In 1973, on the tail end of feminism’s second wave, five women’s shelters opened in four provinces across Canada, unbeknownst to each other. Violence against women in all its forms – emotional, physical, sexual – was rampant, keeping women from all walks of life in toxic relationships for lack of a place to go.
Former journalist and local writer Margo Goodhand, in her new book Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists: The Origins of the Women’s Shelter Movement in Canada not only provides a definitive account of the history of Canada’s first five shelters in Toronto, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Aldergrove and Vancouver, but traces the root of the issue all the way back to the women’s suffrage movement.
While the chorus today is saying #MeToo, Goodhand prompts the ask, “why, still”?
— Kristyn Anthony (@allovthethings) December 6, 2017
Following the stories cross-country, Goodhand and her sister, Joyce – who helped found the first shelter in Swift Current, Sask. in 1989 – tracked down the women responsible for the movement over 40 years ago.
“I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing about domestic abuse or women’s shelters in 2011,” Goodhand says of the year she started working on the book, a lifelong dream. “I wanted to tell a good story and a true story and I wanted it to be about women.”
The former editor-in-chief of the Winnipeg Free Press and the Edmonton Journal, who now lives in Victoria, started the book in 2011, but “shelved” it below her desk for a few years before diving back in when she left the news business.
“This wasn’t my story, it was theirs,” she adds of the 25 women she and Joyce spoke to. “I was so scared to tell it, in a way. I wasn’t there, and I didn’t want to recreate scenes I wasn’t there for.”
She sent early drafts to all 25 women, expecting a slew of corrections to flood her inbox, but nothing arrived.
“I don’t think we understood what we were getting into,” says Janet Currie, who in 1973 was working in a men’s prison in Abbotsford when she got a call asking if she could help a small group open a space for women in the Fraser Valley.
“We rented a tiny house in ultra conservative Aldergrove. It was kind of an odd place to start it, but it was a really cheap place to rent a house,” she remembers. “We were learning as we went.”
In 1974, Victoria Women’s Transition House Society also opened the city’s first emergency shelter in an aging home, too small and in need of repair, but a step in the right direction. More than 40 years later, 50 staff and 70 volunteers are still running the house.
Funding was and still is a difficult road. The original five shelters were mostly made possible by grants available through Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government. When Stephen Harper’s Conservatives took power in 2006, they not only slashed access to much of the funding these shelters relied on, they closed 12 of the country’s 16 Status of Women offices in 2007.
Participating in the research for Goodhand’s book enabled Currie to reconnect with many of the women she worked with all those years ago. While frustrated that shelters like the one she started are still necessary in 2018, she was thrilled that someone felt their early work was important enough to finally write about it.
“Why is it that women find it so difficult to talk about their accomplishments?” she says. “Margo was great about saying this is real, and it’s really bad that it hasn’t been recognized.”
The book’s release in fall 2017, was pushed up from January 2018 as #MeToo gained traction. Goodhand thought she’d put a book into the hands of a world revelling in the victory of the first female American president. Instead, the irony is that Donald Trump has kickstarted something more profound, she says.
“The women’s movement is so fractured,” Goodhand says. “With this book I was kind of hoping people would at least not disparage the second wavers as much as they have. I hate watching women eat each other.”
In her research, Goodhand was inspired by a common narrative of women eating and cooking and living together – those in need and those in charge. Both sides learned from one other, because the women who ran those shelters for 20 years poured their heart and soul into it, she says.
And that’s what Currie remembers.
“One of the most wonderful things about women is their enjoyment in working on projects together and that was a huge reward in what we did, the solidarity.”