QotD: “The Radical Transformations of a Battered Women’s Shelter”

This article is a long, detailed, critical, but balanced account of the history, from the 1970’s to today, of the second ever battered women’s shelter in the US. I’m posting the first few paragraphs, which cover the setting up of the shelter and its early years, and include details of what was happening in second wave feminism at the same time, but I would recommend reading the whole thing.

In the winter of 1975, a week after a ten-inch snowfall, Chris Womendez and Cherie Jimenez decided to turn Cherie’s apartment into a shelter for women who were getting beaten up at home. Cherie lived downstairs from Chris in a building on Pearl Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Neither knew what running such a shelter involved, but nobody did; there was only one in the country, which had opened in St. Paul the year before. They were both on welfare, and each had a little kid, but rent was cheap, and their apartments were bigger than they needed. They put up signs with Cherie’s phone number in laundromats, and the bathrooms of broken-bone units in hospitals, and the waiting rooms of maternity wards. Cherie painted a picture on her wall of a woman brandishing a rifle. They met a few times with a lawyer they knew, to ask questions like: What if a guy found a woman in their apartment and killed her—would they be responsible? They got some women together to make plans, but the meetings were long and kind of boring, so they decided to just do it.

Chris grew up in the projects in South Boston. One night in 1966, when she was seventeen, she went to the Waldorf, a twenty-four-hour restaurant on Tremont Street where gay people used to go after the bars closed. She met a deaf Puerto Rican guy there, got pregnant, and married him. Soon after she gave birth, he started beating her up. He tried to strangle her and drown her in the bathtub. She fought back, but he was stronger. They had terrible arguments, all in sign language. She left him when she was eighteen and moved back in with her parents; her mother watched the baby while Chris went downtown and turned tricks. The money was good, and she moved to a nice apartment in Back Bay with a woman she’d been seeing who worked as a prostitute, too. She changed her last name from her husband’s name, Mendez, to Womendez.

Later, around 1973, Chris had a minor nervous breakdown, became religious, moved to Cambridge, and found work moving furniture and delivering the Gay Community News in her van. Then, one night, she met Cherie at a Daughters of Bilitis meeting, and they went out afterward to a lesbian bar in Boston called the Saints. They became friends, and then a couple, and talked every night about how they wanted to do something to really turn things upside down. They thought, There are so many women getting beat up who need a place to stay—we should just open our place up, make it a shelter. They would call it Transition House.

Cherie, like Chris, had fled a violent early marriage. When she was a teen-ager, she went to Puerto Rico with some friends and met her future husband, a rich man from San Juan, in a hotel lobby. They had a daughter together, but he hit her, and then he became violent with their daughter, too. She left him and travelled around for a while, supporting herself and her daughter by working as a high-end escort. She spent some time in Mexico City, then stayed for a summer with friends who had an organic farm in Michigan. Finally, she fetched up in Cambridge and met Chris.

Word about the shelter spread fast. It was Cambridge in 1975, and there was a lot going on. Women were meeting for consciousness-raising sessions at the Sergeant Pepper Coffee House, and helping rape victims at the Women’s Center, and starting up the Combahee River Collective. There were biker feminists in leather, and Cambridge feminists in bandannas, and Dorchester feminists in dresses. There were socialist feminists who believed that all victimized groups should struggle together against capitalism, and radical feminists who believed that misogyny was the fundamental oppression—that if the patriarchy could be broken then all other oppressions would follow.

Cherie and Chris opened their shelter on New Year’s Day, 1976, and it was full almost immediately. There were mattresses stacked up in the kitchen and all over the floor, and children everywhere. The women who came to stay all pitched in, cleaning the house, taking donations, answering the phone, which began ringing constantly, helping out with child care while mothers went to the doctor or the housing office. A lot of women showed up at the apartment to help. One was Betsy Warrior, a former battered woman who was a founding member of Cell 16, a radical feminist group whose journal, No More Fun and Games, advocated celibacy, separatism, and wages for housework. Another was Lisa Leghorn, an ardent young student who had met Warrior in Cell 16 and spent time with her studying social movements. (They concluded that the basis of women’s subjugation was their place as unpaid laborers in the home, reinforced through violence.) There was Rachel Burger, who had grown up in a pacifist Anabaptist community in England and Paraguay, and, having seen abuse that nobody talked about in that community, had gone looking for another. There were housewives from the suburbs who turned up carrying homemade cakes.

The idea was that there should be no difference between women who came to stay and women who came to help. They made decisions together, went on protest marches together, went out drinking and dancing. “We were changing consciousness,” Leghorn says. “A woman would come into the shelter in the morning, and by the evening she was showing a new resident around. Women were learning that they weren’t just victims.” Nobody wanted to make rules or control behavior; the only rule was to keep the shelter’s location a secret. Chris and Cherie had almost no money, but they were determined not to fund-raise from any source other than individual women, because doing so would compromise their independence and their politics.

Chris and Cherie worked around the clock, taking naps when they could. There were a lot of people and a lot of frantic emotions in a small space. Everyone was in crisis, panicking about where she was going to go next. One woman kept begging Chris to kill her, and Chris would say, Not today, honey, maybe tomorrow. A volunteer went to help a woman escape from her house and got beaten up herself. Some of the women had not been battered but had come because they were homeless; Chris and Cherie couldn’t decide what to do about them. Some days, when the weather was nice, all the women would take a picnic out to the back yard and the kids would play and everybody would be at peace for an hour or two.

In August that first year, Transition House helped to organize a women’s march that rallied at Government Center, in Boston. Five thousand people turned up. Leghorn spoke passionately about female servitude. Florynce Kennedy, the founder of the Feminist Party, advised battered women to occupy the nearest cathedral, mosque, or synagogue, because religions had been “pushing the family trap” and had taken upon themselves “a monopoly on the license to fuck.” Afterward, dozens of women showed up at the shelter to volunteer.

Many volunteers had been activists in the civil-rights and antiwar movements but had got sick of being ignored and making coffee. Gail Sullivan had just come back from a stint at the Wounded Knee defense committee, in South Dakota. “The movement was dominated by men who were actively hostile to feminism, which they termed ‘white feminism,’ ” Sullivan says. “Most were very invested in traditional gender roles, which they defended as Native American traditions. This stuff was very common, men using racial oppression as an excuse to oppress women.”

Domestic violence felt like the front line of the liberation struggle. “When we started to understand how deeply pervasive and corrosive it was, when we heard stories from women whose father beat their mother and then they replicated that in their own relationship, it felt like the work was so central to creating a world in which women could be liberated,” Sullivan says. All women needed was a place to go—a refuge where they would realize that they could survive on their own—and then they would be freed from dependence on violent men, or any men, forever. The stories were brutal, but the work was exhilarating.

Unlike most small feminist organizations founded in the nineteen-seventies, the shelter survived the decade, and the next, and the ones after that. It is still open, in a clapboard house in Cambridge with an unpublished address. It was founded not just to be a refuge for battered women but to embody a set of principles and enact a theory of how women would be liberated. It survived the seventies because the women who worked there were so fervently committed to the theory and the principles, and it survived after that because, year by year, they abandoned every one of them.

Each abandonment was the occasion of bitter fights, mutinies, and accusations of betrayal. For many women who worked there, Transition House was their first political love, to which they attached their most utopian hopes for the future, and, after all the devotion and the sacrifices and the impassioned arguments and the work day and night, it was hard to leave its founding principles behind, no matter how destructive they had become. Women left in anger, or hurt, or from exhaustion, or because they got older, or it was a different time. But the doors stayed open.

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