In Canada and many other parts of the world, women first opened their homes to battered women in the early half of the 1970s out of the momentum of the Second Wave of the Women’s Liberation Movement and in the context of more readily accessible welfare.
Second wave consciousness raising or truth telling groups revealed the extent and prevalence of men’s rape, battery, incest and sexual harassment of women. They also revealed that men’s violence controls even the women who are not directly attacked. Women talking together began to shape feminist analysis that violence against women is an enforcer of all women’s oppression (Lakeman, L. 2005)1.
Transition houses were part of their strategy of resistance against men’s violence. Within transition houses, resident women engage in consciousness raising discussions. These discussions promote women’s entitlement to leave violent men. They reveal our shared experience of violence across race and class. They link male violence to other elements of women’s oppression, including men’s denial of our right to reproductive and sexual choice and the exploitation of our domestic and paid labour. Transition houses were and are an important element of women’s resistance to men’s violence and an important strategy for women’s liberation.
It is not a mistake that women founded transition houses in welfare states. Many women come to the transition house with no source of income other than their husbands’ paycheques. They are mostly mothers to young children and/or wives to husbands who block their access to money. They face unaffordable childcare and education, are pushed toward low paid employment, and forced to cope with lack of pay equity and inadequate sexual harassment provisions. Even women from middle class homes rarely have their own independent money. A transition house is therefore both safe shelter and an address from which to apply for welfare. Welfare, though inadequate, is often the only economic option supporting women’s autonomy.
At Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, we founded our transition house in 1981, when there were already more than 75 houses in operation across the country (Fitzgerald, M. et al. 1982)2. We had operated our anti-rape line for 8 years and wanted to open the house to provide the food, shelter and basic necessities needed for escape from battering men. We also wanted a more developed base for our feminist organizing and advocacy work, independent of government control.
As we reviewed our herstory over the course of our anniversary year, our records revealed that we have struggled throughout our herstory to maintain our feminist practice and our independence. A feminist transition house is a place where women withdraw from men to talk about violence against women and strategize how to end male violence. Women come wanting to tell us their story and we encourage workers to do the same; we all have experiences to share and analysis to contribute. Residents have contributed enormously to the beauty, comfort and usefulness of our transition house. We have noticed time and again that once women are free from the daily threat of violence, they are fully competent to care for themselves and other women. We work to ensure that they have real decision-making power in the house, a power that was denied them when they lived with their batterers. For the sake of comfort, both physical and emotional, we have kept our house small. We can know each other and take care of each other more readily that way. Ultimately, our transition house is an expression of the kind of world we are seeking to achieve, one in which women’s work is valued, responsibility and power are both more equitably distributed and we all live in safety and well-being (Feminist Standards).
We are proud to have housed over 2,200 families since 1981.
In British Columbia and across Canada, welfare rates along with other social and economic provisions have been reduced or eliminated. While these provisions did not equalize gender, class and race disparities in power and resources, they did provide some security and autonomy particularly to women. In addition to cuts to welfare, government is cutting back funding to women’s groups across the country. While transition houses in Canada have not yet faced serious cuts in funding, other organizations of the women’s movement have.
To celebrate our 35th anniversary and respond to our changing context, we hosted an international gathering of women from English-speaking welfare state countries undergoing similar neoliberal political changes, including England, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Canada. They joined us in considering the challenges currently facing our movement and in recommitting to the transition house as a strategy for women’s liberation.
Together, we reflected on the positive pressure of transition houses within the women’s movement and of the movement on society, without which the larger problem of violence against women would not be visible or contextualized within women’s oppression. In 35 years of transition houses, we have collectively blocked tens if not hundreds of thousands of attacks on women. Our houses have disproved racist and classist myths about violence against women, especially as women from many racial, ethnic and class backgrounds reveal similar attacks by the men of their groups. We agreed that alliance between us is valuable and so is the body of expertise we have accrued from serving women. Our movement has changed the public’s understanding of violence against women and we have succeeded at influencing some government policy and practice for the better.
However, the intrusive nature of much government policy combined with few sustaining provisions and inadequate criminal justice response shapes our work negatively and impedes upon our autonomy and the autonomy of the women calling us for assistance. Since we make little separation between what we want for residents and what we want for ourselves, between our daily work in the transition house and our political advocacy, we can see that the negative effects of these policies on our residents are also harmful to us (Feminist Standards).
In many countries, neoliberal politics have already resulted in significant funding cuts, tendering of transition house contracts to housing providers and other agencies, intrusion by government ministries, particularly child protection ministries, requirements to ‘partner’ with the criminal justice system and requirements to reveal information about women living in transition houses to the state. These intrusions have so structured programs and houses that the groups that invented the service s, saved the lives, gathered the statistics and experiences and so influenced public and government understanding of violence against women are being told this expertise is no longer relevant.
Our meeting reached several valuable conclusions, including agreement that prostitution must be considered a form of violence against women and a successful press conference to this effect. We value and work to sustain an alliance between feminists within transition houses as well as between transition houses and other groupings of women within the women’s movement. Each house is struggling with the means still available to resist demands that interfere with the integrity of feminist principles. We all agreed that a movement for women’s liberation is a necessary element of ending violence against women; even while we value service to individual women, service alone is not enough. Finally, we are proud that our movement welcomes lesbians as workers and battered women including ex-residents of our houses into our decision-making structures. We are also proud to recognize that transition houses have and do work across class and race. We are committed to continuing in these practices that sustain our movement.
We are proud to be part of a much larger community of dedicated feminist activists and service providers working for the best interests of the individual women who call upon us and of women as group. We know we will continue to discuss, debate and appreciate the work of our close allies.
1. Lakeman, L. (2005) Obsession with Intent Violence Against Women Montreal: Black Rose Books.
2. Fitzgerald, M. et al. (1982) Still Aint Satisfied: Canadian Feminism Today. Toronto: Women’s Press.