It is almost impossible to fathom that in just 27 months it will be 50 years since we opened Elsie Women’s Refuge. In March 1974 a rowdy group of feminists in the inner-Sydney neighbourhood of Glebe broke into an abandoned house, which serendipitously bore the nameplate Elsie (many houses in Australia used to have names). We changed the locks, declared squatters’ rights, and opened Australia’s first modern women’s refuge. As luck would have it, the adjoining house was also unoccupied, so we smashed our way in there as well, giving us two tiny cottages to operate from. It took three nerve-wracking days before the first woman and her kids showed up. We had opened the refuge under the most precarious of circumstances: our tenancy legally questionable, no funds, very little support from other sections of the women’s movement which questioned whether feminists should be providing services. And now, after much media fanfare on the need for safe housing for women and kids escaping domestic violence, no one had shown up.
We learned later of the women who had written down the phone number after hearing me interviewed by Sydney’s most notorious shock-jock radio host (who turned out to be amazingly sympathetic and kept repeating the number long after I had left the studio). After our first ‘client’ arrived, a Scottish woman and her three little boys who, to her astonishment, was given an extremely effusive welcome, we were never not full to overflowing.
By June 1975, just fifteen months later, there were eight women’s refuges around the country, all operating on uncertain future funding. A friendly feminist who worked in the Office of Women’s Affairs in Canberra urged us to ring around the other refuges and “get some figures on how many families had come through”.
Diana Beaton, one of the volunteers who kept Elsie going for many years after that shaky start, made the calls: “Over that period, we’d sheltered 13,500 women and children. Even we were gob-smacked,” she said in a magazine interview many years later.
For years after I was no longer involved, I would hear stories from women who had sought sanctuary at Elsie. Mandy Sayer, a well-known Sydney writer, tells of her mother piling into a cab with she and her brother, wearing only their pajamas, and asking to be taken to Elsie. It was a $50 cab ride. Her mother had no money but at Elsie they were welcomed, the cab was paid for, and Mandy and her family began the reset of their lives.
Back on that first day, in March 1974, I had given countless radio and television interviews, to (always) male and often patronizing interviewers. A famous ABC journalist informed me that “nagging wives” invited such violence. Fortunately, such views were not commonly expressed (at least not to our faces).
Our daring act in announcing that we – a bunch of 20-something students and others – were going to provide safety, succor and help in finding a new life for women and kids escaping violence, attracted scorn, curiosity, applause and a huge amount of overt sympathy and support. We were both astonished and gratified when a local men’s charitable organization, Rotary, turned up and offered practical help. They spent a weekend securing our back fence and building a playground for the kids. Joyce Mayne, a large Sydney whitegoods retailer, got on the phone – herself! – and asked what we needed. The next day a truck delivered a refrigerator, washing machine, and dryer. The locals in Westmoreland Street started dropping off clothes and other useful items.
Our struggle back then was to secure funding just so we could keep going, and we did not think too much about the future. I am certain that none of us could have contemplated a time fifty years on when there would be almost 100 refuges in NSW. Or that in 2021 a conservative state government would announce funding for a further 75 refuges designed to replace the communal style housing we started with the more appropriate ‘core and cluster’ model. This style of accommodation gives women more privacy, enables them to bring teenage boys, and pets, with them while still being able to access the support services provides by refuges.
Women’s shelters, as many prefer to call them these days, are now mainstream, supported across the political spectrum. It seems they are here to stay.
I don’t want to see it as failure that are almost doubling the number of shelters in NSW because we need those safe places. We need the services that help women and kids reset their lives. We need those brave and selfless shelter workers who have devoted their lives to helping other women try to leave violence behind them.
But as we move towards marking – celebrating? – 50 years since we opened Elsie, maybe we should once again be brave, break the rules, dare to imagine a future without domestic and family violence. And plan how to make it happen.
Anne Summers is an Australian feminist with a long involvement in the women’s movement. She is the author of nine books, including the ground-breaking Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975), and is currently involved in a project on how to reduce domestic and family violence. She was one of a group of Sydney feminists who established Elsie, Australia’s first women’s refuge.