Ending violence against women was one of the goals of the post-1960s US feminist movements. In particular, the battered women’s movement (as it was first called) addressed problems of gender violence that had long been unspoken in communities across the country. What did this movement look like?
Radical feminists helped to generate the movement as they published articles on wife abuse, marched in the streets, and opened the first domestic violence shelters. Black, Latina, and Native American feminists offered depth to its analysis when they insisted that intimate violence in the home could not be separated from analyses of abuse that women and communities of color faced at the hands of the state. Regional coalitions of feminists put the ideas of the movement to work when they lobbied at the state and federal levels to change laws that rendered wife abuse invisible.
The movement was expansive, diverse, and multifaceted. One important theme, however, that emerges from Schlesinger collections is the class dimension in the formation of movements against gender-based violence.
Fran Leeper Buss’s oral history collection Work and Family: Low-Income and Minority Women Talk About Their Lives, ca. 1930–1990 reveals how women fought against violence and for their own survival. Conducted in the early 1980s by Buss, who is also a survivor of abuse, these interviews suggest that women refused to be categorized only as victims.
Darlene Leache, a white woman from Newcomb, Tennessee, discussed her resilience and dreams for a better life. She quit school in the eighth grade because her family could not afford school clothes, and she soon married. Her alcoholic husband began abusing her after her first child was born. She worked to support her growing family by hauling coal, cutting paper wood, and working at hotels and restaurants. She sometimes left with her six children when her husband was in a rage, and on one occasion she convinced the police, who refused to arrest her husband, to let her and her children sleep in a jail cell.
When she was in her early thirties, Leache learned about a group of nuns and local women who had organized a women’s group and community center called Mountain Women’s Exchange. There she took a General Equivalency Diploma class, earned her degree, and began working as a bookkeeper at the center. She also began speaking publicly about her life experience at meetings of 40 to 60 women. With the women’s group, she supported community efforts to solve environmental problems, alleviate poverty, and assist women in achieving their goals.
Feminists and survivors of abuse began organizing in the mid-1970s to offer women refuge from violent spouses, a history that can be traced vividly in the Battered Women's Directory Project Records, 1975–1985. Radical feminist, welfare rights organizer, and survivor of abuse, Betsy Warrior developed the project to connect nationally and internationally women who sheltered abused women.
The directory also developed arguments about why women often stayed in abusive relationships: “The fact that so many women do not receive pay for such a large part of their labor is closely connected to the phenomenon of battering and is a main factor in cutting off their means of escape.” Thus the directory provided advice on how women could attain legal aid services; Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits; Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children vouchers; and food stamps. If women were reluctant to apply for welfare because of the stigma, advocates were advised to “assure the woman that welfare is a right that she has also helped to provide if she has ever paid taxes or worked for free in the home. It’s a right, not a charity, which is available for situations like hers.”
Legal aid services were another arena of the movement, where feminists and lawyers, among a wave of female lawyers following Title IX, worked to change laws and implement better services for abused women. Founded in 1979 the National Center on Women and Family Law provided legal services to low-income women on family issues, including wife abuse.
While they initiated major court cases, perhaps one of their most important contributions was the “Battered Women’s Advocacy Handbook,” a manual, over 200 pages long, to help advocates assist low-income, battered women “with problems with the police, the Family and Criminal Courts, and the Department of Social Services, and in making referrals to shelters, legal services offices, and other services.” The handbook stood in stark contrast to widely held beliefs about battered women, including those in police training manuals, which often characterized abused women (especially those who were working class and a minority) as violent, masochistic, or manipulative.
Ending violence against all women was the goal, but the movement’s method in the early years was to begin with the needs of women with the fewest resources. Indeed, working class and poor women, along with their allies, stood on the front lines of the movement.
Jessica Wilkerson is assistant professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi. During 2016–2017 she was a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, where she worked toward completing her first book, Caregiver Citizens: From the War on Poverty to Grassroots Feminism in the Appalachian South.