A Collective History of the Fight Against Domestic Violence

Written by Joanna Bowling

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it still feels very much like we need this time to highlight the serious problem of violence within intimate relationships. But one thing we can say about the 2020s is that, at the very least, we now recognize that domestic violence is a violent, serious problem. There was a time when domestic abuse was hidden behind closed doors, and considered a private matter. But there were groups of women who set about to change that in the 70s, and while the problem has obviously not been solved, they helped bring us to the point where we are today. And now we can shine a light on the problem and continue to work towards changing things. 

Putting a Name to a Problem

Domestic violence, or domestic or intimate partner abuse, is by no means a new problem: in fact, it’s probably one of the oldest problems plaguing modern humanity. But the, well, problem was that we didn’t recognize it as a “problem.” Up until the 1970s, domestic violence was virtually ignored by the legal and medical professions, and by society in general. If the subject did come up in a scholarly way, it was usually briefly mentioned in a journal of psychiatry, as a rare occurrence that was due to a psychological disorder. And often, it was written about as something that was women’s fault, something that they somehow “provoked.”

woman looking down with a fist over her head

And outside of the scholarly world, society at large generally saw violence against women in the home as a private matter, something that should stay behind closed doors. That meant police and medical professionals were reluctant to get involved. And, just as horrifyingly, it was also seen as a joking matter. Popular cartoons and TV shows made what were meant to be lighthearted references to hitting wives; another disturbing example is an ad for a Michigan bowling alley that sported the big, bold pun: “HAVE SOME FUN. BEAT YOUR WIFE TONIGHT.”

So the pre-1970s world was a time when violence against women was not recognized as a problem, even if it did exist, and so there was almost no help to be had. The idea of the category of an “abused woman” looking for help did not exist, and even the few and nonspecific resources for people who were in crisis and unhoused were completely inadequate. For example, in the early 1970s in Los Angeles, there were homeless shelters that provided 1000 beds for men, and only 30 for women.

There were no resources for women who were suffering, and they weren’t even afforded the dignity of having their suffering recognized. But then the world began to change, and women took matters into their own hands.

The Activism and Organizations that Began to Change Things

We can give much of the credit for changing the seemingly hopeless situation laid out above to the women involved in the feminist movement of the 1970s. They saw the 2-4 million women who were beaten in their homes annually (in fact, many of the women in the early “battered women’s movement” were survivors of domestic abuse themselves) and took up the banner at a time when women were agitating for change. 

In the mid-1970s, these feminist activists and survivors organized under the banner “We will not be beaten,” and launched a nationwide campaign to expose what was really going on – as well as to demand change from law enforcement, the medical profession, and all of society.

Demanding is one thing, and taking matters into your hands and finding practical solutions is another. These women also set out to do that, in addition to trying to change policy and get the attention of people in power. They set out to create support networks and shelters for abused women, and they were admirably successful. Between 1975 and 1978, more than 170 battered women’s shelters opened across the country; by 1978, there were over 300 shelters, hotlines, and groups advocating for abused women. 

Many of these initiatives were started by collectives of women. They include: 

Women Against Abuse 2 phones with text bubbles coming out of them

This organization was started in 1976 as a part-time domestic violence hotline in a neighborhood women’s center. Based on what they heard from the women who called in, they worked to open an emergency shelter in 1977. This shelter started out in a small row home, and despite no publicity, was filled to over capacity overnight. WAB eventually expanded to a space given by the city of Philadelphia, and also began to offer legal support. They have only continued to expand their services since then, and are still going strong.

Chicago Abused Women Coalition

Now known as Connections for Abused Women and Their Children, CAWC began after a kitchen-table meeting in 1976 to address the problem of domestic violence. This one meeting formed a task form that created the first domestic violence program in Chicago, which eventually became a hotline and an emergency shelter. They are also still going strong; in 2018 alone, they provided over 30,000 hours of domestic violence services.

Women’s Advocates

Known by many as the first shelter for women and their children escaping domestic abuse, Women’s Advocates was formed as a collective-based nonprofit in 1972. They operated out of a legal assistance office, then one of the founding volunteers’ homes, then in a rented office space. It began essentially as a divorce rights information line – a number for women to call to get legal information and advice about leaving their abusive partners. But the volunteers soon realized that the biggest obstacle for these women was the lack of a safe place to stay. So they decided to write letters asking friends, family, and members of the community for funds in order to purchase a permanent shelter. And within two years, they had collected enough funds to make a down payment on a house in St. Paul, Minnesota. According to their website, “Today, Women’s Advocates provides shelter and services for up to 50 victim-survivors and their children daily, conducts crisis interventions and safety referrals via the crisis line daily, and educates students and professionals about domestic abuse awareness, prevention and services.

And the above three organizations are just a few examples of the collective organizations that came from women, for women. Others, to name just a few, include:

  • First Step (Wayne County, MI)
  • Women & Children First: The Center Against Family Violence (Little Rock, AK)
  • The Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence
  • Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence
  • Partnership Against Domestic Violence (Atlanta, GA)
  • Austin Center for Battered Women

The hard work of the women who fought against domestic violence, and those who started these organizations, did pay off, and they did get a whole lot of attention for their cause. In fact, according to activist Susan Schechter in her account of the battered women’s movement, by the early 1980s, “in contrast to just one decade earlier, battered women are no longer invisible.” Thanks to them, we have hotlines, shelters, other resources, and a name for what is happening to far too many women.

But Schechter, and anyone who has their eyes open, would agree that we need to keep going.

Where We Are Todaydomestic violence stats infographic

While the work that the women of the late 20th century did was crucial and monumental, we’re still nowhere near where we need to be. Considering that it took until the 1990s to get an act passed by Congress to address violence against women (the 1994 Violence Against Women Act), it can often feel like women are still not really being heard. And the statistics surrounding domestic violence are still staggering. 

Consider the following stats from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: 

  • On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.
  • 1 in 7 women and 1 in 25 men have been injured by an intimate partner.
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking.
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence (e.g. beating, burning, strangling) by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
  • Intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crime.
  • 1 in 10 women have been raped by an intimate partner.
  • Only 34% of people who are injured by intimate partners receive medical care for their injuries.

Fortunately, thanks to a lot of hard work by a lot of women both past and present, we can name this violence, and we can fight back against stigma and indifference. But there’s no denying that domestic violence is still a problem. So let’s get aware, not just this month but every month, and lend our support to organizations both old and new that are still working hard to combat this very real problem. 

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