Australia’s first domestic violence shelter, dubbed ‘Elsie’, was set up in squatted properties in Glebe in 1974. The following article by Mandy Sayers, which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, on April 12 2014 discusses the women and children it has supported over 40 years and how it came to be set up.
40 years of Elsie, Mandy Sayers
Australia’s first women’s refuge was opened in 1974, and today the need for shelters is as great as ever.
My stepfather used to beat my mother and me so badly that she tried to commit suicide three times. The last attempt landed her in intensive care. By that time, we’d been abused for three years and there had been nowhere to turn: neighbours, clergy and even the police refused to get involved in what they considered mere domestic disputes.
As my mother was recovering, she read an article in The Australian Women’s Weekly about a woman’s shelter called Elsie in Sydney’s inner west. A few nights later, after my stepfather went into yet another violent rage, threatening to drop my baby brother into boiling water, my desperate mother dragged us in our pyjamas out into a thunderstorm, hailed a cab, threw us in, and told the driver to step on it. An hour later we were sitting in the living room of Elsie, weeping with relief.
I’m back here because it’s now 40 years since the opening of Elsie, the first refuge in Australia to provide urgent assistance to battered wives and children. In an upstairs room, I’m listening to a current resident, Marie*, recounting what happened to her: “I’ve been bitten, had my ribs broken, and my back’s been kicked so badly I can’t feel my spine.” She glances out the window and shudders. “It started on our honeymoon and lasted all of 22 years.” Marie, 45, only fled her violent husband a few weeks ago. Perched beside her on the couch are Sophia*, 19, and Lucy*, 15, also victims of their father’s constant abuse.
Back in 1974, the only place abused women and children could find temporary shelter was at a Salvation Army facility, which provided a bed for the night but banned traumatised families from residing there during the day, and provided no health, legal or social services. Most women ended up returning to their violent partners.
Feminist Anne Summers was then a 29-year-old post-graduate student at Sydney University when she saw a documentary based on Erin Pizzey’s Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear, about domestic abuse in England. As a result, after a two-day Women’s Commission Conference, plans were made to start a refuge in Sydney.
Summers was aware of the Chiswick Women’s Aid shelter in London, the first of its kind in the world, and phoned the shelter to ask for advice. “I’ll never forget it,” says Summers, now 69, sitting in the dining room of her Potts Point terrace. “There were kids screaming in the background – all kinds of noise – and when I asked the woman how to set up a refuge, she replied, emphatically, ‘Just do it!’ ” Read more