institutions created by women for women and funded by the government. The Canadian system thus developed, is still a model for women’s movements around the world. The book then describes events that allowed the movement to improve and grow.
I found it interesting that the well-known US feminist, Betty Friedan in her book The Feminine Mystique, criticized American magazines for furthering the image of the happy homemaker and thus antagonized male leaders. Her strident calls for change had the effect of making women’s concerns unpopular in the US.
Serendipitously, several factors allowed Canadian women to be more ready to initiate change than their US counterparts. One was the feminist articles and editorials in Chatelaine magazine starting in 1957. Because it was a women’s magazine, men didn’t notice the themes of women’s rights mixed in with recipes and homemaking tips. Then in 1966, CFUW National President, Laura Sabia*, called for the establishment of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, which was approved when she threatened to march two million women into Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s office! During the next year, the Commission toured Canada and held hearings. The media coverage resulted in an unprecedented consciousness-raising for women’s issues across the country. Its report included 167 recommendations to ensure that women had equal opportunities with men in all aspects of Canadian society. But, despite gaining ground on so many fronts one issue was still not being addressed…that of domestic violence. However, the climate was set for groups of women working on other issues to start realizing the need for more safe havens.
To find out how well the Niagara region is served by shelters and transition houses, I Googled Women’s Crisis Shelters. I found Second Stage Niagara West in Grimsby, Nova House in Niagara Falls, Serenity Place in Welland, Bethlehem Place in St. Catharines, Gillian’s Place in St. Catharines and the YWCA King St. Shelter in St. Catharines. (Gillian’s Place has received donations from us in the past.)
In May, 2019, the newspaper, Niagara This Week, published an article by Mike Zettle concerning a recent report by the Federal Standing Committee on the Status of Women about women’s shelters in Canada. It basically said that national efforts to address violence against women are grossly inadequate! Funding levels are too low to provide needed services meaning that many women and children are forced to remain in violent situations. Shelters were forced to turn away over 1400 women in 2018, and they are at or above capacity most of the time.
According to a social worker I talked to, two programs that are successfully working in Niagara are a court-ordered 8 week course for abusive men, and the fundraiser, ”Walk a Mile in Her Shoes”, which includes men talking to men about the need for societal change.
*Laura Sabia was president of CFUW St. Catharines in 1957