Forty years of the Elsie Refuge for Women and Children

2015
CC BY-SA 2.0
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Forty Years of the Elsie Refuge for Women and Children

[media]In the early days of autumn 1974 an intrepid group of Sydney Women's Liberation members, led by Anne Summers with Jennifer Dakers and Bessie Guthrie, broke into two adjoining vacant houses, 'Elsie' and 'Minnie', at 73 and 75 Westmoreland Street on the Glebe Estate. [1] Armed only with broomsticks, shovels and energetic determination, they changed the locks to establish residency and claimed squatter's rights. [2] On that day, 16 March, the women declared Elsie Women's Refuge Night Shelter open as Australia's first emergency safe haven for women and children subject to domestic violence. [3] So began a remarkable and fearless social experiment, grounded in activism around feminism and housing campaigns, which would inspire services for women and children experiencing domestic violence across New South Wales and Australia.

Housing women in a violent society

In 1974 domestic and family violence against women and children was a central concern of second wave feminists. [4] The issue was not recognised by the law, and there was little recourse for protection or escape for many women subject to this insidious and yet mostly unspoken, private abuse. [5]

The impetus for the audacious independent feminist action of 16 March had been a forum held six days previously, as part of the International Women's Day Celebrations at the NSW Teachers' Federation auditorium, then in Sussex Street, Sydney. [6] Speakers at a forum called 'Women in a Violent Society' attested that women suffering domestic violence had nowhere safe to go, and little alternative but to stay in violent and abusive relationships. [7] Domestic violence was not considered a crime in the eyes of the law and as such, the police were often reluctant to interfere in what they dismissively referred to as 'domestics'. [8] Moreover, because domestic violence was considered 'a private matter' there was a strong stigma attached to women who left their husbands. Women were not eligible for emergency housing as long as the matrimonial home existed and the Department of Housing would not then house women and children without a husband. [9]

Yet in 1974 the women's movement was in full swing and some Sydney women were beginning to passionately speak out against what had been, for too long, unspoken. Many of these women were, as Max Solling has recorded, based in Glebe.

Glebe became a base for the women's movement, home to the Women's Liberation Movement, which was anarchist in style, and focused on working in co-operative groups to show society better ways of achieving humane goals. [10]

At the same time, squatters were claiming residency rights over inner-city houses left unoccupied in the wake of the green bans of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF). The women behind Elsie saw the proliferation of empty houses as an opportunity to address the pressing need for abused women to be able to exercise agency and escape from violent family situations. Their action had profound consequences for hundreds of women in Sydney and was a precedent for a later nationwide movement. [11]

Consciousness raising and raising funds

The Elsie collective was adamant about the need to raise public consciousness about domestic violence, and one of the first things they did after occupying and securing the Glebe premises was to call the media. They had two aims – first, to advertise the service to the women who needed their help, and second, to educate the wider public about the issue of domestic violence. Anne Summers has recalled the ignorance of reporters who turned up to interview these feminist pioneers but 'couldn't really understand what all the fuss was about'. [12] However, within six weeks of opening, Elsie had provided shelter to 48 women and 35 children, proving how vital and important it was. [13]

In the beginning Elsie had no income and was completely reliant on the work of volunteers and donations from the Glebe and the wider Sydney community. The collective lobbied the government and the media to secure a more permanent income, and conducted extensive media interviews to raise public awareness. However, the situation was dire. Anne Summers turned to selling marijuana to finance the refuge. As she reflected in her memoir Ducks on the Pond, 'If ...the police had picked me up I would have been in deep trouble. I did not even think about the illegality of what I was doing because we needed the money so badly.' For Summers the risk was worth it.

I can't say today that I am proud of what I did, but it is difficult to overestimate the desperation of those days and the responsibility we felt to the women to whom we had promised refuge. I also justified it to myself by saying I was merely redistributing money the inner-city crowd would have spent anyway, to a service that was in dire need.

Fortunately, the collective's bold actions and tenacity caught the public's eye and donations of food, white goods and playground equipment began to arrive. Anne Summers remembers:

The men from Glebe Rotary arrived one Saturday morning and asked what needed to be done. They spent the weekend putting in a new, secure back fence and building a playground for the kids. [14]

Government funding was promised after Bill Hayden, then Social Security Minister in the Whitlam Government, visited Elsie and was, as Summers put it, 'shocked at the battered and hopeless state of so many of the women and appalled at the rundown condition of the accommodation.' [15] In January 1975 Elsie received a one-off grant from the Commonwealth Health Department of $24,250 and in October that year the refuge moved to more spacious premises in Derwent Street, Glebe. [16]

Political recognition

By the middle of 1975, eleven women's refuges had been established nationwide, following the precedent set by the Elsie collective. They were all established voluntarily, without funding. The fact that thousands of women and children accessed these new services convinced the Whitlam Government that there was a real and genuine necessity, and a social responsibility, to finance these safe havens. [17] Commonwealth Government funding of women's refuges commenced in 1975. [18] This was a significant advance for women and a departure from the silence that had once cloaked the issue of domestic violence. As Catherine Gander explains

Receiving government funding was about more than receiving money, it was about gaining political recognition that domestic violence was not a 'private' matter. [19]

For the first time, domestic violence was seen as a real social problem, which required both government and community recognition and redress. [20] In 1981, under Premier Neville Wran, the NSW Government became the first Australian government to appoint a taskforce to conduct an inquiry into domestic violence, which led to significant policy changes. However, despite this massive step forward, funding would remain inadequate and uncertain until 1985, when refuges were finally granted secure funding through the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program, jointly funded by the Commonwealth and state governments. [21]

By 1999, when Elsie celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of opening in Glebe, there were over 300 similar refuges open and operating around the country. [22] Their existence was a tribute to the pioneering women at Elsie. As Anne Summers says:

Elsie never just provided women with a refuge. It was a shining light, a call to the conscience of society to deal with violence against women and children, a prod in the sides of the law enforcement and court systems to get them to start taking the subject seriously. [23]

The legacy of Elsie

In May 2012, the formerly nameless laneway between Derwent Street and Glebe Point Road was officially christened Elsie Walk, after a request from the Glebe Community Action Group. Elsie Walk is a reminder of a significant event in Glebe's history that went on to have national significance for thousands of women and children. According to the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, Elsie Walk was named

In honour of the incredible helping hand women's refuges provide to vulnerable women and children every day…Elsie Refuge helped pioneer a crucial service in our community. [24]

The bold and audacious actions of a few feminist women in Glebe in 1974 inaugurated a truly nationwide refuge movement for women and children. Social awareness surrounding domestic violence today is much more acute and the issue is no longer surrounded in secrecy. The City of Sydney's 2014 campaign, in which the city's garbage trucks were emblazoned with the words 'violence against women is rubbish!' is a clear testament to forty years of the issue being ousted from the closet of silent abuse. Yet much still remains to be done. The link between domestic violence and women and children's homelessness is still strong and persistent. [25] The Australian Institute of Criminology reports that one woman is killed every week in Australia by a current or former partner. In 2013, in NSW alone, 24 women were murdered in domestic-related incidents. [26] Statistics show that one in three Australian women over the age of 15 report physical or sexual violence at some time in their lives, with domestic violence still being the major cause of homelessness for women and their children. [27]

An uncertain future for Elsie

On Friday 29 August 2014, Elsie Women's Refuge was taken over by the St Vincent de Paul Society under the NSW Government's Going Home Staying Home policy. Elsie was not the only New South Wales refuge to suffer a change in management. A total of 44 shelters in New South Wales that catered specifically to women, the Indigenous population and young people were closed or placed in alternative management by 31 October 2014. Critics of the takeover stated the complexities of domestic violence could not be dealt with under general schemes to manage homelessness. They feared the loss of the privacy and confidentiality that has always surrounded women-only refuges, and condemned the fact that all the staff at Elsie, many of whom had worked there for years, were made redundant and replaced by St Vincent de Paul. [28] St Vincent de Paul has provided assurances that Elsie will remain a women-and-children-only service. [29]

Elsie Refuge for Women and Children in Glebe was the first women's refuge to open in Australia. It inspired hundreds of similar refuges to open nationwide and for forty years it remained independently-run, providing care, support and anonymity to women and children fleeing domestic violence. Today the future trajectory of women's refuges in New South Wales, and across Australia, is uncertain. What is certain, however, is the enduring legacy that a few brave and radical feminists achieved in Glebe in 1974. It is a legacy that will persist in Glebe's history, in Sydney's history and indeed throughout Australia.

Further reading

Verity Burgmann. 'The Women's Movement.' In Power, Profit and Protest: Australian Social Movements and Globalisation, edited by Verity Burgmann. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 2003, 98-164

Catherine Gander. 'The NSW Women's Refuge Movement.' Parity 19, no 10, 2006

Marilyn Lake. Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1999

Roselyn Melville. 'The Slippery Slide of Women's Refuge Funding 1970s to 1990s: The New South Wales Experience.' Women Against Violence, 5, December 1998, 15-33

Suellen Murray, 'The Origins and Development of the Australian Women's Refuge Movement', Parity 19, no 10, 2006

Suellen Murray and Anastasia Powell. Domestic Violence: Australian Public Policy. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011

Mandy Sayer. '40 Years of Elsie.' The Sydney Morning Herald. 14 April 2014. http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/40-years-of-elsie-20140411-36h9v.htm

Anne Summers. Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945-1976. Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1999.

Notes

[1] 'Elsie' and 'Minnie' were situated at 73 and 75 Westmoreland Street, Glebe. Bessie Guthrie had lived in Derwent Street, Glebe all her life. She had opened her own home to young women who were victims of domestic violence and she was a passionate opponent of the incarceration of young women in Bidura and other children's shelters. See Suzanne Bellamy, 'Guthrie, Bessie Jean Thompson (1905-1977),' Australian Dictionary of Biography (Canberra: National Centre of Biography ANU, 1996), http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/guthrie-bessie-jean-thompson-10382/text18393, viewed 17 December 2014

[2] Anne Summers, Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945-1976 (Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1999), 325

[3] More particularly, Elsie Refuge at Glebe was the first refuge founded on an explicitly feminist philosophy

[4] The early movement against domestic violence was characterised by efforts to move the issue from the private and into the public domain, and particularly to emphasise its criminal nature. For the history of this issue for Australian second wave feminism see Marilyn Lake, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism (St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1999), 214-230; Verity Burgmann, 'The Women's Movement,' in Power, Profit and Protest: Australian Social Movements and Globalisation ed. Verity Burgmann (St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 2003), 98-164

[5] The only places where women and children could find temporary shelter at this time were at a Salvation Army facility or a shelter run by St Vincent de Paul. They provided a bed for the night, but did not permit residence during the day. With no health, legal or social services to support them, most women had little option but to return to violent homes and partners. Mandy Sayer, '40 Years of Elsie,' The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 April 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/40-years-of-elsie-20140411-36h9v.htm, viewed 17 December 2014; Anne Summers, Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945-1976 (Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1999), 319-320

[6] Jozefa Sobski, 'Elsie Walks Into History', Jessie Street National Women's Library, Newsletter, 23, July (2012), 1, http://nationalwomenslibrary.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/newsletter_july12.pdf, viewed 18 December 2014

[7] A 1975 survey of women who had experienced domestic violence revealed that 89% stated they stayed in the relationship because 'they had nowhere to go.' Catherine Gander, 'The NSW Women's Refuge Movement,' Parity, 19, no 10 (2006), 28

[8] Jozefa Sobski, 'Elsie Walks Into History', Jessie Street National Women's Library, Newsletter, 23, July (2012), 1, http://nationalwomenslibrary.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/newsletter_july12.pdf, viewed 18 December 2014

[9] This would eventually change after the NSW Women's Refuge Movement campaigned to change the definition of 'family' to include lesbians and single mothers. Catherine Gander, 'The NSW Women's Refuge Movement,' Parity, 19, no 10 (2006), 28

[10] Max Solling, Grandeur and Grit: A History of Glebe (Sydney: Halstead Press, NSW, 2007), 267

[11] Suellen Murray, 'The Origins and Development of the Australian Women's Refuge Movement,' Parity, 19, no 10 (2006), 11; Catherine Gander, 'The NSW Women's Refuge Movement,' Parity, 19, no 10 (2006), 28-29

[12] 'Elsie Walk tribute to first women's safe house,' City of Sydney Media Centre, 28 May 2012, www.sydneymedia.com.au/5102-elsie-walk-tribute-to-first-womens-safe-house/, viewed 17 December 2014

[13] Anne Summers, Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945-1976 (Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1999), 328

[14] Anne Summers, Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945-1976 (Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1999), 331

[15] Anne Summers, Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945-1976 (Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1999), 335

[16] It was located at number 108 Derwent Street but at that time the address remained confidential, to ensure the safety and protection of those women and children in need of privacy and shelter. Anne Summers, Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945-1976 (Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1999), 351; Jozefa Sobski, 'Elsie Walks Into History', Jessie Street National Women's Library, Newsletter, 23, July (2012), 1, http://nationalwomenslibrary.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/newsletter_july12.pdf, viewed 18 December 2014

[17] One of the major innovations of the Whitlam Government was the establishment of a Women's Affairs Section in the Department of Home Affairs in 1973. The creation of this section, focusing on women's issues provided the means by which refuge funding could be forced onto the political agenda. At the same time, most scholars stress the central role played by feminist activism. Well organised, extensive and active feminist campaigning both inside and outside government was crucial in fostering sympathy, awareness and funding for women's refuges and has, since the 1970s, been a major factor in Australian government policy in relation to domestic violence. Suellen Murray and Anastasia Powell, Domestic Violence: Australian Public Policy (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011), 14-15; Roselyn Melville, 'The Slippery Slide of Women's Refuge Funding 1970s to 1990s: The New South Wales Experience,' Women Against Violence, 5, December (1998), 30

[18] This continued until 1981 when the Fraser Government handed back community health funding to the states. Roselyn Melville, 'The Slippery Slide of Women's Refuge Funding 1970s to 1990s: The New South Wales Experience,' Women Against Violence, 5, December (1998), 15-33

[19] Catherine Gander, 'The NSW Women's Refuge Movement,' Parity, 19, no 10 (2006), 28

[20] Suellen Murray and Anastasia Powell, Domestic Violence: Australian Public Policy (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011), 15-19

[21] Since the 1980s both the Coalition and Labor governments, federally and at the local level, have maintained an interest in domestic violence as a public-policy issue. Suellen Murray and Anastasia Powell, Domestic Violence: Australian Public Policy (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011)

[22] Anne Summers, Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945-1976 (Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1999), 315

[23] Anne Summers, Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945-1976 (Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1999), 335.

[24] 'Elsie Walk tribute to first women's safe house,' City of Sydney Media Centre, 28 May 2012, www.sydneymedia.com.au/5102-elsie-walk-tribute-to-first-womens-safe-house/, viewed 17 December 2014

[25] Roselyn Melville, 'The Slippery Slide of Women's Refuge Funding 1970s to 1990s: The New South Wales Experience,' Women Against Violence, 5, December (1998), 16

[26] Mandy Sayer, '40 Years of Elsie,' The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 April 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/40-years-of-elsie-20140411-36h9v.htm, viewed 17 December 2014

[27] 'Elsie Walk tribute to first women's safe house,' City of Sydney Media Centre, 28 May 2012, www.sydneymedia.com.au/5102-elsie-walk-tribute-to-first-womens-safe-house/, viewed 17 December 2014

[28] Lucia Osborne-Crowley, 'Glebe community rallies as Sydney's oldest women's refuge closes,' Altmedia, 4 September 2014, www.altmedia.net.au/glebe-community-rallies-as-sydneys-oldest-womens-refuge-closes, viewed 17 December 2014

[29] 'Historic women's refuge Elsie to continue, new management promises,' The Age, 23 June 2014, http://m.theage.com.au/news-and-views/historic-womens-refuge-elsie-to-continue-new-management-promises-20140623-zsjax.html, viewed 18 December 2014

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