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Women's Work

Colorado activists struck first on domestic violence.

On hot summer nights, when her children were sleeping, she would open her windows wide and listen to the sounds of Capitol Hill--the sirens, the screams. "Ambulances and fire trucks were going all night long," Clarissa Pinkola Estes remembers. "You'd hear angry voices. You'd hear a great big slap, and then a woman or a child would cry out. The police would come, and they'd tell the woman to calm down. The man would say, well, she aggravated me, and they'd tell her, well, don't aggravate him anymore."

In the late 1960s, when Pinkola Estes moved to Denver, it was considered perfectly fine for a man to hit his wife. That was a "private matter," though for a man to hit another man was often a crime. "Looking back on it now," she says, "I understand that people were completely asleep, as though they'd taken narcotics."

But Denver was about to wake up.
Through a timely alignment of events and attitudes, this city would become the leader in the fight against domestic violence. It took a group of strong women (although not necessarily women all working in the same group) and a certain independent spirit, the sort that Coloradans like to think they're known for. And it took money.

In the beginning there wasn't much of that. In 1971 Pinkola Estes joined with several other women to open a house for battered women--although "battered" wasn't a word that was used back then. Other grassroots shelters were springing up across town, but this house on Lafayette Street, the Women in Transition House, was designed specifically to shelter women, sometimes women with children, who were fleeing violent men. "We put the biggest locks on the doors we could find," Pinkola Estes says. "Seven on each door."

The WIT house never had any funding, so the organizers would scrounge for food and clothes and donations, speaking to Rotary groups and Optimist clubs about domestic violence. "People looked at us--their eyes were like little blueberries in their faces," Pinkola Estes remembers. "They couldn't believe it happened across all classes, across all ethnicity groups, across all economic levels."

But if educating the Rotarians was hard, educating the women who'd left their husbands was harder. "The women were as asleep as the public," Pinkola Estes says. "How do you teach them that no one has a right to hit them, ever, even if they're provocative, even if they say salacious things? But the thing was, most of these women were not being provocative, not saying salacious things, and the men were still lashing out. Many, many of the women really struggled hard with whether they should go home again. Many women did go back into a battering situation time and again. Not because they were stupid, as some people suggested, or had a death wish, but because they'd been shocked into thinking nothing else was possible.

"It was a tremendous amount of work. It was a 24-hour-a-day life. But slowly, gradually, social services woke up and policemen woke up. All across the city, people began to wake up."

Money was the real eye-opener.
In 1975, the same year WIT finally closed its doors, psychologist Lenore Walker moved to Denver to take a job at Colorado Women's College. She brought with her a reputation for work she'd done on child abuse while on the faculty of Rutgers medical school in New Jersey. As she'd collected data, she'd found one underlying theme: "Women were always getting blamed," she says. "No one wondered what was happening to them."

At CWC, Walker had the perfect opportunity--and plenty of subjects--to continue studying women in abusive relationships and to question the prevailing "male-dominated, mother-blaming" theories regarding child abuse, many of them promulgated by the Denver-based Kempe Center. "I became part of a national group of people concerned about domestic violence, about women abuse," Walker remembers, "and at the same time, we were absolutely insistent that we were not going to work with the child-abuse people, because of their anti-women attitude."

In 1976 Walker went to England to meet activist Erin Pizzey, who'd started the "refuge movement" there and set up that country's first shelter for women. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, then in her fourth year as Denver's representative, paved the way for Walker's visit. "It was my first trip abroad, and I was treated like a guest of state," Walker remembers and laughs. "A guide took me to the shelters. Here I was, a little assistant professor of psychology, and they were treating me like an important person."

But on her return, Walker was an important person. Schroeder asked for an official briefing, and "I reported I thought the shelter movement was a good idea," she says. "I saw the need to have a central place in a community that would give the message loud and clear that we don't accept wife abuse." The feds offered grant money if Walker would organize a women's conference in this country featuring Pizzey; that first conference took place twenty years ago in Denver.

In the audience was Fern Portnoy, then the head of the Piton Foundation, which was financed by oilman Sam Gary. Within a matter of weeks, Piton had arranged the funding to set up two battered-women's shelters--one in Jefferson County, the other Denver's Safehouse for Battered Women, the first long-term shelter in the country.

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