Shelters a much-needed safe space for women

Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists
The Origins of the Women’s Shelter Movement in Canada

By Margo Goodhand  

In 1973, women’s rights took centre stage in Canada. These feminist gains are chronicled with care by Margo Goodhand in Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists: The Origins of the Women’s Shelter Movement in Canada.

Goodhand is the former editor-in-chief of the Edmonton Journal and the Winnipeg Free Press and has been published in newspapers and magazines across Canada, including the Globe and Mail and the Walrus. This is her first book.

“I grew up in a world where women, by and large, didn’t make history,” Goodhand says. “My Grade 10 social studies textbook was memorably titled Man and his World. I remember thinking that if I ever grew up to write a book of my own, it would be about women.”

In 2011, Goodhand and her sister Joyce (who helped found Swift Current’s first shelter in 1989), discovered that Canada’s first battered women’s shelters all opened in the same year: 1973. This seemed like a good story to tell.

Goodhand’s reporting chops are evident, with the inclusion of contextual background and feminist milestones as she sets the stage for why violence against women was not talked about — privately or publicly — until the early 1970s.

Runaway Wives also pays homage to Chatelaine and the magazine’s role in a national dialogue about women’s rights. Helmed by editor Doris Anderson, in 1962 Chatelaine boldly declared that “all Canadians are equal except women” in an article written by Christina McCall.

Canada’s first battered women’s shelter opened in Toronto on April 1, 1973. The Interval House launch is well documented, including the challenges of opening a type of business that previously didn’t exist. Ishtar Transition House, located in Aldergrove, B.C., opened next. The shelter was located in the middle of B.C.’s Bible Belt.

In June 1973, the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter opened. Founding member Joyce Smith made a critical decision that helped to protect women and children in crisis: the location of the shelter became confidential.

The Women Alone Society in Saskatoon was next. And in 1974, shelter employee Lorraine Kuzma became one of the first women in Saskatchewan to file under a new law that accepted a partner’s alcoholism and physical cruelty as grounds for divorce.

Lastly, Vancouver’s Transition House opened in December 1973. The shelter took longer to mobilize than others, but it was larger and better supported by government.

Runaway Wives provides substantial information about each shelter and the intriguing women who ran them. But one of the most interesting passages involves Irene Murdoch.

For more than 25 years, Murdoch worked alongside her husband on their farm. She left the marriage in 1968 after a vicious fight that put her in hospital. In 1970, an Alberta court ruled that she owned nothing, with the judge determining that she had done the duties of “any ranch wife.” Murdoch disagreed. Eventually, she received $65,000 in her 1974 divorce settlement. Legal-rights activists used her case to lobby for significant changes, including equal rights to property acquired during marriage.

The need for women’s shelters remains. One of the most disturbing revelations is about how crimes against women are investigated. Feminist Susan Young shared the following in 2012: “Violence against women is one of the very few crimes where the victim is asked their role in the crime.”

As for the term “feminist,” it remains a divisive word. Martha Ireland, a founder of Toronto’s Interval House, says: “I am disappointed if I hear young woman say (‘I’m not a feminist’), because by saying that, you are disavowing all of the things that were done before you.”

Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists should be required reading for those who think feminists are limited to the obsolete “man-hating bra-burners” stereotype. Goodhand’s work clearly articulates that feminism at its core is a profound search for equality.

— Deborah Bowers, Winnipeg Free Press, Sept. 16, 2017

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