DAY TWO: Where it all began

Almost 50 years on, Anne Summers writes about the opening of Elsie Women’s Refuge in 1974 (Australia).

Anne Summers

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.

Video above: Excerpt from the film ‘Brazen Hussies’ featuring Anne Summers. Reproduced with permission from writer and director Catherine Dwyer.  

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. 

Image above: Photograph taken inside a women’s refuge at Glebe, Sydney, New South Wales 1975. Source: National Archives of Australia, A6180, 2/6/75/11 

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. 

Image above: Women’s Liberation Calendar 1985, Women’s refuges opened 74/74. Source: Sybylla Cooperative Press and Publications Ltd

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.

Image above: Poster for a concert to raise money for the Elsie Refuge, 1975 featuring the women’s liberation band, Clitoris. Source: Toni Robertson and Julie Bishop / National Gallery of Australia Collection

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.

Is this what we intended? That we would have to accept that domestic and family violence would be with us forever? We probably did not articulate it clearly at the time, but I think that what we wanted was for the violence to end. Refuges were part of the plan, but they were a means to an end, never the end itself.

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.

Image above: Anne Summers at Elsie Women’s Refuge

Author’s bio:

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.

Day Six | Towards a just conclusion – a prosecutor’s perspective on tackling domestic abuse in Scotland

Anne Marie Hicks


Image of the Crown Office used with the permission of the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service, Scotland

Transforming the institutional response to domestic abuse has been a key focus since I was appointed six years ago to a newly-created role of National Prosecutor, one which is not mirrored in other jurisdictions internationally. With a remit involving overseeing all aspects of policy, practice and training, including case work, service improvements and policy and legislative development, it’s my job to ensure prosecutors have the right tools to do the job and that our response is as effective as it can be. 

My diary over this period reflects the breadth of the role – there’s no ‘typical’ day. To illustrate, I’m delivering training to prosecutors; reviewing the first six months of implementation of our new domestic abuse law; and working with our human resources department on the development of a gender-based violence policy for our staff. I’m also speaking at events and to media to publicise 16 Days, participating in a Ministerial Task Force to improve victims’ justice experience and a Task Force to improve forensic medical services for victims of sexual violence, and attending a multi-agency forum with criminal justice and victim support organisations to discuss the collective response to domestic abuse. Quite a variety!

The key benefits and difference the National Prosecutor role have made are around strategic leadership and specialism – having the authority to work across boundaries, to really drive change, upskill prosecutors and identify and implement service improvements at a national level. Externally, the role has increased understanding and public confidence in our approach, has strengthened multi-agency collaborations and has enabled us to play a more influential role in the national political response to tackling violence against women.

Robust prosecution critical in preventing abuse

Around 30,000 domestic abuse charges are reported annually to the Prosecution Service by the police in Scotland – covering the full ambit of offending including rape and murder. Domestic abuse is also a significant inequality issue – around 80% of cases involve abuse by male perpetrators towards women.

We take a robust approach to the prosecution of domestic abuse, recognising that effective enforcement and prosecution is critical to the success of any wider prevention strategy. Prosecution can disrupt the abuse and enable physical separation and a breathing space for victims through custody, or protective court orders. It can provide an opportunity for intervention with perpetrators and victims, and prevent further abuse towards them or other women who may be at risk in the future. Prosecution also plays a vital role in educating the public and changing cultural attitudes, by sending a strong message that this behaviour won’t be tolerated in society.

Prosecutions are often challenging evidentially given the hidden nature of this crime which still overwhelmingly takes place behind closed doors. Reluctance and disengagement by victims with the criminal justice process due to the dynamics and impact of abuse is also a significant issue and prosecutors have to work harder to get the right results, in close collaboration with other organisations to ensure victim support and safety is at the centre of our approach.

We operate strong presumptions in favour of prosecution where there is sufficient evidence – and against discontinuation of prosecutions once we’ve started, even in the face of reluctance by the victim. Victims’ views will always be important, but the public interest requires that all relevant factors are properly considered. This approach recognises the repeated nature of the crime and the state’s obligations – as confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights – to tackle violence against women and protect citizens from future harm. 

Criminal enforcement alone will not eliminate domestic abuse; but without robust, consistent and effective enforcement and prosecution, we will never eradicate this behaviour in society and make victims and children safer.

Scotland’s new domestic abuse law

From April this year, Scotland has had the benefit of a new domestic abuse law which criminalises a course of abusive behaviour between partners or ex-partners (unlike other UK jurisdictions, the Scottish legislation doesn’t extend to other familial relationships). 

Introduced to close a gap in the law in relation to many of the coercive and controlling behaviours which weren’t previously criminal, the new law is significant in a number of ways. For example, it moves away from an incident-based episodic approach and enables patterns of repeat victimisation to be prosecuted as a single course of conduct. It also defines abusive behaviour as including not only physical and sexual violence and threats, but also other coercive and controlling behaviours, including those designed to isolate, control, regulate, restrict freedom, punish, degrade and humiliate.

A further strength of the new law is that it focuses on the perpetrator’s behaviour and likelihood of this causing harm rather than requiring proof of actual impact and harm to the victim;and it recognises the harm caused to children by domestic abuse and introduces an aggravation to the charge where a child is involved. Finally, it enhances victim safety provisions, introducing mandatory consideration of protective non-harassment orders for victims and children on the conviction of the perpetrator.

It’s early days but already we’ve raised numerous prosecutions and are securing convictions. Crucially we’ve been able to prosecute coercive and controlling behaviours which were not previously criminal, making the true pattern of abuse visible and allowing courts to address the full extent of victims’ experiences. This is a significant step forward for Scotland in ongoing collective efforts to transform the justice response to tackling this insidious behaviour and keeping victims and children safe. 

Anne Marie Hicks is the National Procurator Fiscal for Domestic Abuse at the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service, Scotland