At the time of Women Against Abuse’s founding in 1976, services for women suffering from domestic violence were unheard of.
Before the 1984 Family Violence Prevention Services Act, organizations working to end domestic violence could scarcely come by government funding.
Learn more about the time period of Women Against Abuse’s founding and the organization’s development over the years.
In the 1970s, women like Renee had few options for safety. They listened, and like good listeners, they obeyed through turmoil and injury.
If the public acknowledged them at all, hushed words singled them out as battered women between snickers and ironic cracks. They were reminded “till death do us part” as they scrambled to disguise black eyes and broken ribs, and at night when they locked their front doors to keep safe from intruders, they cast their pleas into residual silence.
Friends and relatives who might offer a couch or bed instead counseled them to tough it out: “That’s what marriage is.”
Without social support, they had little recourse to become immediately independent as domestic violence necessitates. Abusers most often severely injure or kill just before victims decide to leave. Victims must safety plan in meticulous detail to ensure that abusers do not know their plans. Many need to find a new home and a new job in a new neighborhood so that their abusers cannot find them once they’ve left. Many leave with barely any belongings because packing a proper suitcase could tip their abusers off.
Domestic violence emergency shelters that could afford them much-needed time and support were extremely new and radical. Often victims only chanced upon them through word-of-mouth exchanges.
In shelter, Renee finally found meaningful support. Shelter staff helped her formulate an action plan to help her achieve her goals, from managing finances to figuring out how to take a specific bus to get to a job interview.
Every day, she knew WAA staff would help provide “some direction and a shoulder if I needed one.”
It would take many years before Renee became successfully independent from her abuser, who not only isolated her from friends and family, but followed her halfway across the country. Today, she is safe and financially secure. She keeps sharing her story because she knows that talking about domestic violence makes a real difference in encouraging victims to seek help and not feel marginalized by stigma.
In the late 1960s, second-wave feminist activists ignited the Battered Women’s Movement.
Women experiencing violence began to break the silence, prompting widespread attitudinal change that the need for domestic violence services is a collective issue rather than an individual problem. Women banded together to provide informal services, such as shelters run from homes, to support each other. It would not be until 1984 that DV programs would be eligible for designated government funds under the Family Violence Prevention Services Act.
It was in the midst of this movement in the mid-70s, and at a crucial point in Renee’s life, that Women Against Abuse got its start.
In the late 1970s, hospitals witnessed scores of women enter emergency care because of an abusive partner. Neck injuries from strangulation, broken cheek bones and dark bruises all pointed to the same story.
Compelled by their interactions with these patients, two Philadelphia-based hospital social workers collaborated to form Philadelphia’s first domestic violence crisis hotline. Today, the hotline continues as a free and confidential 24-hour resource for safety planning, crisis counseling, and referrals, taking approximately 10,000 calls each year.
After early conversations with survivors, Women Against Abuse leaders responded to hotline callers’ most frequently expressed need, the need for refuge, by establishing an emergency shelter in a small rented house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Three years later, the organization expanded its staff and relocated the Emergency Shelter to a larger facility in West Philadelphia. The shelter remained there for nearly thirty years until 2007, when Women Against Abuse worked with city officials to relocate and expand.
The new 100-bed facility now serves as a temporary home to over 600 women and children each year. The shelter continuously operates at full capacity, yet we must turn away an astounding number of requests for help – last year, the number of turn-aways exceeded 7,700!
Women Against Abuse remained ahead of the curve, founding the first legal center in the country dedicated to victims of domestic violence.
The organization’s leadership continually grew to meet clients’ needs, adding Sojourner House in 1987 to alleviate the desperate demand for long-term supportive housing. WAA introduced preventive educational services in the 90s. In 2008, staff members integrated behavioral health services into residential programs in response to the severe trauma evidenced among shelter residents.
Today, public consensus says domestic violence is wrong. As more victims speak out, the shame might lessen, but the victim’s reality is still fraught with innumerable challenges and complications.
Supportive services are crucial to untangling the difficulties that make freedom from domestic violence seem impossible. In 2011, demand for services still heavily exceeds supply. The police, for example, fields 115,000 calls for domestic violence each year. The work that domestic violence advocates fulfill provides critical safety outlets so that no woman or child has to suffer in silence.