Women, learn your history, or be forced to repeat it

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

By Margo Goodhand  

I’m always happy as a clam when I read history. The past was awful. I’m so glad I missed all that.

Can you believe that airline tickets used to be eight layers of carbon paper? You always worried they’d lose a layer and you’d be stuck in Leningrad forever. People smoked on airplanes. Shirts were nylon as were sheets. Women wore primitive menstrual pads like saddles, with elastic belts.

Take the past, you can keep it.

And way further back in 1963, women “could not open a bank account … or get a mortgage without the support of a husband or father. In Canada, they needed their husband’s written permission to agree to a child’s emergency operation — or even to get a library card.”

So writes journalist Margo Goodhand in her small gem of a history book, Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists: The Origins of the Women’s Shelter Movement in Canada, about the women’s underground railroad rescuing wives from violent marriages and the 1973 creation of the first battered women’s shelter. Before that women had nowhere to go to escape a husband who beat them bloody.

It was even harder if you had children and had to find a job and a place to stay in an era when women’s pay was derisory and daycare didn’t exist as such. Women were supposed to stay home, at home, inside the home, where they belonged. Home could kill women.

Beating your wife wasn’t considered a crime. It has been a constant of history. As Goodhand writes, law in 2500 BCE Babylonia stated that the name of a woman who verbally abused her husband “was to be engraved on a brick which was then to be used to bash out her teeth.”

Nothing much improved. Rape within marriage wasn’t even recognized as a crime in Canada until 1983. Goodhand sums it up: the police didn’t care. They didn’t consider “family disputes” to be a criminal matter. “They would occasionally take a woman to hospital if her wounds were bad enough, or to a skid row hotel if they were minor.”

In that era, federal, provincial and city governments did good work for women’s rights, though it seems so feeble now. This year, politicians like Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson backed Ontario Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi in creating bubble zones around abortion clinics and the homes of clinic staff to protect everyone from the anti-abortion demonstrators who had been tormenting them for decades.

You can no longer spit on patients, you cannot terrify staff, you cannot haunt their homes. I like this, good men joining the battle for women’s rights. But it took so long. It’s 2017 and life is still so difficult for women.

Goodhand’s book is a marker, a reminder, a handbook for young women to read and understand just how much worse it was for Canadian women very recently. And by that, yes, I’m implying that if things begin to slip back as they have in the U.S., this is what it will be like for you and your daughters.

In 1971, average earnings for men were $8,513 while women earned $4,755. By 1975, the gap was bigger. And look at us women now in 2017, with a large pay gap, almost non-existent on corporate boards, rare in management, continuing sexual harassment and whole fields — STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), medicine, law, politics, architecture — still resisting women, particularly those of colour.

Goodhand offers a fine portrait of the birth of women’s shelters in Canada — including the first, Interval House in Toronto — all built by women working together as a team for solitary women suffering alone inside houses. The sisterhood is disparaged now but there was a time when women formed common cause.

They did not demean other women. They worked to help them. They did not, for instance, sign letters defending Al Franken, who groped young women and say he hadn’t done it to them, as if that were relevant. It puzzles me that the American women who signed this letter worked in the era when Canadian feminism was roaring ahead.

Now they have aged out of passionate feminism. They have no interest in the suffering of the young.

And that’s why you need to read Goodhand’s history of how women helped women, with good men, too. Without it, will we know how to defend ourselves?

— Heather Mallick, Toronto Star, Nov. 27, 2017

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