Author examines heroes of Canada’s women’s-shelter movement
Journalist reveals how like-minded females set out to help abuse victims
It was a blue-sky conversation that led Margo Goodhand to spend a year of her life driving around the country, recording the stories of the strong, scrappy, seat-of-their pants pioneers of the women’s shelter movement.
The journalist and former editor of the Edmonton Journal was talking with her sister, Joyce, who had worked with battered women throughout her career, about what the two of them would do if they had clear space, no responsibilities, a mortgage that was paid off.
“I said, ‘I’ve always wanted to write a book.’ And Joyce said, ‘I’ve always wanted someone to research the women’s shelter movement.’ And we looked at each other and said, ‘That’s a good project,’ ’’ recalls Goodhand.
A good project, but massive. It took six years, and two sabbaticals from work, for Goodhand to complete the result, Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists: The Origin of the Women’s Shelter Movement in Canada.
Goodhand launches the book in Edmonton at Audreys Books on Sept. 19 at 7 p.m.
The result, which looks at five different shelters across the country that sprang up, seemingly in tandem, is both a moving portrayal
When you are writing a history that nobody has written, you are almost laying down the tracks for what you hope people will remember.
of the women affected, and a hardnosed examination of the public policy and relentless hard work that paved the way for today’s 625 shelters that still merely staunch the bleeding, coast to coast.
It’s also a testament to the powerful combination of government money and community drive, because it took both of those things, says Goodhand, to create a shelter community in Canada once viewed as a world leader in the field.
The book opens in 1973 with the story of Lorraine Kuzma, a Saskatoon woman in her early 30s with two little girls. Her husband was Steve, an abusive, unemployed drunk. Even the cops (notoriously hands-off at the time) told her not to return home after Steve twisted her big toe till it broke. But there was nowhere else for her to go.
Eventually, Kuzma joined forces with the Women Alone Society, a new Saskatoon group working with provincial funds to start employment programs for single mothers on welfare.
Around the same time in five cities — Aldergrove, Toronto, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Vancouver — something was percolating. Women, many of them inspired by the burgeoning feminist movement, applied for government community grants (dispensed at the time by the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau). Virtually without any sort of co-ordination or communication, a rough system to help battered women emerged.
“The women’s liberation movement — those high-powered women working on gender equity and abortion rights — were running to Parliament and trying to get political representation. That was the more glamorous side,” says Goodhand, who had extensive research support from her sister in writing the book. “Then the rogue feminists came along and they were a little more practical, a little more down-to-earth. Instead of going to consciousness-raising sessions, they were asking, ‘Why can’t we do something to help women?’ ”
The practical ones scrounged furniture, painted derelict rented buildings, cooked, cleaned, wrote staff schedules, went to court with victims, faced down raging husbands, and broke the law, repeatedly, to help women fleeing dangerous situations. Many of them were in their 20s, with nothing but guts and outrage to keep them going.
These women are heroes, and they are nobody you’ve ever heard of. Goodhand tracked down the early pioneers — many still working in the shelter system — and recorded their dogged efforts.
“When you are writing a history that nobody has written, you are almost laying down the tracks for what you hope people will remember,” says Goodhand. “We started with nothing and went through archives and talked to these women and they didn’t even know their place in this history.”
Goodhand devotes a chapter to Edmonton and Calgary and notes that many of the pioneers in this city were “church ladies” — strongminded Catholics such as the formidable Ardis Beaudry who never took ‘no’ for an answer. Beaudry was one of the founders, in 1970, of the Edmonton Women’s Emergency Overnight Shelter, a precursor to later local shelters for battered women such as WIN House.
Goodhand’s book is an emotional read, not surprising considering the ugly and persistent nature of its subject matter. While the political and social roots of the shelter system are fascinating to note, it’s the stories of the victims, and their advocates, that power the reader through the book’s 158 pages.
One of the best anecdotes recalls a shelter worker, in the days before cellphones, who drove to the home of a battered woman to collect some belongings, only to run into the husband as the worker backed her car into the rutted, icy lane behind the house.
He was coming straight at her in his truck. All the worker could do was back down the alley, and then continue to retreat through several main intersections, going backward, until she reached refuge. When the man came out of his vehicle and pounded on her windshield, screaming with rage, she turned up the radio, hoping to drown out his threats.
It would be nice if such stories never happened anymore. But domestic violence is still a huge problem in Canada.
“The shelters are still being built and they ’re full when they ’re built,” says Goodhand. “We’ve found a solution to the symptoms, but haven’t addressed the issue itself. We’ve created a wonderful support network, but, as Michele Landsberg (Toronto journalist) says, ‘We’re teaching women to dodge bullets. I am still searching for answers.’ ”
“The shelters are still being built and they’re full when they’re built,” says Margo Goodhand, author of Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists.