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Diversity in the Battered Women’s Movement

We didn’t think much about diversity in the early years of the battered women’s movement. It just was. Diverse women worked side-by-side as volunteers to save our sisters and ourselves.

Some of us opened shelters. In the early years, these were homes that a realtor or friend could donate or lend to us. Volunteers ran the shelters. We used what we had for safety and kept a baseball bat by the front door. After you had been a shelter resident for a few days, we handed you the phone and expected you to answer the hotline for us. Some of us opened safe houses because we had an extra bedroom or two and brought battered women and their children into our homes.

We modeled our shelters and safe houses after the Underground Railroad, learning from sisters of color. Lesbians led our work in many communities and we learned that we would all be called “lesbians” if we were doing good work and we cared about women. Jewish women taught us about the religious discrimination they faced within the community and within our shelters.

At the forefront of this work was always the battered or formerly battered women who had the experience, who knew what they needed, who had saved themselves and were now saving others.  Most did not have the traditional education that might be required by a social service organization.  Many of us were fearless in our ignorance. When we wanted to change police behavior, we made appointments with police chiefs. We were not always well-received.  But, we didn’t give up and every once in a while, we made sense to a chief who was willing to try something new.

The police chiefs told us their hands were tied by the law so we decided we could change the law.  None of us had any experience, but we went in groups and made appointments with legislators in Tallahassee. We learned about the legislative session. One of the first laws we created in Florida was the Marriage License Trust Fund to create a funding source for the shelters in Florida. At first, the law had its limitations. We could only serve married or formerly married women with the funds because the legislature did not want to be seen condoning families “living in sin.” Since at least half of the women we served were not legally married, that forced us to look for other funding streams and many of us successfully turned to our local United Ways.

Battered and formerly battered women were always at the forefront of this work. However, we discovered that, when women were sent to meet with their state coalitions or their national coalitions, more women with degrees and credentials were sent to represent us. Nationally, we organized a task force that would always have a representative at the table when decisions were being made. We gained the ability to stop the discussion on a proposal and call a caucus if we felt the conversation was not reflecting our views or potentially causing more danger to battered women.

This model began to drift down to the state level and caucuses and task forces began to form, giving battered and formerly battered women a voice. For six years, I co-chaired the national task force and I found my voice through trial and error and an enormous amount of emotional discussion when all decisions were made by consensus. It was an exciting and empowering time.

By Linda Osmundson, CASA's Executive Director

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