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The First Years

By Joni Miller
February 1981

There are about twenty of us, on a good day; two full-time paid members, six part-time paid members and twelve unpaid members. For most of us, it is a full-time long term commitment. We operate as collective and share responsibility for crisis work, facilitation of the support/education/action groups, for speaking engagements, financial decisions and for membership in a work group.

We have organized our work in to three main areas: 

* Taking care of ourselves – this group is responsible for how we deal with counseling, crisis work, medical and legal information and internal collective business. In 1979, 510 women called us in crisis, in 1980 480 women have called us.

* Outreach –primary responsibility for speaking engagements, workshops, political actions, publicity, media and public relations. In 1979 we did 270 speaking engagements. In 1980 we did 220 speaking engagements, approximately 25 tv spots, 40 radio spots and received a fair amount of newspaper coverage. We are working on an hour long video “Tour of the War Zone”, which will be completed in early 1981.

*Allies – responsible for determining who our allies are and why they are part of our ongoing work. Maintaining and building alliances within groups outside Rape Relief : Coalition of B.C. Rape Crisis Centres, Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, BCFW ( Federation of Women) member groups, other active feminist organizations provincially , International Feminist Network, Vancouver Men Against Rape, Radical Therapy Collective, Anti-Racist Coalition, Canadian Farmworkers Union.

In addition to these groups, we have a Working Class Women’s Caucus. They are a self-defined group of working class women. Activity to date consists of educating the collective via the newsletter about the reality of their lives and the effects of their double oppression and criticizing women from middle class backgrounds on class related behavior that is divisive to our movement and by presenting motions and recommendations to the collective on specific topics.

There is a house funding group, and a job finding group; which is charged with the responsibility of investigating jobs that could be shared collectively. The facilitators of the support/education/action groups meet regularly to trade progress reports and discuss tactics.

We currently have three groups a week happening out of the Rape Relief office and another group that operates in the Skeena Terrace housing project. The groups operate on a drop-in basis and regular attendance averages eight to fifteen women per session. We’re pretty pleased with them. Sometimes we say “goddam, those groups are the hottest thing we’ve got going.” We have seen approximately fifty women become more actively involved in their own liberation through the groups.

Working with men 

It started as a joke. We’d reached agreement within the collective that we really needed was a house. The next question was: how do we fund this thing? “Too bad we couldn’t put a tax on rapists” somebody said. We laughed.

Later we got serious. Maybe there was way to get men to pay. After all, we agree that because of society’s training in women-hating, every man is a potential rapist. We racked our collective brains and lives for men who might be willing to help. Six names name up. The first step was a letter asking for a straight out donation. The second step was another letter asking them to come to a meeting and put up some concrete work.

Men have always been on our funding committees. Dangerous men – powerful men – government men. Men with the resources to spy on us and pressure us to conform to their idea of how a rape crisis centre should operate. Men who call the shots.

Government money never comes without strings attached. We’ve spent long hours of our time negotiating with these men. We’ve learned to do a juggling act — balancing information and control to keep the money happening. The terms of funding have been clearly theirs.

Men have always been on our funding committees. What’s changed is that now we are too. Working with men is not new, what is new is that now we are setting the terms and deciding which men we choose to work with. We’re now working with men who are considerably less dangerous to us. They are men who have committed themselves – out loud – to doing anti-sexist work.

The two parts of this are examining and changing their own behavior, and the behavior of other men, and doing concrete work to alleviate the oppression of women. To quote Jay MaLean from REALIFE, a feminist media collective in Halifax, “It’s good to know there are some men who can see past their own male privilege.”

Why a transition house? 

Women do two thirds of the world’s work, get one tenth of the world’s wages and own one hundredth of the world’s property. Two thirds of the people on welfare are single mothers. They live 8.6% below the established poverty line. Forty nine percent of women in Canada work outside the home. While most of them are not unionized, the possibility exists. Fifty-one percent of Canadian women still work inside the home. These women are often very isolated and have little or no access to organizing.

Violence against women is a learned behavior. It is an effective method of keeping women firmly in their places. “If I hit you, you will do as I say.” In this country, fifty four percent of wives experience some degree of battering from their male partners. Since the abuse of women cuts across all economic lines, even a woman who lives in Shaughnessy may be only one man away from welfare.

There’s a neat little catch about welfare – to get it you have to have your own address – to have your own address you have to have money and if you don’t have your own money then you need welfare which you can’t get without an address of your own. Around and around it goes.

To escape their oppression – to get away from the battering, women need concretes. A roof over their heads — an address to give MHR (Ministry of Human Resources), food for the children. This is where transition houses enter the picture and provide an essential link.

What we are seeking to create is not just a safe shelter. There are no safe places (see atomic weapons). A temporary retreat may help you to feel better, but it’s not going to change the conditions out there. And there is where most of us have to live.

What we are creating is an organizing centre for women. Women will be able to support each other, educate each other with the stories of their lives, and move into action. Our office is already beginning to look like a transition house. On any given day yo will find kids, dogs, telephones ringing, the typewriters flying and women – all kinds of women. But it’s not enough just to hear stories.

To end our oppression, we need to join together and fight back collectively. All women need the women’s movement. Therefore, the movement must be accessible – to all women.

Separatism not an option for most women 

Feminist Separatism is not a practicable idea. For most of the women in the world it is not even remotely an option. It is not an option for the women in India, it is not an option for Native Indian women on reserves, it is not an option for the fifty one percent of Canadian women who work inside the home, and it is not an option for women on welfare or for women who choose heterosexuality.

You can’t even walk to the corner store without dealing with men. To imagine that we can lock ourselves away from them is foolish. Separatism is only even marginally possibly for a privileged group of white, middle class women. Assuming, of course, that they either have no male children or will never bear any. Separatism is only possible if the majority of women stay right where they are – down.

For some years now, we have been calling ourselves an anti-rape centre. We define our objectives as the eradication of all forms of violence against women. This objective rests on the idea that violence is learned behavior and can be changed. An essential part of this process is confronting men on their behavior.

In all the centuries of male domination and male-bonding, men have not, spontaneously, come up with a plan to end the tyranny. They are not likely to give up their privilege without hearing loudly from me, you, and all women.

Originally published in Kinesis – February 1981

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