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Women’s Advocates Has Walked with Survivors for 45 Years

And the U.S.’s first domestic violence shelter looks ahead to the future.

By Estelle Brouwer

Building a Legacy

On an October night in 1974, in Saint Paul, Minn., Women’s Advocates opened its doors to women seeking safety from abusive relationships, becoming the first domestic violence shelter in the U.S. In the years leading up to that night, the tenacious women who founded Women’s Advocates had been part of a grassroots organizing and consciousness-raising effort, pushing back against systems that denied women their right to independence, equality and safety.

The idea for the shelter grew out of the experiences of two women who staffed a Saint Paul legal hotline that supported women who wanted to change their names or to seek a divorce. . When it became clear that spousal abuse was the underlying problem for most of these women, the consciousness-raising group decided to focus on supporting battered women and advocating for local policy changes. Because the group’s efforts resisted traditional structures of hierarchy that revolved around male dominance, the group paid dearly, facing threats, anger, derision from community leaders and encouragement to do something “less inflammatory.”

At the same time, other groups of women were organizing in similar ways across the country. Everywhere, it seemed, women were suffering at the hands of abusive spouses and partners, and they had nowhere to go to be safe. In the Twin Cities, “Men had 37 options for places to go for housing if they didn’t have a place to stay for the night, but women had none,” says Susan Ryan, a member of the Women’s Advocates collective. It was time to do something.

In the video above, members of the founding collective reminisce on their 45 years of serving women in need of shelter and support. “When Women’s Advocates first opened on this Friday in October, the house wasn’t ready, and these calls kept coming in. They were women who just needed a place… So we just said, ‘Okay, let’s open the doors.’ And they started coming in that night,” says Sharon Rice Vaughan, a member of the founding collective.

Since the very beginning, advocacy at Women’s Advocates has embodied the principle that women are the experts on their own lives, an idea that grew directly out of the consciousness-raising movement.  “After the kids were in bed, women would gather in the kitchen, and they would talk about their lives and what they hoped for. Those conversations were the heart of the support that women offered one another,” says Betsy Raasch-Gilman, a member of the Women’s Advocates collective.

Defining Domestic Abuse


When Women’s Advocates first opened its doors, a term for domestic violence didn’t yet exist. Spousal abuse was generally thought to be a private concern, one not meant for public attention or response –  and even the victims didn’t have a frame of reference for their suffering. For Eileen Hudon, an early resident at the Women’s Advocates shelter and now a domestic violence advocate, a chaplain helped her understand that, “There’s a place for women like you.” She remembers responding with a question: “What are women like me?” In that exchange, Eileen heard the term “battered woman” for the first time.

Of all the myths, prejudices and misconceptions surrounding domestic violence, the most pervasive and insidious is that it must be the victim’s fault.  “She must have asked for it” and “Why doesn’t she just leave?” are two variations on this theme, still heard far too often today.

Improvising a Process


Women’s Advocates has a deep history of forging paths and creating models where none had previously existed. The women of the founding collective made things up as they went.

“For the battered women’s movement, we had to create our own model, and there were a lot of growing pains along the way. One of the difficult decisions was to accept government funding. [By accepting funding] you’re trying to…stay afloat and keep the shelter going, but then you give up something…you give up power, and that was very difficult in the early days of the movement,” says Shelley Johnson Cline of St. Paul Intervention.

In its first three years, Women’s Advocates provided shelter and resources to more than 1,500 women and children. The collective learned many lessons on the spot – how to schedule for a 24/7 shelter, work with volunteers, make consensus-based decisions, figure out security systems, recruit community support and much more.

Domestic violence crosses all racial, cultural and socioeconomic lines. Throughout its history, Women’s Advocates has served victim/survivors from a wide range of backgrounds. Culturally specific organizations such as Casa de Esperanza and Women of Nations also play an important role in today’s women’s safety movement, addressing unique challenges in meeting the needs of victim/survivors from specific cultural backgrounds.

Inspiring Reform


Policy and legal reform are key to ending domestic violence. Minnesota was a leader in this area, enacting legislation in the 1970s that laid the groundwork for domestic violence policy across the U.S. and beyond. In the early days of the movement, however,  police officers called to a “domestic” typically took the side of the abuser - even with laws in place that protected victims and made it easier to prosecute perpetrators. That began to change as public officials acknowledged the problem, advocates worked with police to be sure laws were followed and police departments supported domestic violence training for their officers.

At the national level, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), first enacted in 1994, provides for grants to state, local and tribal law enforcement to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women.  As of November 2019, VAWA is overdue for Congressional re-authorization, and the Senate has yet to take it up.

In terms of policy, legal and law enforcement reform, the work of Women’s Advocates’ founders had ripple effects across this country and the world.

A Day in the Life


Forty-five years after opening its doors, Women’s Advocates is still sheltering and helping victim/survivors heal. But even with the network of domestic violence shelters that exists across the state today, only 6 percent of callers to Minnesota domestic violence crisis lines find the shelter they need. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women in the U.S.  experiences rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in her lifetime.

Today, advocates recognize that abuse starts with gender, racial and economic inequities. Women’s Advocates and other key players in the women’s safety movement are committed to addressing the root causes of abuse while continuing to provide safe, supportive environments for victim/survivors and their families when they are in crisis.

Marking the 45 anniversary of the founding of Women’s Advocates shelter has caused those in the movement to look deep and hard at all that is known about domestic violence, all that has been done and all that remains to be done. They are committed to better understanding the forces that came together to make Women’s Advocates happen, and to transform that learning into action that will end domestic violence once and for all.

Domestic violence advocates at Women’s Advocates and across the movement find daily inspiration and hope in the victim/survivors they work with, along with their stories, their trauma, their journeys to healing.

This excerpt from Trina Paulus’s Hope for the Flowers has inspired Women’s Advocates staff and residents throughout its long history:

A tiny, yellow caterpillar speaks to a cocoon on the same bare branch: “And if I decide to become a butterfly,” said Yellow hesitantly, “what do I do?”

“Watch me. I’m making a cocoon. It looks like I am hiding, I know, but a cocoon is no escape. It’s an in-between house where the change takes place. It’s a big step since you can never return to caterpillar life. During the change, it will seem to you or to anyone who might peek that nothing is happening – but the butterfly is already becoming. It just takes time!”

This story and the accompanying videos were produced in partnership with Women's Advocates to honor the organization's 45th anniversary as one of the nation's first shelters for those escaping domestic violence. 

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