Thursday, March 17, 2005

Working for a Battered Women’s Shelter

I dropped out of college too many times to count, and during one of my more pathetic attempts to be “authentic” I moved back in with my parents. They lived in a sleepy Texas town which I despised for not being Austin. At the time, I was a feminist who saw White patriarchy as the root of all human evil. I happened to have a lot of time on my hands as I was under-employed due to the fact that I had no need to pay for rent or food. I wanted to do my small part for the revolution and to free women from the shackles of their oppression, so I volunteered at the local battered women’s shelter.

Every thought I had in my head at that time came from some book. It never occurred to me that any of my cherished beliefs would be challenged by the real world. Working for the shelter opened my eyes to many things, but it would be several years before I would be able to fully grasp what I had learned from the experience. For example, during our four hour long orientation, it was stressed to us that we should expect to see many of the same women over and over again. This, it was explained, was due to the fact that it takes a woman seven tries on average to finally leave her abuser.*

After four hours of orientation, we had hours of work to do in the shelter before they would put any of us on the phones. After we had proven ourselves reliable, we would be able to “person” the phones from home. I learned quickly that volunteers didn’t last long in the shelter, at least not the ones my age, the political ones. The older ladies who were volunteering out of a sense of civic duty were the only ones who could be counted on. I remember being very surprised that these women were not feminists, were not, in fact, even interested in feminism. They were married, their children were grown, and they didn’t have jobs (and never wanted one). They volunteered out of a sense of charity and commitment to the community. They loved their husbands, they loved their grandchildren, and they loved the Lord, not necessarily in that order. They would talk for hours about their families and their community, but had no time at all to talk about politics, which is all I thought about. Of course, I thought they were stupid.

I did have an affinity for the director of the shelter, who was a Seven Sisters graduate, newly moved to the town. She was the only one, in my opinion, who “got it.” She didn’t get along with these older women, and I didn’t understand the hidden tensions. The secretary of the outfit was kind enough to explain to me once, in a disgusted whisper, that the Director only intended to live in the town for a few years and move on, once she had put in enough time to put this job on her resume. I assume that the blank look I gave her stopped her from elaborating further on this conflict.

I was soon promoted to manning the phone from home on Wednesday nights, in addition to some weekend hours at the shelter. I didn’t have to do much of anything but make sure to always answer the phone, so I enjoyed being able to read my books while I “fought the power.” Most of the older ladies had better things to do than stay tethered to a phone for 12 hours straight, so it was a good fit. Should a call come in, I would need to leave to bring the woman to the shelter, but in our small town, most calls were not intake calls.

The shelter itself was supposed to be in a secret location. The idea was that the secret location would keep batterers from finding and stalking the clients. I say “supposed” because I soon found out that the one group of people who were supposed to not know the location of the shelter in fact knew it well.

It was indeed true that we got to know the clients very well. The vast majority of the women who came into the shelter came in knowing how the system worked. They knew they were entitled to pick through the donated clothes, they knew we had food; the children especially were directed towards the kitchen. I remember being surprised most of all that the women didn’t seem scared. I expected to see piteous creatures out of the “Burning Bed” but instead encountered women who were mostly angry. Hopping mad. Enraged, in fact. It was this kind of woman who would restlessly pace the small space, ask us to watch her kids while she “went out for a cigarette,” and go outside down the block to a payphone. She would then call her batterer/accused and proceed to tell him where she was. She wanted to see him.

I tried very hard to reconcile this with my understanding of “Battered Women’s Syndrome.” I made excuses: “This is just part of her abusive conditioning” or “She is using her anger as a cover for her fear.” I worked hard, but it was very difficult to hold an ideal in my head when the reality was the woman standing outside the shelter, screaming obscenities at her mate once he drove up. We volunteers would look at anything but each other as she screamed and cursed, and got right in his face making threats. We would straighten the place up or offer the blank-faced children a scruffy toy. Eventually she would wander back in and tell us what a son-of-a-cur her man was, and ask us to recommend a lawyer, one who didn’t charge too much.

I eventually left the town and went back to college. The experience I had, especially the time I spent working the phones, stood me in good stead, as I will post about later. I still think about the shelter, and those quiet, hard-working civic-minded ladies. They didn’t think of the politics of the place—they were volunteering because that is what Christian women of their age and station did, and it didn’t matter if it were a battered women’s shelter or the local rotary club. They volunteered because they loved their town and the people in it, even the least among them. They would bow their back and set their mouths and do their job through my and the Director’s prattle, even though they didn’t approve of what they saw or heard. Had it not been for the efforts of these Christian ladies, that shelter would not have remained open.

At the time, I wanted to wake them up and give them a sense of the underlying purpose of their work. To this day, I almost wish I had, if only to alert them to the ends to which their hard work was to be put. I wonder if they would have been so stoic and tolerant of our bilious folly had they understood the family- and community-destroying purpose of feminism. In all honesty, I think they would have. These women were of a generation that had no time for anything but immediate, local problems, and they trusted the Lord to sort the rest out. I can only hope to be a small fraction as good and pure as they when I am their age.

* I went looking for this factoid, to see if I could find an example on the Internet. After looking for a short time, I gave up in disgust. Who can trust preposterous assertions such as this: “DV crosses all demographic – racial, ethnic, economic, class, sexual orientation, occupation, educational, etc. – barriers. There are doctors, ministers, psychologists, police, attorneys, judges and other professionals who beat their partners. Battering happens in rich, white, educated and respectable families. About half of all couples experience DV at some time.” Of course, the whole point is, “We must examine the historic and legal permission that men have been given to be violent in general, and to be violent towards their wives and children specifically.” The problem is that men exist in general. We need to work towards a solution to that, sisters.

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