Origins and Early Projects:
The Women's Crisis Line
and the Task Force on Battered Women
The Women's Coalition, the oldest existing coalition of feminist groups in the city of Milwaukee, was established in 1972 on the crest of the resurgent women's rights movement in the United States. In Milwaukee, in the late l960s and early 1970s, numerous women's groups emerged to question traditional social attitudes about women and to challenge local institutions to adopt more equitable policies.
The local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) played a crucial role in organizing Milwaukee women and articulating feminist demands. After two short-lived attempts at establishing a center to accommodate the many new groups, individual members of NOW finally succeeded in organizing the Women's Coalition in 1972. The Women's Coalition proposed to "serve as an advocate for women; to interpret to the community at large the special concerns and problems of women." 1 In its early years, the Women's Coalition initiated two major projects, the Women's Crisis Line and the Task Force on Battered Women. Each identified critical needs of Milwaukee women and contributed to the creation of significant social services and institutional and legislative reforms which addressed those needs more effectively.
Feminist Groups Proliferate
The diverse roots of the growing feminist consciousness and the proliferation of organizations to articulate its goals attest to the significance of feminism as a broad based social movement, even within the city of Milwaukee. Milwaukee's feminist activists emerged from a variety of backgrounds and professions, from the labor movement, the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war campaigns, the counter-culture, the churches, the suburbs, the health and social service professions, and the universities – among both students and faculty.2
Between 1968 and 1972, feminist groups active in Milwaukee included: the Birth Control and Abortion Group; the local chapter of the guerilla theater troupe Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH); the Alverno College Resource Center for Women; Sisters Hellbent on Relevant Educational Welfare (SHREW), which successfully agitated for a day care center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM); Amazon feminist newspaper; the Women's Studies Subcommittee and the Women's Liberation Union at UWM; the Women's Center for United Labor Action; the Downer Street Feminist Reading Room; the Milwaukee Women's Poetry Cooperative; the Women's Rights Committees of the Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union and the Vietnam Summer Institute; the Margaret Sanger Women's Clinic, an affiliate of Planned Parenthood; the Southside Women's Collective; Women in Transition, which aided separated and divorced women; and local NOW.3 These groups articulated a growing awareness of women's subordinate role and advocated fuller participation and equal treatment for women within their families, professions, and in society at large. Some had overtly political goals such as changing laws, reforming institutions, and electing sympathetic officials. Others conducted educational forums on women's issues or provided support groups for women in specific professions/vocations. Still others engaged in confrontational tactics designed to break down remaining barriers to women's equality and to win publicity for the new movement.4
The local chapter of the National Organization for Women, formed in 1967, played a central role in the early development of Milwaukee's feminist movement and later, individual members of NOW began the Women's Coalition. NOW garnered many new adherents during its persistent campaigns to integrate the "men only" section of the Heinemann's Restaurant in downtown Milwaukee and to remove sex segregated job listings from the Milwaukee Journal. NOW member Lois Torkelson, a veteran of local civil rights and open housing campaigns, recalled being furious when she was denied an empty booth at Heinemann's during a busy lunch hour in 1969. Other women received similar treatment and were equally outraged. NOW organized regular sit-ins and pickets at the restaurant for the next five years, during which management accused them of being "communists and fascists" and asked, "Good God, what will they want next?"5 A class action suit filed by feminist attorney Sara Joan Bales of the Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union ultimately reversed the restaurant's policy.6
Jan Petrus, Milwaukee NOW's first President, recalled that "a deep concern about the economic plight of women" led the group to challenge the Journal's sex segregated job listings.7 NOW members met with Journal officials, picketed the newspaper, appealed to advertisers, filed complaints with Wisconsin's Equal Rights Division, and threatened legal action before the Journal finally changed its policy in 1973. NOW also succeeded in changing the name of Boy's Technical High School, and won the admission of girls to the previously all male bastion. Later in the 1970s, NOW participated in a successful class action suit to insure equitable treatment of girls in the Milwaukee Public Schools and organized local support for the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution.8
(The photo at right, taken at a Women's Equality Day march in Milwaukee, captures the new spirit of sisterhood many women felt in the 1970s.)
Local NOW also sponsored annual celebrations of Women's Equality Day, August 26th, the anniversary of women's suffrage, which drew many new women into feminist activism. The first celebration in 1970 featured a parade and rally in downtown Milwaukee followed by an organizational meeting which drew 300 women and substantial media coverage. The 1972 events included another parade and a series of protests throughout the city which illustrated the varied interests of NOW members. Activists picketed Heinemann's and the Journal Company for their discriminatory practices, and the Fair Lady Figure Salon for its emphasis on women's personal appearances. Other contingents protested at Milwaukee County Hospital for its failure to perform abortions and at the Milwaukee County Jail for "conditions which contribute to the dehumanization of women held there."9
The proliferation of feminist groups in Milwaukee from 1968 to 1972 followed no consistent pattern; some groups started and failed within a year, while others like NOW proved more enduring. Membership in some organizations overlapped, but there was very little central communication or coordination between them. An early attempt at uniting the groups under an umbrella organization occurred in 1969-70 when the Organization for Women's Liberation (OWL) held open community meetings for all interested women. Participants Mary Ullrich and Rev. Elinor Yeo recalled the diversity of groups represented at OWL meetings: Quakers, Black Panthers, anti-war activists, suburban housewives, hippies, nuns, professionals, college students, and older women. OWL meetings helped increase communication and contacts between activists, featured lively debates between participants, and resulted in several actions, a male beauty contest parody and a raid on a bridal fair. However, the diversity of the group worked against its cohesiveness and, with no long term goals, groups soon drifted apart.10
Two efforts at establishing a women's center for Milwaukee, both short-lived, took place in 1970 and 1971. Mary Ullrich, of OWL and NOW, opened the West Side Women's Center at 2110 W. Wells Street in August, 1970. The walk-in center, staffed by volunteers and supported by donations, dispensed feminist literature, sponsored study groups and self-defense workshops, conducted abortion counseling, and operated a toys and clothes exchange. The Marxist orientation of many members (debates over Angela Davis and the necessity for world revolution were common) alienated mainstream feminists, and NOW women withdrew their support. Failure to attract consistent funding for operating costs and growing political divisions within the group forced the West Side Women's Center to close in 1971.11
A center planned by abortion rights activist and NOW member Virginia Ray, the Non-Violent Feminist Cooperative, established headquarters on North Buffum Street in 1971. Many of its members had left the West Side Women's Center, uncomfortable with its increasingly revolutionary rhetoric. Various groups, including NOW, utilized the new center for meetings, but its location at the edge of Milwaukee's black community intimidated some white feminists who were hesitant to travel to the area. Insufficient funding and lack of support for staffing and maintenance duties brought the center to a close within a year. Despite its closing, the Buffum Street Cooperative gained further publicity for the aims of the fledgling feminist movement in Milwaukee. Life published a feature on the Non-Violent Feminist Cooperative: "Is Women's Lib a Dirty Word in Milwaukee?"12
The Coalition Opens its Doors: October, 1972
A series of fortuitous circumstances finally resulted in the establishment of the more enduring Women's Coalition in 1972. During that summer, Rev. Elinor Yeo, an active feminist and staff minister for the United Ministry in Higher Education (UMHE), a campus ministry serving UWM, notified NOW members that inexpensive office space was available in the ministry building. Since the demise of the Buffum Street center, feminists had been searching for a new headquarters, and the UMHE office seemed most opportune. NOW sought a permanent place to conduct its meeting the Amazon newspaper needed a stable production facility, and many plans for feminist projects were afloat which required a base of operations, among them the idea of a crisis hotline for women. Sharon Senese of NOW was instrumental in organizing community meetings in late summer at which plans for the new center were adopted. The informal committee of NOW members and other activists decided the new entity should serve as a coalition, a center where all feminist groups could meet to pool resources and coordinate activities. The coalition framework meant the new center could accommodate a variety of member groups, and was an effort to redress the perceived weaknesses of the earlier centers, criticized for their narrow political focus and exclusivity. Senese, along with NOW veterans Judy Anderson, Carolyn Mueller, Ellen Guiseppi, and Susan Luecke played a central role in the organizational meetings and, together, constitute the "founding mothers" of the Women's Coalition. They drafted the proposal for office space which was accepted by the ministry, and the Women's Coalition, occupying the ground floor office at 2211 E. Kenwood Boulevard, officially opened its doors in October 1972.13
The Women's Coalition did not formally incorporate as a non-profit agency until a year after its inception. In its first year, the Coalition operated informally under the direction of a Board of Coordinators, composed of founding members and representatives of member groups. In October 1973, feminist attorney L. Mandy Stellman drafted the Articles of Incorporation which established the Women's Coalition as a non-profit corporate entity.14 A committee of member group representatives wrote the bylaws which accompanied the Coalition's incorporation. The bylaws contained the first official statement of the Coalition's purposes:
To form a coalition of feminist groups ... to combat sex discrimination ... to provide assistance to new feminist groups and create alternative institutions within the women's movement ... to educate women regarding their legal rights, vocational possibilities and personal health ... to serve as an advocate for women; to interpret to the community at large the special concerns and problems of women.15
The bylaws instituted the simple governing structure which guided the Coalition through its first year. The new Board of Directors consisted of one representative of each member group or project. Member groups which joined the Coalition adhered to its purposes but retained administrative independence, while projects were initiated and administered by the Coalition. The first member groups of the Coalition included Milwaukee NOW, Amazon newspaper (the cover, at left, is from the April, 1974 issue), the Anti-Rape Council, Wisconsin Women in the Arts, and Grapevine, a lesbian-feminist organization. The earliest projects of the Coalition were the Women's Crisis Line and the Task Force on Battered Women.16
In its first two years of operation, the Women's Coalition was staffed entirely by volunteers and depended on donations and minimum fees sometimes charged for programs. The Coalition provided meeting space for member groups and initiated a community calendar listing events of interest to women. This calendar was posted in the large meeting room where boards announcing job opportunities and self-help programs were later added. Volunteers compiled lists of business and professional women for referral purposes and acquired periodicals and books for a Feminist Resource Library. Regular Friday night "Raps" – open discussion groups – allowed women to share their problems and suggest plans for the Coalition. Members spoke to school, church, and community groups and utilized the media to publicize women's issues. The Coalition also sponsored workshops on self-defense, legal rights, women's history, health issues, childcare, feminism, assertiveness training, and consciousness raising. NOW provided weekly sex discrimination counseling. Educationals generated the minimal income needed to maintain telephones and office space during the Coalition's early years. They also provided the outreach and publicity necessary for the Women's Coalition to establish its reputation and attract funding sources through its short but proven record of community service.17
The Women's Coalition received its first substantial funding in 1974. The Coalition received a $1,000 grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and a $500 grant from the United Church of Christ for its educationals. The IBM Corporation donated printing equipment worth $1,700 and, in the largest contribution to date, United Community Services (the forerunner of United Way) bestowed a $3,200 grant on the Coalition to develop further programming. The Coalition also got its first paid staff positions in 1974. Milwaukee's Social Development Commission, which administered the Program for Local Service (PLS), a division of the federal agency ACTION, accepted the Coalition's proposal for office help. The PLS positions paid little more than minimum wage for part-time work, but were important in securing a stable staff and consistent office hours. In 1975 and 1976, the Coalition received additional staff positions through Milwaukee County's Summer Youth Employment service and through the federal government's Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) programs.18
The Women's Crisis Line
The first and most enduring project initiated by the Women's Coalition was the Women's Crisis Line. Its foundation coincided with that of the Coalition and it continues to function today (1987) under the auspices of Milwaukee's Good Samaritan Medical Center. In addition to aiding thousands of women, the Crisis Line is significant to the history of the Coalition – and Milwaukee – for several reasons. First, Coalition members developed the Line as a specifically feminist institution to remedy the perceived inadequacy and sexism in existing social services. Many volunteers were radicalized through their exposure to the myriad of crises expressed by women callers; this often intensified their commitment to feminist advocacy through subsequent programs and campaigns. Most significantly, information received through the Women's Crisis Line identified critical concerns of local women and led to the foundation of important social services in the Milwaukee community: the Sexual Assault Counseling Unit, the Sexual Assault Treatment Center, and the Task Force on Battered Women. The Women's Crisis Line was also the first Coalition project to spin off and gain success as an independent entity, creating a precedent for the future.
The establishment of the Women's Crisis Line coincided directly with that of the Coalition in 1972. When the Coalition office opened, a flood of calls from distressed women, many rape victims, convinced Coalition workers that a special service was needed. Among the Crisis Line's founders were the Coalition's "founding mothers," Sharon Senese, Judy Anderson, Ellen Guiseppi, and Carolyn Mueller.19 They felt "the necessity of feminist influence when women are in trouble" and hoped to "offer an alternative to the sexist institutions now available."20 This was consistent with one of the stated purposes of the Coalition bylaws: "to develop alternative institutions within the women's movement."21
Because its founders perceived social service and mental health professionals as sexist and often insensitive to women's needs, the new Crisis Line was to be run entirely by women, for women. Trained operators would provide crisis intervention, counseling, and referrals to women in need. Milwaukee's Underground Switchboard, a hotline for drug users since 1969, served as a model for the Women's Crisis Line. Initially, Crisis Line volunteers consisted of those ready and willing to answer calls. Gradually, more rigorous training procedures including readings, lectures, discussions, and role-playing were instituted, and volunteers were carefully screened and evaluated before going on duty. Approximately thirty volunteers served at all times to cover alternate four hour shifts. Crisis calls came in to an answering service, and operators phoned in each hour to receive and respond to messages.22
The idea that women are an oppressed and subordinate group within society informed the operators' perceptions and responses to callers. Self-help, independence, and freedom of choice were values the Crisis Line espoused. Crisis Line training materials and personnel emphasized this feminist philosophy. In addition to psychological texts, the required reading list for trainees included such feminist titles as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and Sisterhood is Powerful, edited by Robin Morgan.23 The Crisis Line's policy statement declared:
No matter what your personal views, when counseling, you should suggest all the alternatives to a particular woman's problem (non-sexist, of course) and leave the final decision up to her ... As women, we feel this society treats us with disrespect, treats us as if we are sick or crazy because we do not fit the mold they have made for us ... Women in this country for too long have had other people (men) make their decisions, and we will at no time perpetuate this ...24
Karen Coy, a Crisis Line Director, added this clarification: "We encourage women to make changes in their lives rather than adjust to bad situations."25
The Women's Crisis Line began formal operations in January 1973, and the immediate influx of calls confirmed the desperate need for the service. In its first month of operation, the Crisis Line received 119 calls, and one year later, in January 1974, the monthly total reached 755. By mid-1977, the Crisis Line reported that the number of calls received each month averaged between 1,200 and 1,500. The major areas of concern expressed by callers included relationships, family conflicts, divorce, depression, legal issues, and pregnancy and other health concerns. Many callers sought referrals to local professional and social service providers knowing that Crisis Line staff made referrals only to those individuals and services with an established record of fair and sensitive treatment of women. Sexual assault accounted for 30-35 calls per month, and potential suicides constituted 10 calls each month.26
The experience of responding to crisis calls deepened many operators' understanding of women's problems and increased their commitment to working as feminist advocates. Carolyn Keith (Mueller) recalled:
The most surprising thing we saw really early was that women seemed to be depressed by their everyday lives ... What was most disturbing was the extent of the unhappiness we encountered ...27
Crisis calls answered by another volunteer operator, Nova Clite, opened her eyes to problems she had never experienced herself. Her most lasting impression was the isolation of the women calling:
For the first time, through those calls, I was confronted with real live women who experienced violence in their homes, who felt isolated in their marriages and jobs. I also became aware of how extremely isolated women are from each other, how limited the resources were to overcome that isolation, and how key that isolation was in the oppression of women.28
Keith, who was a social worker in a suburban school system, went on to work in the women's health movement and helped to establish Milwaukee's first woman-owned and operated health clinic, Bread and Roses. Clite played a major role in the development of the Task Force on Battered Women in 1975.29
The compassion and commitment of Crisis Line personnel extended to include direct intervention into many crisis situations, especially rape cases. From its inception, the Line often received harrowing calls from rape victims in varying states of physical and emotional turmoil. Each operator chose whether to intervene or not; they rarely declined. Attorney Mandy Stellman described Sharon Senese and Virginia Ray as pioneers who spent long hours supporting rape victims at the Police Department or the District Attorney's Office. Karen Coy, another dedicated woman who spent years in unpaid service to the Line, recalled the "many nights I got up at two or three in the morning and went out to God-knows-where and contacted the police or went to the hospital."30
Crisis Calls Lead to Action
In 1973, intervention in one rape case by Crisis Line personnel led to reforms in criminal justice procedures and to the establishment of the Sexual Assault Counseling Unit in the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office. Sisterly support turned to militant advocacy when Sharon Senese heard a police officer declare in the presence of a victim she was accompanying, "If women want to prevent rape, they should keep their legs crossed... How many rapes do you really think are rapes?"31 Police isolated the victim in a back room to await questioning and refused to allow Senese or attorney Stellman, whom Senese called for assistance, to see her. After contacting the press and District Attorney, Stellman was finally able to see the victim and ensure that a female officer attended to her. At this time, Vice Squad officers were responsible for making a preliminary determination on whether to send rape victims to the District Attorney's Office to file prosecution charges. Senese, Stellman, and other women were outraged that such insensitive officers exercised so important a responsibility. This was not the first such incident, but for Milwaukee feminists it was the last straw. Spurred by Senese, members of the Crisis Line, Coalition, NOW, League of Women Voters, YWCA, and other women's groups formed an Anti-Rape Council. The Anti-Rape Council pressed for rape prevention efforts in general and for improvements in legal services for victims in particular.32
The Anti-Rape Council launched a campaign for specific reforms in criminal justice procedures which succeeded in forcing the system to respond to women's needs. A series of meetings with District Attorney E. Michael McCann in the Summer of 1973 resulted in all rape cases being thoroughly reviewed by the District Attorney's Office. McCann also endorsed the women's proposal for a $43,000 grant to the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) for a special program to advocate for the rights of sexual assault victims within the District Attorney's Office. Council members, with assistance from the Milwaukee Criminal Justice Council and the District Attorney's Office, drafted a proposal for the anti-rape unit. They then lobbied for matching funds which were required from the County Board of Supervisors. In 1974, as a direct result of this concerted feminist pressure, the Sexual Assault Counseling Unit was established in the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office. The unit consisted of a special team professionally trained to counsel and guide victims of sexual assault through the necessary legal channels. The Sexual Assault Counseling Unit continues to operate out of the District Attorney's Office today.33
The drive for the Counseling Unit in the District Attorney's Office was a model of effective lobbying. Funds for the Unit were approved approximately one year from the time Council members first met with District Attorney McCann. Considering that federal and county monies were involved, the proposal's rapid progress is even more impressive. While the persistence of Council members was a key element in its success, several other factors intervened as well. Attorney Sandra A. Edhlund, a Council member, speculated on the success of the campaign. Edhlund cited the availability of funds for crime prevention and victim support programs from the LEAA, which was set up in the wake of the urban riots of the 1960s. In addition, a television movie aired in early 1974, "A Case of Rape," gained national publicity and sympathy for the plight of rape victims. Finally, the support of District Attorney E. Michael McCann was essential to the success of the proposal.34
The new awareness of sexual assault among Crisis Line and Coalition volunteers intensified their commitment to work on this issue. In 1975, they joined with the Wisconsin Task Force on Rape, a statewide network organized by Barbara Ulichny, to lobby for reform of Wisconsin's sexual assault laws. Senate Bill 233, adopted in 1976, redefined rape as a crime of assault rather than a crime of sexual immorality. This phrasing constituted an important victory for feminists who insisted that rape was a crime motivated by power and aggression, not by uncontrolled sexual desires. The new law shifted emphasis from the degree of resistance displayed by the victim to the amount of force used by the attacker, and established gradations of sexual assault and penalties depending on the amount of harm to the victim. The rape reform bill also restricted information about the victim's past sexual activity from being introduced as evidence.35
The Crisis Line and Coalition also worked with other women's groups to create the Sexual Assault Treatment Center of Greater Milwaukee in 1976. Initially affiliated with Family Hospital, the Center is currently administered by Good Samaritan Medical Center. The Treatment Center offers 24-hour emergency physical and mental health care to rape and incest victims. It has treated over 6,000 clients ranging from age 2 to 92 since its inception. Representatives of the Crisis Line and Coalition served on the Treatment Center's Advisory Council. Clearly, pressure exerted by members of the Women's Crisis Line and Women's Coalition helped reform state law and created special institutions to address the trauma of local rape victims.36
(Crisis Line workers often joined in community events and demonstrations. The women at right were preparing to join a gay pride parade in 1979.)
The Crisis Line Becomes Independent
In May 1975, the Women's Crisis Line was the first project of the Women's Coalition to become independent. The separation caused dissension within and between members of both groups. By 1975, many new women replaced the original personnel on the Crisis Line. Their primary allegiance was to the Line rather than to the Coalition as a whole. The Crisis Line had its own Board of Directors and was rapidly expanding. Crisis Line Director Karen Coy appeared in March before the Coalition's Board of Directors to argue that because of the Coalition's inability "to generate the kind of funding required for the Women's Crisis Line's special needs," and because it was "a natural development for the Women's Crisis Line to seek its own identity and financial backing," the Line planned to incorporate on its own.37
Opposition from the Coalition centered on financial and ideological issues. Sharon Senese, a founder of both the Coalition and the Crisis Line, stated: "The original idea for the Women's Crisis Line's relationship with the Coalition was to provide a major source of income for the Coalition as its most legitimate project."38 Judy Anderson, another founder, maintained that "the Women's Crisis Line and the Women's Coalition formed as a cohesive body, and the promotion of the women's movement was a priority."39 She hoped to prevent a split between the two groups which might reduce their effectiveness as advocates for women. The question really came down to control. The emotion of the debate is captured in the words of one Crisis Line supporter who declared: "We've grown up and your daughter is leaving home."40
The majority of Crisis Line workers and Board members favored independence, so to avoid a further rift, the Women's Coalition Board finally acquiesced to the change. The Women's Crisis Line, Inc. was established as an independent corporate entity in May 1975. The Crisis Line became a member group of the Coalition and continued to cooperate on many projects with its 'mother' agency. It operated out of the UMHE ministry building until 1979 when it found larger quarters and sponsorship at the Counseling Center of Milwaukee. In 1986, the Crisis Line affiliated with the Women's Health Institute at Good Samaritan Medical Center.41
Chris Doerfler served as Director of the Women's Crisis Line.
This photo was taken in 1981 for a story in Amazon.
The Task Force on Battered Women
Calls to the Women's Crisis Line revealed another critical problem facing Milwaukee women and resulted in the establishment of the Task Force on Battered Women in 1975. Crisis Line statistics for 1974 indicated that of the 5,457 family problem calls received, 1,853 mentioned violent attacks against the woman in the course of the conversation. Only two temporary shelters, Casa Maria and Friendship House, were willing to aid these battery victims, but both shelters had limited space and were not equipped to offer the support services battered women so desperately needed. The Women's Coalition launched the Task Force on Battered Women to provide counseling, shelter, advocacy, and other services for battered women and their children.42
Coalition staff members Nova Clite and Virginia Ray conducted the initial groundwork necessary to establish the philosophy and goals of the Task Force on Battered Women. They researched the issue and organized meetings to listen to the stories of battered women and to raise public awareness. Clite conducted an extensive literature search which revealed that little documentation or analysis existed about battered women in 1975. The Coalition truly pioneered in uncovering an "invisible" problem:
The battered woman problem is an invisible one buried under traditional attitudes and ideas which condone a husband occasionally beating his wife ... Research into conjugal violence is negligible, statistics on a local level are non-existent except ... from the Women's Crisis Line.43
The very term "battered woman" was entirely new, so Task Force members worked to legitimize the concept in the public's mind and within the criminal justice system. At an early public meeting of the Task Force, Virginia Ray drew a comparison to the way rape had been viewed in previous years and urged community action on behalf of battered women:
Rape was a big job two or three years ago. You'd say the word "rape" and people would laugh. It was a sick joke. No one thought we could do anything about rape, but we did it. We can do the same thing with battered women. And that would be a really significant thing in our lifetime. These women are living in a reign of terror. Let's end it.44
Common circumstances and patterns of abuse in the lives of battered women enabled Task Force members to formulate an analysis of the problem. Nova Clite recalled:
Once we realized how common, how frequently it happened, the next step was to ask "Why is it so frequent?" And then we realized it was indicative of the whole powerlessness of women ... that women are victimized in society in general, but specifically within the home by male partners ...45
Clite and other Task Force members arrived at a feminist analysis of woman battering which indicted the socialization process for raising men to be aggressive and dominant, while encouraging women to be passive and subordinate. They held that this conditioning promoted male displays of power and women's victimization. The patriarchal structure of the nuclear family was likewise criticized for its relegation of women to a subordinate, obedient role. Task Force members believed the universal lack of self-esteem evinced by battered women was the result of these traditional and oppressive cultural attitudes. The economic dependence of women within marriage and society as a whole also played a crucial role in women's victimization. Task Force members observed that with no resources to support themselves (and their children) independently, many battered women were trapped in violent relationships from which they saw no escape.
In short, woman battering was seen as a manifestation of the imbalance of power relations between the sexes, as an overt, physical expression of the subjection of women. Task Force members believed only an overall transformation of society in which men shed their dominant role and attitudes and women were accorded equal treatment and respect could ultimately redress this social problem. While feminists at the Coalition used educational and agitational methods to work toward the long-term goal of social change, they realized that immediate relief and social services were necessities for battered women in Milwaukee.46
A position paper from 1975, written by Nova Clite, articulated several objectives of the Coalition's Task Force on Battered Women. Counseling and support services were immediate priorities. In addition, Clite proposed a conference on battered women to gather legal and social service personnel into a wider working group to address the issue. The Task Force also planned to pressure the District Attorney's Office to create another Counseling Unit for battered women who wanted to prosecute their partners. The long-term goal was to "establish an emergency shelter for battered women and their children, complete with a counseling and referral program.47
The organizational work of the Task Force intensified in 1976. Proposals to the federal government's VISTA program netted the Coalition's Task Force two staff positions. Clite and Rosemary Caravella, who filled the VISTA slots, worked on community education, counselor training, and the groundwork needed to open Milwaukee's first shelter for battered women. The Crisis Line continued to compile statistics and profiles on battered women callers, and staff organized public meetings and media appearances to raise community awareness. Small grants from church groups, the United Way, and private donors brought the Task Force budget to a modest $13,000 in 1976; it increased progressively in each succeeding year.48
Rosemary Caravella organized an intensive training program for counselors, and the Task Force's intervention program began in March 1976. Counselors were trained to offer personal and emotional support, and to provide referrals to health, employment, education, welfare, and legal services. The Task Force's counseling component included support groups for the victims of domestic abuse. Counselors encouraged women to share their experiences of abuse with others in the same circumstances to recognize they were not unique or alone. These support groups served the consciousness-raising function of identifying domestic violence as a widespread social problem, not an individual aberration. This feminist focus was, and remains, a central feature of the Task Force's educational and counseling components. Staff members also endeavored to draw bettered women into the Task Force as organizers and planners. to empower them to work on their own behalf. Several formerly battered women filled staff positions at the Task Force in subsequent years. In its first ten months of operation, the Task Force on Battered Women aided 373 women.49
The Task Force on Battered Women organized the first Wisconsin Conference on Battered Women at the Milwaukee YWCA on October 2 and 3, 1976. (Pictured in the conference photo at left are guest speaker Lisa Leghorn, a feminist writer and organizer from Boston, and the Coalition's Nova Clite.) While organizing the conference, Task Force members became aware once again of their groundbreaking efforts; they discovered the gathering constituted the first ever national conference on battered women. Workshops focused on legislation, counseling, housing, the criminal justice system, male violence, and community education. Over 200 feminists and legal and social service personnel attended, many from other states. Contacts and goals established at the Milwaukee conference contributed to the formation of similar advocacy projects throughout Wisconsin and laid the foundation for today's National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the central clearinghouse and lobbying group for domestic abuse victims in the United States.50
By late 1976, the Task Force, like the Crisis Line before it, moved toward greater autonomy. Its expanding services, staff and clientele made this move inevitable. Unlike the Crisis Line, the Board resolution which initiated the battered woman project made provisions for its eventual independence, thus avoiding a bitter conflict. In November 1976, the Task Force relocated its staff and operations from the crowded Coalition office to its own address on West Fond du Lac Avenue. While remaining under the aegis of the Women's Coalition, the Coalition's Board of Directors gave Task Force staff complete discretion to run daily operations. Ties between the organizations remained close, but the Task Force on Battered Women ultimately incorporated on its own in 1979. In that same year, the Task Force moved to its current office on Mitchell Street on Milwaukee's south side.51
Establishment of a Shelter
Meanwhile, many abused women who called the Crisis Line and Task Force needed immediate escape from potentially life threatening situations. Initially, Rosemary Caravella and volunteers organized an informal network of safe houses in the Milwaukee area to shelter these victims. Often the homes of Task Force staff served as refuges, at great risk to the owners who were sometimes confronted by angry husbands who traced their wives' whereabouts. Caravella recalled utilizing local hotels and at least one convent to secure protection for abuse victims. This haphazard network proved inadequate, so the Task Force pursued its goal of a special shelter to provide comprehensive support services.
The new contacts with lawyers, politicians, and social service personnel facilitated what was, nevertheless, a laborious process. The labyrinthine negotiations with contractors, insurers, city zoning and building authorities, lawyers, bankers, funders, and neighborhood associations took almost three years. Family Hospital finally leased a building to the Task Force for a minimal sum and local foundations (Cudahy, Milwaukee, and Steimke), along with United Way and federal Housing and Urban Development grants, supported the new shelter.52
In July 1978, Sojourner Truth House, named for the black abolitionist and feminist, opened its doors. With room for 18 women and children, the group home was designed to provide immediate relief, counseling, and support for victims of family violence. An expanded facility opened in 1981, with space for 32 women and children. After Sojourner Truth House opened, two other shelters (not directly affiliated with the Task Force) were established in the Milwaukee area, the Milwaukee Women's Refuge and Waukesha's Sister House. In addition, three major hospitals, Children's, Northwest General, and Good Samaritan, responding to the need first identified by feminists, developed special units for the treatment of domestic abuse and child abuse victims.53
The Task Force began its Advocates for Battered Women program as a joint project with the Milwaukee Junior League and the District Attorney's Office in 1977. This project trained volunteers to serve as advocates for abused women within the criminal justice system. The advocates provide victims with support and guide them through the necessary but often intimidating legal channels to resolve their battering situations. A series of meetings with the District Attorney, in which Task Force and Junior League representatives presented statistics and personal accounts of battered women, resulted in the Advocates project being housed within the Citizen Complaint Unit of the District Attorney's Office in 1978. Funding from United Way and continued volunteer energy maintain the Advocates for Battered Women project at the County Courthouse today.54
Members of the Task Force on Battered Women also worked with the Wisconsin State Special Legislative Committee on Domestic Violence to draft reform legislation which ultimately passed as Chapter 111 of the Wisconsin statutes in 1979. For the first time, the State of Wisconsin recognized "domestic abuse as a serious social problem" which required "a comprehensive, informed, and determined response."55 The new legislation set up a state Council on Domestic Abuse to oversee and advise Wisconsin agencies and departments on all aspects of the problem. It provided up to $1 million in domestic abuse grants to localities administered by the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services. It also reiterated the requirements for issuing restraining orders by family court judges and outlined the penalties for violations of such orders.56
In 1987, the Task Force on Battered Women continues to offer counseling, support groups, and referrals for battered women in Milwaukee. The total number of individuals aided has risen steadily each year since the Task Force began. In 1976, approximately 400 received aid. According to Task Force Co-Director Connie Corrao, by 1983, the yearly total of clients jumped to 6,000, and during 1986, the Task Force aided a total of 10,700 battered women and their children. Corrao noted that the dramatic increase does not necessarily mean the problem of woman battering is becoming more widespread. Rather, the increase is due largely to successful community education efforts which familiarized battery victims with the many new support services available.57
The awareness of woman battering, initiated by a handful of feminist activists at the Women's Coalition, has had major repercussions on the Milwaukee community. Feminists succeeded in forcing the legal, political, and social service systems to respond to a pressing social problem. Laws were changed, funds provided, services established, and consciousness raised due to feminists' deep concern about the prevalence of domestic violence within the community.
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1 Women's Coalition, Inc., Bylaws, Article III, "Purposes," Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October, 1973.
2 "Sisterhood: Gettin' It Together," Kaleidoscope, June 26-July 9, 1970, p. 9; Rebecca Davis, "The Women's Movement: Feminist Struggle Becomes a New Counterculture," The Bugle American, November 5, 1975, pp. 109-127; Interview with Jan Petrus, first President of Milwaukee's National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter (1969-71), Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 22, 1987; Interview with Mary Ullrich, founding member of the Organization for Women's Liberation (OWL) and the West Side Women's Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 12, 1987. Kaleidoscope and The Bugle American were alternative newspapers which covered Milwaukee's youth and counterculture movements. Kaleidoscope published bi-weekly, with some interruptions between 1967 and 1971. The Bugle American published bi-weekly (with some monthly installments) from 1970 through mid-1978.
3 "Local Contacts," Kaleidoscope, June 26-July 9, 1970, p. 10; Wisconsin Governor's Commission on the Status of Women, "On, Wisconsin Women: Chronology of Recent Highlights of Wisconsin's Women's Movement (1962-1977)" Madison, Wisconsin, May, 1977, pp. 4-5; Amazon, May, 1972, pp. 1-3, June, 1972, p. 2, July, 1972, p. 7; "A.C.L.U.," Amazon, September, 1972, p. 7; "Margaret Sanger to the Rescue," Amazon, September, 1972, pp. 8-9; Judi Jacobi, "NOW: Milwaukee's Oldest Women's Movement Group," The Bugle American, November 5, 1975, pp. 114-115; Davis, The Women's Movement, pp. 115, 121, 123.
Amazon was a feminist newspaper initiated in May, 1972 by feminists in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). The first two issues were mimeographed sheets, but Amazon expanded to small booklet form and later, to a newsprint edition. It appeared monthly from 1972 to 1976, when it adopted a bi-monthly format. Amazon ceased publication in mid-1984. Its early issues contained short announcements and a calendar of events which was valuable in compiling this account. Later issues contained feature length articles which will be credited in subsequent footnotes. Amazon's in depth coverage of the local women's movement made it a vital resource for this study. Information drawn from "Amazon's 10th Anniversary," Amazon, April/May, 1982, pp. 2-3.
5 Jacobi, "NOW: Oldest Women's Group," pp. 114-115; Interview with Lois Torkelson, first Treasurer of Milwaukee NOW (1969-70), Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 21, 1987; "Women Diners Jar Men's Last Stand," Milwaukee Journal, November 19, 1969; Petrus, interview.
Petrus recalled the "communists and fascists" epithet because NOW threatened to sue for slander. The Milwaukee Journal credited Manager Thomas Burns with "...what will they want next?"
6 "Women Sue in Fight on Men Only," Milwaukee Journal, August 26, 1972; "US Judge Outlaws Men's Grill," Milwaukee Journal, November 19, 1975.
7 Petrus, interview.
8 Petrus, interview; "Journal Stops Segregating Job Ads," Milwaukee Journal, July 10, 1973; Sue Luecke, "Victory! Girls Admitted to Boy's Tech," What NOW, the newsletter of the Milwaukee chapter of NOW, August, 1972. p. 6; "NOW Prods Schools to Act on Sex Bias," Milwaukee Journal, November 23, 1975; Mary Maronek, "Report: Title IX," What NOW, April, 1978, p. 1; Sue Miess, "Focus: ERA," What NOW, February, 1978, p. 1.
9 "Uniting Women for Strike No Easy Job," "Liberation Spirit Still Strong as Strike Day Ends," Milwaukee Journal, August 27, 1970; "Rain Hurts NOW March, But Not Zest for Equality," Milwaukee Journal, August 26, 1972.
10 "Women's Column," Kaleidoscope, June 12-25, 1970, p. 3; Ullrich, interview; Interview with Reverend Elinor Yeo, OWL member, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 13, 1987; Davis, The Women's Movement, p. 111.
11 "Women's Center Open," Kaleidoscope, August 17-23, 1970, p. 3; Interview with Joy Schulman, founder of West Side Women's Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 9, 1987; Ullrich, interview; Davis, The Women's Movement, pp. 113, 115.
12 Interview with Virginia Ray, founder of the Non-Violent Feminist Cooperative and later, staff member of Women's Coalition, by telephone to Madison, Wisconsin, October 20, 1987; Interview with Susan Luecke, member of NOW, Non-Violent Feminist Center, and founder of the Women's Coalition, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 1, 1987; Jane Howard, "Is Women's Lib a Dirty Word in Milwaukee?" Life, August 27, 1971, pp. 46-51; Jane Howard, A Different Woman (New York: Avon Books, 1973), pp. 56-74.
The chapter "What's So Great About Sofas?" in Howard's book provides personality sketches and political insight into the women who made up the Non-Violent Cooperative.
13 Rev. Yeo, interview; Sharon Senese, "Women's Coalition, 1972," unpublished paper for Urban Affairs class at UWM, December, 1972, pp. 1-9; "Women's Center Underway," What NOW, October, 1972, p. 8; Susan Luecke, "Women's Coalition Herstory," Common Ground, the newsletter of the Women's Coalition, January, 1976, p. 1; Luecke, interview; Interview with Carolyn Keith (Mueller), founder of the Women's Coalition and Milwaukee NOW President (1974), Milwaukee, Wisconsin, December 26, 1986; Interview with Judy Anderson, Milwaukee NOW President (1972-73) and founder of the Women's Coalition, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 6, 1987; Interview with Ellen Guiseppi, NOW member and founder of the Women's Coalition, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, September 28, 1987.
14 Women's Coalition, Inc., Articles of Incorporation, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 9, 1973, on file with the Wisconsin Secretary of State and the Milwaukee County Register of Deeds, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The first Board of Directors of the Women's Coalition, Inc., listed in the Articles of Incorporation, included: L. Mandy Stellman, Jerri Ralenkotter, Carol A. Mathews, Susan Luecke, Ellen Guiseppi, Pat Dolhun, Linda Daly, Julia Hanneman, and Martha Spencer.
15 Coalition Bylaws, Article III, "Purposes."
16 Coalition Bylaws, Article IV, "Membership and Member Groups," Article V, "Governing Body"; Women's Coalition, Inc. , "Member Groups of the Women's Coalition," Internal Memorandum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1973; Women's Coalition, Inc., Board of Directors Meeting Minutes, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, August 3, 1975, p. 2.
17 Interview with Jerri Ralenkotter, member of NOW and first Board of Directors of the Women's Coalition, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, June 22, 1987; Anderson, interview; Luecke, interview; Luecke, "Women's Coalition Herstory," p.1.
18 Women's Coalition, Inc., Income Statement, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, December 31, 1974; Coalition Board Minutes, September 10, 1974, p. 2; Women's Coalition, Inc. "1976 Funding Sources," Milwaukee, Wisconsin, December 31, 1976.
19 Luecke, "Women's Coalition Herstory," p. 1.
Other early organizers were Virginia Ray, Mandy Stellman, and Karen Voltz Brelle. Virtually hundreds of women became involved as the Crisis Line developed and expanded. It would be impossible to recount all their contributions here.
20 "Crisis Line," Amazon, January, 1973, p. 2.
21 Coalition Bylaws, Article III, "Purposes."
22 Keith (Mueller), interview; Anderson, interview; Interview with Karen Coy, Director of the Women's Crisis Line (1974-1978), Milwaukee, Wisconsin, November 30, 1986.
23 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1974); Robin Morgan, ed., Sisterhood is Powerful: Anthology of Writings From the Women's Liberation Movement (New York: Vintage Books, 1970).
24 "Room With a View: Feminist Answers Calls for Help," Milwaukee Journal, January 31, 1975.
26 Women's Crisis Line, Internal Memorandum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, February, 1975; "Who Calls the Crisis Line?" Common Ground, October, 1977, p. 4; Coy, interview.
27 Keith (Mueller), interview.
28 Interview with Nova Clite, Crisis Line operator and founder of the Task Force on Battered Women, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, December 21, 1986.
29 Keith, interview; Clite, interview.
30 Interview with L. Mandy Stellman, member of NOW and first Board of Directors of the Women's Coalition, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, November 13, 1986; Coy, interview.
31 Pam Hanson, "Women Organize to Combat Rape," The Bugle American, June 27-July 11, 1973, pp. 8-9.
32 Stellman, interview; "Urgency Motivates Anti-Rape Council," Milwaukee Journal, August 1, 1973.
33 "Women Urge DA to Ease Trauma of Rape Victims," Milwaukee Journal, June 23, 1973; "McCann Seeks Aid for Rape Victims," Milwaukee Journal, July 12, 1973; "Anti-Rape Council Celebrates Its Womanpower," Milwaukee Journal, July 22, 1974;
"Program to Assist Rape Victims to Start in September," Milwaukee Journal, July 23, 1974; "McCann Appoints Rape Unit Leader," Milwaukee Sentinel, October 25, 1974; Stellman, interview; Ralenkotter, interview.
34 Interview with Attorney Sandra A. Edhlund, member of Anti-Rape Council, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 15, 1987.
35 "Relating to Revision of Rape Laws," Chapter 184, Wisconsin Statutes, 1975-1976 Biennial Session, Laws of 1976; See also Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), for the feminist analysis of rape.
36 "Sex Assault Clinic to Open Sept. 30," Milwaukee Journal, September 20, 1976; Keith, interview; Coy, interview; Family Hospital, "Statistics for the Sexual Assault Treatment Center and Incest Treatment Service," Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 30, 1985; Good Samaritan Medical Center, "Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, and Incest Treatment Center Statistics," Milwaukee, Wisconsin, August 31, 1987.
The Family Hospital statistics recorded 5,061 clients served from the Center's opening September 30, 1976 to April 30, 1985. Two hundred thirty-two of these clients, or 4.6 percent, were males. Statistics compiled by Good Samaritan indicate a total of 1,116 clients treated for sexual assault and incest between April 1, 1986 and August 31, 1987. Statistics for the eleven month period May 1, 1985 to March 31, 1986 are incomplete but can be estimated from the monthly average of clients served in the year immediately preceding and succeeding the gap. The total of clients served at both facilities was at least 6,177.
37 Coalition Board Minutes, March 2, 1975, p. 2; Coy, interview; Stellman, interview.
38 Coalition Board Minutes, April 20, 1975, p. 2.
40 Coalition Board Minutes, May 4, 1975, p. 3.
41 Coalition Board Minutes, May 18, 1975, p. 2; Women's Crisis Line, Inc., Articles of Incorporation, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, May 15, 1975, on file with the Wisconsin Secretary of State and the Milwaukee County Register of Deeds, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
42 Coalition Board Minutes, August 3, 1975, p. 2, November 16, 1975, p. 1; Statistics of the Women's Crisis Line cited in a Women's Coalition, Inc. "Proposal to Volunteers in Service to America," Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1975, p. 1.
The resolution of August 3, 1975 which established the Task Force on Battered Women stated the project would begin "at such time as a paid coordinator position is obtained for it." The first staff position (a PLS slot for Nova Clite) and the first public meeting of the Task Force came in November, 1975, marking the official starting date of the project. Much groundwork had been conducted before that time.
43 Coalition, "Proposal to VISTA," p. 1.
44 "Activists Plan to Combat Wife Beating," Milwaukee Journal, December 16, 1975.
45 Clite, interview.
46 Interview with Rosemary Caravella, staff member of the Task Force on Battered Women and President of the Coalition's Board of Directors (1978), Milwaukee, Wisconsin, July 15, 1987; Clite, interview; Ray, interview.
47 Nova Clite, "The Battered Woman Project," Position Paper, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1975.
48 Women's Coalition, Inc., "Task Force on Battered Women Program Report: November, 1975-May, 1977," Milwaukee, Wisconsin, p. 5; Clite, interview; Caravella, interview.
49 Caravella, interview; Women's Coalition, Inc., "Program Report to the United Way of Greater Milwaukee," Milwaukee, Wisconsin, December, 1976, p. 2.
50 "Battered Wife is Topic," Milwaukee Journal, October 4, 1976; Clite, interview.
51 Coalition Board Minutes, August 3, 1975, p. 2; Women's Coalition, Inc. , Minutes of the Board of Directors Retreat, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, November 13ù14, 1976, p. 3; Caravella, interview.
52 Caravella, interview.
53 "Sojourner Truth House, A Shelter for Battered Women and Their Children," Common Ground, May/June, 1978, pp. 15-16; "New Women's Shelter is Bigger, But More Space Would Be Nice," Milwaukee Journal, February 16, 1981.
54 "Battered Women Find Advocates," Milwaukee Journal, November 23, 1980; Interview with Connie Corrao, Co-Director of the Task Force on Battered Women (1987), Milwaukee, Wisconsin, June 10, 1987.
55 "Domestic Abuse Council – Grants," Chapter 111, Wisconsin Statutes, 1979-1980 Biennial Session, Laws of 1979.
57 Corrao, interview.
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