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!’ ”
The group’s first challenge was to find premises. One night, Summers saw a segment on ABC’s Four Corners about the Church of England planning to sell hundreds of unoccupied Glebe houses to the government for public housing. A former squatter, Summers was well aware of the then prevailing squatters’ rights, and scouted around Glebe until she found an unoccupied cottage in sound condition on Westmoreland Street. The sign near the door proclaimed the house was named “Elsie”. A few days later, Summers and 14 other women, armed with shovels and broomsticks, marched down to the cottage, smashed a window and broke in. “The next thing we did was change the locks,” says Summers. “And then we called the media.”
Radio host John Laws interviewed Summers and announced the phone number of the refuge multiple times, leading to the first arrivals of battered women and children. Whitegoods wholesaler Joyce Mayne rang up, asked what the refuge required, and the next day delivered refrigerators and washing machines. Rotary obliged by securing the back fence and supplying playground equipment for the children. Local shopkeepers gave them leftover produce. It would be a year, however, before the refuge would receive any form of government funding. “I dealt marijuana for that year,” says Summers, smiling. “That’s how we got the cash.” The locals at that time always preferred to buy her cannabis “because it was Elsie pot. It was politically correct!”
It was Summers’ colleague, Diana Beaton, who in the early 1970s secured government support. “Diana was attending an ALP conference in Terrigal, on the NSW central coast. Diana was absolutely stunning – no man could take his eyes off her. So she goes to the conference dinner and she finds herself sitting next to Bill Hayden. Bill probably couldn’t believe his luck, but all Diana wanted to talk about all night was funding for women’s refuges. And that night she convinced him to at least visit Elsie.”
Summers recalls Hayden’s arrival: “He decided to park his car around the corner and turn up unannounced, probably thinking he could catch us out unprepared. After Hayden knocked on the door, one of the resident mothers answered and told him he couldn’t come in because men were banned from the refuge. ‘But I’m Bill Hayden,’ he explained, ‘minister for social security.’
“ ’I don’t care who you are,’ replied the mother. ‘No men are allowed!’ She slammed the door and Hayden began walking off down the street, when one of the workers recognised him, ran after him and dragged him back. He was appalled at what he saw, seeing those women, meeting them, seeing the kids. He said, ‘I’ll do anything.’ ”
Summers explains that as of this year, the state and federal funding of the refuge could be put out for general tender, allowing groups like The Salvation Army to bid, and undermining the original feminist ideology of female-run refuges. “That means that men would not only be allowed to stay at the refuge, they could also be running it, as well.”
“My partner didn’t beat me up,” says polly*, a short, thin, pale-faced woman in her mid-30s, who is sitting in the back garden of the refuge, drinking tea. “It was emotional abuse and sexual abuse.” Polly and her two children, aged 6 and 3, have been staying at Elsie for several months, after her partner forced her to return from interstate to resolve access issues with regard to his daughter, the three-year-old.
“When I first fell pregnant, he didn’t want the kid, and we broke up.” She adds that it was only after she gave birth that he began making promises. “He was very charming, and he wanted us to be a family.”
Unfortunately, Polly had to undergo a caesarean birth and during the operation part of her bowel was severed, causing further complications and infections. In the following two years she would have four more operations, which almost cost Polly her life.
“As soon as he moved in with me, after the birth, that’s when the abuse began. He’s six foot four. I’d come out of hospital, right after surgery, already with internal injuries, and he’d hold me down on the floor and restrain me, and then he’d rape me – repeatedly – and I was still wearing a colostomy bag.”
Polly was never sure what would “set her partner off” and she was always walking on eggshells and trying to pre-empt his mood swings. Many times he has shaken her son so vigorously that her son has wet himself; her daughter has returned from access visits with unexplained bruises on her arm and legs.
One day when he was driving with Polly to a couples’ counselling session, he was so disgruntled about the counsellor, who’d begun focusing on his problems rather than Polly’s, that he tried to kill them both by attempting to drive off the Harbour Bridge. “I grabbed the steering wheel just before we hit the barrier. He jumped out of the car and ran away. Then I slammed on the handbrake.” On another occasion, he tried to drive the car straight into a building.
When I raise with Polly the possibility that the operations of the refuge could soon be put out to tender, which could lead to men not only staying at the refuge, but also running it, she bristles and shakes her head. “No! No way. I wouldn’t be here if men were running it.” It took Polly weeks to even begin to trust the female workers at Elsie. “I was in counselling for about a month before I could admit that I’d been raped. I’d been in denial.”
She pulls out her mobile and begins showing me photos of her daughter’s bruised limbs. “Have you shown the police these?” I ask.
She nods wearily and briefly closes her eyes. “They told me I had a victim mentality and was just being melodramatic.”
It’s an odd feeling meeting a stranger who’s responsible for saving your life. I’m sitting at an outdoor cafe opposite Diana Beaton, 70, a slim, graceful woman with short hair and a clear-eyed face straight out of a Renoir painting. She tells me in Elsie’s early days, when they were still squatting, she performed “home rescues” that were more like improvised military operations.
One day in 1974, she received a call from a woman in Newtown who was desperate to escape an abusive relationship: “Come and get me now,” urged the woman, “while he’s not here.” Beaton turned up at the given address alone and helped the woman throw her few possessions into bags. Just as they were about to leave, the woman’s husband appeared on the front verandah. “We grabbed the bags, ran out into the backyard, and began throwing the bags over the fence,” recalls a still-stunned Beaton. “I managed to crawl up the fence, too, and pulled the woman up with me, just as her husband was opening the back door. We ran for our lives and grabbed a cab.”
Like Summers, Beaton is still amused by her own naivete and that of the other founding members: “We had no training, and the perception by the Whitlam government was that we were a bunch of middle-class women helping other middle-class women get out of their marriages.” In 1975, as a consequence of the Hayden visit, Elsie received a one-off grant of $24,000 to fund six positions for a 12-month period.
By June 1975, there were eight women’s refuges around the country, all operating on scant budgets and uncertain future funding. Beaton recalls that it was Lyndall Ryan, the then officer of women’s affairs, who urged her to ring around the other refuges and “get some figures on how many families come through”. Beaton catches her breath and glances up at the sky. “Over an 18-month period, we’d sheltered 13,500 women and children. Even we were gob-smacked.”
After the figures were submitted to the federal government, the then minister for urban and regional development, Tom Uren, visited Elsie. The residents were still squatting under Dickensian conditions: the refuge was flooded and ankle-deep in water, there was only one toilet, and some of the kids had come down with stomach parasites.
Not long after the Uren visit, triennial funding was approved for all eight facilities. “That was the turning point,” says Beaton, smiling.
Today, there are more than 300 women’s refuges around Australia, with a mix of state and federal funding. Much has changed. Telstra has granted free silent numbers for relocated victims of violence. “SOS” personal alarms have recently become available to keep vulnerable women safe from threatening former partners. When activated, the call for help is prioritised by police. The device has a GPS to guide police to the victim’s location.
“But technology can also work against the victims,” says Tanya Smith, the current manager of Elsie and herself a survivor of violent marriage. “A husband can secretly plant a GPS in his wife’s car and follow her around – even after she’s left him, or thought she has.”
Marie and her daughters Sophia and Lucy know only too well the complexities of technology when it comes to domestic violence. Marie was forbidden by her husband Lorne* to contact her family and friends without his permission, a rule he was able to enforce by regularly checking her mobile. She and Lorne worked alone together running their own antique store for 20 years. “He’d lose his temper, drag me into the office, shut the door, and kick me, punch me and pull my hair out. And after it was over, I’d have to clean myself up, put on some make-up, and walk back into the shop to deal with the customers.”
Lorne also abused his daughters. Sophia confesses that she recently read a diary entry written when she was only eight: “I wish Dad would let me read books that I like, like picture books, but if I do I know he’ll bite me and bash me, just like he always does.”
When I ask if there was a defining moment or action that caused Marie to decide to leave for good, the three of them grow anxious and begin talking over one another in high, breathless voices.
Finally, the youngest, Lucy, loudly wins out. “I remember saying to Mum one day, when she and Sophia had to go to an appointment, ‘Whatever you do, don’t leave me alone with Dad.’ ” Mother and sister were perturbed by the admission, but since the appointment was urgent and couldn’t be changed, the two reluctantly left Lucy at home. During their absence Lorne complained bitterly about Lucy’s behaviour. “He didn’t think I was practising the piano enough”.
When I turn to Lucy and ask her how her father hurt her that day, she begins sobbing uncontrollably. “He threw me down on the floor, smashed my head against the piano, and dragged me around the room by my hair.” This is clearly the first time Lucy has detailed to them the extent of Lorne’s abuse. Her older sister puts and arm around her and Marie’s face is so racked with pain and regret she can barely utter the following words: “That’s what made me want to leave,” she says in a trembling voice. “I chose to be with Lorne, but these girls didn’t. I didn’t want Lucy to end up as prostitute on the street just because of the choices I’d made.”
Anne Summers believes that there have been many advances in the past 40 years in how we deal with domestic abuse, but when I suggest the underlying violent behaviour hasn’t changed that much, she nods her head. “It hasn’t changed at all,” she says. “In fact, it’s worse!” She agrees with me that contemporary drugs like crystal methamphetamine, ketamine and others, non-existent 40 years ago, and which can trigger aggressive, psychotic episodes, have contributed to the escalating violence.
The Australian Institute of Criminology reports that one woman is killed every week in Australia by a current or former partner. Last year, in NSW alone, 24 women were murdered in domestic-related incidents. Over their lifetime, about one in three Australian women will suffer physical violence and about one in five will experience some form of sexual violence.
Over the decades, since government agencies have become involved with Elsie, the day-to-day running of the refuge has become more corporatised. Residents are now called “clients”; applying for funding is now “procurement”; 25 per cent of a client’s Centrelink payments are tithed for running costs; and there is a time limit of three months on a client’s stay. Workers no longer sleep overnight at the refuge and instead take turns to be “on-call”. Instead of being automatically eligible for Emergency Accommodation from the Department of Housing, as my mother and I had been in 1976, clients now must choose between two federal programs: the first, “Start Safely” will provide a subsidy of up to 75 per cent of an approved private rental for up to two years; the second, “Rent Start”, pays the bond and two weeks’ rent on a private rental, after which time the client is responsible for her own expenses.
When I ask whether my mother, brother and I could have survived on our own under such draconian regulations, Tanya Smith reminds me that today the general waiting list for public housing is 12 to 15 years, while the so-called “priority” list stands at two to five years.
“And what constitutes a priority these days?”
“People with AIDS and HIV,” she replies, “the elderly, and those with a terminal illness or a disability.”
“Not traumatised and abused women and kids?”
She shakes her head. “Sadly, no, unless they’re disabled, terminally ill or have substance abuse problems.”
As I prepare to leave the refuge, I pause to ask Marie and her daughters if they have any future plans. Given the difficulty of securing emergency housing, I expect them to be equivocal, but Marie is surprisingly resolved: “The three of us are changing our names and identities and in two weeks we’re moving interstate.”
“Like the witness protection program?” I ask.
“Do you know anyone where you’re heading?”
“We don’t know a soul,” replies Marie. “And we don’t care. We just want to get as far away as possible from him!”
Domestic Violence Counselling Line: 1800 737 732.
* Names have been changed.