In the winter of 1975, a week after a ten-inch snowfall, Chris Womendez and Cherie Jimenez decided to turn Cherie’s apartment into a shelter for women who were getting beaten up at home. Cherie lived downstairs from Chris in a building on Pearl Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Neither knew what running such a shelter involved, but nobody did; there was only one in the country, which had opened in St. Paul the year before. They were both on welfare, and each had a little kid, but rent was cheap, and their apartments were bigger than they needed. They put up signs with Cherie’s phone number in laundromats, and the bathrooms of broken-bone units in hospitals, and the waiting rooms of maternity wards. Cherie painted a picture on her wall of a woman brandishing a rifle. They met a few times with a lawyer they knew, to ask questions like: What if a guy found a woman in their apartment and killed her—would they be responsible? They got some women together to make plans, but the meetings were long and kind of boring, so they decided to just do it.
Chris grew up in the projects in South Boston. One night in 1966, when she was seventeen, she went to the Waldorf, a twenty-four-hour restaurant on Tremont Street where gay people used to go after the bars closed. She met a deaf Puerto Rican guy there, got pregnant, and married him. Soon after she gave birth, he started beating her up. He tried to strangle her and drown her in the bathtub. She fought back, but he was stronger. They had terrible arguments, all in sign language. She left him when she was eighteen and moved back in with her parents; her mother watched the baby while Chris went downtown and turned tricks. The money was good, and she moved to a nice apartment in Back Bay with a woman she’d been seeing who worked as a prostitute, too. She changed her last name from her husband’s name, Mendez, to Womendez.
Later, around 1973, Chris had a minor nervous breakdown, became religious, moved to Cambridge, and found work moving furniture and delivering the Gay Community News in her van. Then, one night, she met Cherie at a Daughters of Bilitis meeting, and they went out afterward to a lesbian bar in Boston called the Saints. They became friends, and then a couple, and talked every night about how they wanted to do something to really turn things upside down. They thought, There are so many women getting beat up who need a place to stay—we should just open our place up, make it a shelter. They would call it Transition House.
Cherie, like Chris, had fled a violent early marriage. When she was a teen-ager, she went to Puerto Rico with some friends and met her future husband, a rich man from San Juan, in a hotel lobby. They had a daughter together, but he hit her, and then he became violent with their daughter, too. She left him and travelled around for a while, supporting herself and her daughter by working as a high-end escort. She spent some time in Mexico City, then stayed for a summer with friends who had an organic farm in Michigan. Finally, she fetched up in Cambridge and met Chris.
Word about the shelter spread fast. It was Cambridge in 1975, and there was a lot going on. Women were meeting for consciousness-raising sessions at the Sergeant Pepper Coffee House, and helping rape victims at the Women’s Center, and starting up the Combahee River Collective. There were biker feminists in leather, and Cambridge feminists in bandannas, and Dorchester feminists in dresses. There were socialist feminists who believed that all victimized groups should struggle together against capitalism, and radical feminists who believed that misogyny was the fundamental oppression—that if the patriarchy could be broken then all other oppressions would follow.
Cherie and Chris opened their shelter on New Year’s Day, 1976, and it was full almost immediately. There were mattresses stacked up in the kitchen and all over the floor, and children everywhere. The women who came to stay all pitched in, cleaning the house, taking donations, answering the phone, which began ringing constantly, helping out with child care while mothers went to the doctor or the housing office. A lot of women showed up at the apartment to help. One was Betsy Warrior, a former battered woman who was a founding member of Cell 16, a radical feminist group whose journal, No More Fun and Games, advocated celibacy, separatism, and wages for housework. Another was Lisa Leghorn, an ardent young student who had met Warrior in Cell 16 and spent time with her studying social movements. (They concluded that the basis of women’s subjugation was their place as unpaid laborers in the home, reinforced through violence.) There was Rachel Burger, who had grown up in a pacifist Anabaptist community in England and Paraguay, and, having seen abuse that nobody talked about in that community, had gone looking for another. There were housewives from the suburbs who turned up carrying homemade cakes.
The idea was that there should be no difference between women who came to stay and women who came to help. They made decisions together, went on protest marches together, went out drinking and dancing. “We were changing consciousness,” Leghorn says. “A woman would come into the shelter in the morning, and by the evening she was showing a new resident around. Women were learning that they weren’t just victims.” Nobody wanted to make rules or control behavior; the only rule was to keep the shelter’s location a secret. Chris and Cherie had almost no money, but they were determined not to fund-raise from any source other than individual women, because doing so would compromise their independence and their politics.
Chris and Cherie worked around the clock, taking naps when they could. There were a lot of people and a lot of frantic emotions in a small space. Everyone was in crisis, panicking about where she was going to go next. One woman kept begging Chris to kill her, and Chris would say, Not today, honey, maybe tomorrow. A volunteer went to help a woman escape from her house and got beaten up herself. Some of the women had not been battered but had come because they were homeless; Chris and Cherie couldn’t decide what to do about them. Some days, when the weather was nice, all the women would take a picnic out to the back yard and the kids would play and everybody would be at peace for an hour or two.
In August that first year, Transition House helped to organize a women’s march that rallied at Government Center, in Boston. Five thousand people turned up. Leghorn spoke passionately about female servitude. Florynce Kennedy, the founder of the Feminist Party, advised battered women to occupy the nearest cathedral, mosque, or synagogue, because religions had been “pushing the family trap” and had taken upon themselves “a monopoly on the license to fuck.” Afterward, dozens of women showed up at the shelter to volunteer.
Many volunteers had been activists in the civil-rights and antiwar movements but had got sick of being ignored and making coffee. Gail Sullivan had just come back from a stint at the Wounded Knee defense committee, in South Dakota. “The movement was dominated by men who were actively hostile to feminism, which they termed ‘white feminism,’ ” Sullivan says. “Most were very invested in traditional gender roles, which they defended as Native American traditions. This stuff was very common, men using racial oppression as an excuse to oppress women.”
Domestic violence felt like the front line of the liberation struggle. “When we started to understand how deeply pervasive and corrosive it was, when we heard stories from women whose father beat their mother and then they replicated that in their own relationship, it felt like the work was so central to creating a world in which women could be liberated,” Sullivan says. All women needed was a place to go—a refuge where they would realize that they could survive on their own—and then they would be freed from dependence on violent men, or any men, forever. The stories were brutal, but the work was exhilarating.
Cartoon by Roz Chast
Unlike most small feminist organizations founded in the nineteen-seventies, the shelter survived the decade, and the next, and the ones after that. It is still open, in a clapboard house in Cambridge with an unpublished address. It was founded not just to be a refuge for battered women but to embody a set of principles and enact a theory of how women would be liberated. It survived the seventies because the women who worked there were so fervently committed to the theory and the principles, and it survived after that because, year by year, they abandoned every one of them.
Each abandonment was the occasion of bitter fights, mutinies, and accusations of betrayal. For many women who worked there, Transition House was their first political love, to which they attached their most utopian hopes for the future, and, after all the devotion and the sacrifices and the impassioned arguments and the work day and night, it was hard to leave its founding principles behind, no matter how destructive they had become. Women left in anger, or hurt, or from exhaustion, or because they got older, or it was a different time. But the doors stayed open.
In the years before Transition House existed, violence at home was considered a private matter between husband and wife. In the early sixties, Janet, an undergraduate at a Seven Sisters college, had just married Jonathan, who was in law school. (Both names are pseudonyms.) Jonathan had started beating her up almost daily; each time, he was filled with remorse, but he blamed Janet for provoking him. Janet had not known any violence growing up, so she found the situation disturbing and bizarre and kept it a secret from most people she knew. She explained her black eyes with the usual stories about bumping into things.
She and Jonathan went to see a therapist, who recommended individual treatment for each of them. Janet’s therapist asked her about her childhood and concluded that she was a moral ascetic with a rigid superego, but, in what she recognized as an undisciplined moment for a Freudian, he suggested that she might leave her husband. There were no practical obstacles to her leaving: she and Jonathan had no children, and she would have had no difficulty supporting herself. But she loved him. She believed that he was a decent person with a few serious flaws. And she believed in marriage. She told the therapist, I promised for better or for worse—how can I leave just because it’s worse?
Jonathan’s therapist saw him for several months and conjectured that he was projecting rage at his mother onto his wife, or that he had a fear of abandonment owing to insecure attachments as a child. These theories failed to liberate Jonathan, however, and the beatings continued. The contrast between the violent Jonathan and the penitent Jonathan was so extreme that the therapist wondered whether he might be having seizures, and recommended that he be evaluated by a neurologist. Jonathan resisted, but the therapist, worrying that he might kill Janet if nothing were done, warned him that he would telephone the dean of his law school if he refused. The test results were normal.
A little while later, after another vicious beating, Janet fled to the university clinic. After she returned home, Jonathan continued to beat her, but less frequently and severely than before. Then, at some point, he stopped, and never beat her again. They went on to have two children, they both had professional jobs, and they shared the housework. They often had friends over for dinner, none of whom suspected that they were anything but the perfect couple. But Jonathan, though not physically violent, would still fly into rages, and eventually he left her. Soon afterward, he married again, and, as far as Janet knew, he was not violent with his second wife.
In the years that followed, Janet continued to think about her marriage and wonder what had happened. At first, under the influence of the Freudian theories that were dominant at the time, she believed that something in her childhood had instilled in her a desire for punishment and led her to seek out a violent man. Later, reading systems theory, she concluded that it took two to create a violent relationship, so there must have been something in their dynamic as a couple. Later still, she read feminist critiques of systems theory and decided that the violence had been not her fault but his. But she never felt that she’d found an answer to the question of why he’d done it, since it so clearly distressed him. “The impulse to be violent to someone you love, I think, is not a rare impulse,” she says now. “But if you ask most men what’s your preferred way to be with your wife, they’re not going to say ‘Having her cowering in a corner while I beat her up.’ Sadists are rare.” She also asked herself why she hadn’t fled the marriage when Jonathan was beating her nearly every day, and so badly that her therapist feared for her life. Why hadn’t she left?
In 1979, Lenore E. Walker, a psychologist, published “The Battered Woman,” which argued that women in domestic-violence situations suffered from learned helplessness. A woman stayed not because she was a masochist (a then popular theory), or because she was in some other way disturbed, but because a batterer’s relentless psychological abuse convinced her that she was powerless to escape. The theory of learned helplessness was derived from experiments on dogs. The psychologist Martin Seligman had found that, when dogs were subjected to random electric shocks and given no option to escape them, they discovered that nothing they did made any difference and gave up trying. When Seligman changed the situation and left open the door to the cage, Walker wrote, the dogs had to be repeatedly dragged out of the cage before they understood that escape was possible. Repeated batterings, Walker argued, acted on women like electric shocks. Moreover, when a woman blamed herself for precipitating the beatings, this might not be servility so much as an attempt to believe that she had some measure of control over what happened to her. Walker’s book was enormously influential, but Janet did not feel that it described her situation. She had never doubted that she could safely leave if she wanted to. And, unlike many of the women that Walker interviewed, she never believed that she deserved to be beaten—that it was a husband’s right, or that she had done something to provoke it.
Years later, once domestic violence had become an issue that many people knew about, the question “Why didn’t she leave?” became a constant irritant to activists in the battered women’s movement. As if it were that simple! As if you might not be pursued; as if he might not kidnap your children; as if you would not likely be beaten ten times as viciously if you were caught; as if it were easy to drag your kids away from their father and home and friends to live in a shelter; as if love were not infinitely complicated. In the fall of 2014, a newly discovered video showed a professional football player knocking his fiancée unconscious with a punch to the head, and many people were astonished to learn that she had stayed with him. In response, on Twitter, women started using the hashtag #WhyIStayed to explain their own similar behavior: they believed divorce was wrong, they feared being killed if they left, they thought he would change. And yet, to those with no experience of such relationships, physical violence could seem so foreign, so extreme, that staying despite it was unfathomable.
Many years after Janet and Jonathan split up, she became involved in the battered women’s movement, and then Transition House, and at one point she heard something that made sense to her. “Someone in the movement said, ‘It’s not about learned helplessness, it’s about learned hopefulness,’ ” she says. “And I think there’s a lot of truth to that. There’s a kind of resilience that allows you to think, I can manage this. He keeps saying he’ll change, and he is changing, he’s gotten a little better. So the hope keeps you in it.”
Chris and Cherie lasted eight months in the apartment on Pearl Street. Around the time of the Boston march, they realized that they couldn’t go on living in a continuous state of emergency, with no quiet or respite or even room to sit down, and even their sympathetic landlord said it was a health hazard to have so many people living together. Some radicals from the Women’s Center wanted to take over an M.I.T. building by force and set up a shelter there, but Chris and Cherie didn’t want to get arrested, because they worried that the state would take their kids. The shelter ended up renting a house on Elm Street that had been a shared home for a group of lesbian socialist feminists who had gone to Brown. Chris and Cherie worked at the new place every Sunday night—they brought donated bread from a woman-owned bakery, and held a support group—but they were too burned out by then to do any more.
The house on Elm Street was only a temporary fix—Transition House needed somewhere permanent. A group of women looked for a place and found an old six-unit, three-story house that they bought for twenty-four thousand dollars. It was in ropy condition, but it had a lot of rooms, and a back yard where the children could play. They took sledgehammers and knocked down the dividing walls between the units, and yanked the appliances out of the extra kitchens. They put up drywall, scrubbed the floors, washed the windows, and built a lot of bunk beds.
They set up a small office downstairs; upstairs there was a room with a phone where emergency-hotline calls came in, and an old sleeper sofa for whoever was on overnight duty. Also upstairs was a large kitchen and a family room where people could talk. It was safer to have those rooms upstairs, they thought—easier to defend in case of attack. At first, they made up the beds with pretty bedspreads that had been donated, and the place looked homey, but the bedspreads were soon taken by women moving out who had no bedding of their own, and after a while they weren’t replaced. In order to keep beds available for emergencies, they made a rule that a woman who came to the shelter should immediately set about finding an apartment, and either get a job or sign up for welfare. A single woman was expected to get all this done and move on in four weeks; a woman with children could stay for six.
They agreed that it was crucial to have women who had themselves been battered working in the shelter. Their goal was that at least a third of the staff should be formerly battered women, a third lesbians, and a third women of color. The shelter had started out mostly white, but everyone thought that it needed to get more diverse—after all, women of all races were battered in the same way. The only type of woman they felt should not be hired was anyone with a degree in mental health. Apart from objecting to psychology’s role in legitimatizing the notion that women were battered because they liked it, the shelter staff believed that battering was not a psychological issue but a political one: women were battered because they lived in a male-dominated society that permitted it. A political analysis was essential, because Transition House was not founded to be a social-service agency—it was a movement organization. The long-term goal was not to go on helping battered women but to change society so that women were no longer battered.
So many women had turned up to help after the big march that some kind of system was needed to organize everyone. The women wanted to avoid controlling one another as they had been controlled by men, so they decided that the shelter should be a collective. There would be no leaders, no titles, no structure, no power dynamics. Decisions would be made by consensus.
Consensus decision-making was not a peaceful business, nor was it quick. Everyone sat in a circle, on chairs or on the floor, in a room downstairs where they stored household supplies and donated clothes. There were arguments and yelling; there were factions and holdouts and rivalries; and meetings often ended without resolution. “You would have people saying, ‘I feel victimized,’ and that was the big thing you could pull out in a heated argument if you wanted to get your way,” Carole Sousa, who joined the shelter’s staff in the early years, says. Some who were not used to yelling were frightened by it, or had not imagined such a thing would happen among women. “I didn’t understand at first, I thought we were sisters—why are we all fighting?” Wylie Doughty, a volunteer, says. “And they said, ‘Are you an only child?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’ and they said, ‘Well, that’s what sisters do.’ ”
Sometimes the meetings were not so much angry as excruciatingly dull. After a while, the less committed stopped coming; others coped as best they could. Gail Sullivan started making an intricate baby quilt for her niece. “It was the only thing that kept me sane in those endless meetings,” she says. “I realized early on that if I didn’t have something to do with my hands I was going to scream.”
It wasn’t long after the second move before it became clear that it would be impossible to cover expenses with the small checks that women sent in. How could they find a more reliable source of money without jeopardizing their independence? The federal government had begun awarding grants to fund jobs for low-income people in public service; the shelter figured that accepting one wouldn’t be too compromising, and in 1978 it received money to pay for two salaries of nine thousand dollars a year. “I was officially one of the two employees,” Sullivan says, “but we split each of the two salaries in half so it actually employed four people, because we thought, Who needs nine thousand a year? It didn’t occur to me until the end of the year that I had a forty-five-hundred-dollar income and a tax bill for nine thousand. I don’t remember what we did—we worked it out.”
A few years later, in the early eighties, United Way also became enthusiastic about giving money to Transition House, but the charity insisted on seeing the shelter. This caused a crisis—how could the women bring strangers, possibly male strangers, into the house without revealing its location?—until someone came up with a solution. The United Way representatives would be picked up in Central Square, blindfolded, and driven around for a while to confuse them. Their blindfolds would be taken off once they were inside the house, and put on again before they left. United Way was so determined to fund Transition House that it agreed to these peculiar conditions—although, decades later, one of its representatives admitted to the staff that the moment he had looked out of one of the windows he knew exactly where he was, but, not wanting to upset his hosts, he hadn’t mentioned it.
Both the government and United Way required paperwork detailing the job titles and the structure of the organization, along with a board of directors. But the staff circumvented this by simply making it all up. On paper they had a board and so on, but in reality they continued with the collective just as before.
Liz grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Dorchester. She used to hang out in Harvard Square with her older sisters, and when she was fourteen, in 1971, she met a Palestinian boy there who was sixteen and had arrived in the country a year or so before. They started dating, and she was crazy about him: he was charming, he was handsome, he was funny and sweet. Everybody liked him. Right from the start, he was jealous—he didn’t want her even looking at anyone else, and if he thought she was he beat her up—but she thought it meant he loved her.
In August, 1976, the year it opened, Transition House helped to organize a march in Boston in support of battered women.
Photograph by Ellen Shub
She got pregnant when she was fifteen and dropped out of her Catholic school, which didn’t let pregnant girls stay. She had planned to give the baby up for adoption, but at the last minute she couldn’t go through with it and kept the baby, a boy, and she and the father got married. They had a second son three years later.
Liz had always wanted to be a therapist—when she was a child, she used to make appointments for her stuffed animals and bring them in for sessions—but her husband wouldn’t allow her to go to school. He called her from work every morning at eleven o’clock, and she had to be home. She wasn’t allowed to leave the house without his permission; he picked out all her clothes. Sometimes he would hit her because the house wasn’t clean enough. He wasn’t ashamed of beating her up—to him, it was normal. People saw him shout at her, but nobody said anything, and Liz couldn’t speak up for herself, because she was agonizingly shy. Sometimes she thought about running away, but it seemed too hard. “You don’t just leave your spouse—you leave your neighborhood, your friends, the kids get uprooted,” she says. “And he had this wonderful side to him, that’s the part that keeps you there, and then you have to leave it all because you might end up dead.”
When she was twenty-three, she got her husband’s permission to take a women’s self-defense class, and one of the women in the class told the others about Transition House. After the class, someone suggested that they all go to a lesbian club in Boston. Liz went along, but felt so shy that she got very drunk. When she got home, she told her husband that he shouldn’t mind her having gone to the club, because it was all women, but he locked her and the children in a room and beat her and ripped her clothes in front of them. This time, she remembered the woman’s story and thought, I am not trapped after all—there’s a place I can go. The next day, she called Transition House and took her sons and left for good.
Moving to Transition House in 1980 was moving to a different world. Women there talked about battering as an evil all women had to fight, not just some weird, awful thing that had happened to Liz. They helped her go to court and take out a restraining order, and persuaded her to withdraw money from the bank. She started answering the hotline and accompanying other women to court. There were the long meetings and the fights, but she loved it all. While she was at Transition House, she came out as a lesbian. After a couple of months, she moved in briefly with one of the women on staff, whose partner had two boys the same age as hers. She found jobs to support herself—cleaning houses, answering phones at a law office. She went back to school so that she could eventually become a therapist. For a while, she was homeless—she sent her kids to live with family and she stayed with friends, or slept in her Volkswagen Bug.
Seven years after she left her husband, he killed himself. In the aftermath, she and her kids were a mess. Then, about a year later, she met a woman who made her kids laugh again. Liz was so glad to see them warming to someone new that for the moment it was all she cared about. She thought, At last, here is someone for my kids.
Before long, the woman started beating her. But even though it was happening, and even though it had happened to her before, she could not believe it, because her partner was a woman. Liz had spent years educating people about domestic violence and counselling battered women, and here she was going through it all over again in her own house. She kept thinking, She’s a woman, she’s going to realize how bad this is. She did not. But Liz stayed with her for five years. After Liz finally left, she started volunteering at the recently formed Network for Battered Lesbians in Boston, and she discovered that although there were many other women in her situation, the battered women’s movement wasn’t talking about it.
At Transition House, everyone believed that battering was a result of male domination in a sexist culture, so the idea that women battered other women was incomprehensible, and therefore ignored. It wasn’t that they had rigid ideas about what it meant to be a woman—a trans woman had come to stay in the shelter while Liz was there, in the early eighties, and nobody had thought twice about it (although the woman made it so clear that she thought both feminism and her fellow-residents were stupid that nobody much liked her). No, it was the idea of violent women that was impossible to understand.
Around the time that Liz was emerging from her relationship, there was a lesbian couple working at the shelter who would get into terrible fights, but no one thought of it as domestic violence. “One of the women came in with bruises because her partner was throwing rocks at her on the beach at P-town, but we didn’t think this was battering, because women don’t do that to each other,” Carole Sousa says. “We thought they were just having a fight and it got out of hand.” Soon afterward, the shelter hired a lesbian who said that she had been in a violent relationship, but still nobody could believe it. “She would argue with us, but there was a lot of denial,” Sousa says. “People’s response, including mine, was, How could that be? It threw out the window everything we knew. It just didn’t make sense.”
In its first few years, the battered women’s movement was astonishingly successful. The Equal Rights Amendment failed in 1979, and feminists were still widely reviled, but stories of violence in the home upset people whether or not they believed in women’s lib. By the early eighties, there were more than three hundred battered women’s shelters in America. Laws were passed requiring that police arrest batterers; wives could take out restraining orders against husbands; in some places, battered women were given preference on waiting lists for subsidized housing. But, as the movement became more established, its pioneer scrappiness began showing signs of strain.
Early on, Lisa Leghorn emerged as Transition House’s spokesperson. She was young and charismatic and very angry. She was a passionate speaker, and started travelling around the country talking at conferences and movement gatherings and on TV. She and Betsy Warrior had been writing about women’s liberation since the sixties, so she had theories and language and systemic analysis. She was spreading the word and bringing in converts, but she was also acquiring a public identity outside Transition House, which was both admired and begrudged. Some women told her that she was dominating meetings, that she had to listen more to others, even if they didn’t know as much or work as hard. But things were moving so fast, and she was on fire, and the cause was urgent.
It sometimes felt to her that, to some of the newer volunteers, the work of the shelter mattered less than the decision-making process itself. This was happening in feminist collectives all over the country—women were being “trashed” for being too verbal, or too rational, or because their eloquence was oppressive. She didn’t know how to turn things around. Her health began to fail and she began to suffer from disabling back pain. Her chiropractor told her that if she didn’t change her life she would be dead in a year. Finally, feeling disappointed by the direction the shelter was taking, and by her own limitations, she left.
There were also deeper dynamics in the collective that were harder to see. Some women swayed decisions more than others—people tended to look at them when an impasse was arrived at, or fall silent when they spoke. Women could feel power shifting around in meetings, but it wasn’t until years later that they understood what had been going on. “At the time, I loved the collective structure because I thought, Everybody’s equal, everyone has a voice,” Carole Sousa says. “But people that have privilege got to move the organization, and that was never acknowledged.” Some of the dynamics had to do with race or class; others were subtler, to do with personality and friendships. But because this sort of power was not official, and barely visible, it could not be curbed or held to account.
In the early seventies, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” an article by a Chicago feminist named Jo Freeman, which was published and republished in various movement periodicals, argued that there was no such thing as a structureless group. The idea of no structure became, Freeman wrote, “a smoke screen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others.” The strong and the lucky were not always aware of their power, and in their ignorance they exerted it all the more vigorously. In any group, there were some who laid down the unspoken rules by which the group was governed, while others couldn’t understand why they weren’t listened to, or seemed to speak the wrong language, or felt undercurrents in the room that they couldn’t name.
There were practical difficulties with the collective as well. Everything was shared, everything was loose and undefined, so things fell through the cracks. People missed shifts and neglected tasks, which was easy to do because everyone was responsible for everything. Conflicting ideas about what was expected tended not to emerge until there was a crisis. Then it would become apparent that the women in the shelter were more divided than they’d realized. “There was this unsaid value that you are a feminist so you were there 24/7,” Sousa says. “You did whatever was necessary. Once, we were doing a fund-raising appeal and everybody was expected to participate, and I remember one of the women of color saying, This is not anything I signed on for. And it wasn’t like, Let’s have a conversation about it, it was the white staff saying, This is part of your job.”
The lack of hierarchy also meant that it became nearly impossible to make decisions. The volunteers believed in the collective, but they were a transient group—every meeting, some would drop out and new people would turn up. At one point, the shelter commissioned two filmmakers to shoot a documentary about its history, and they filmed hours of interviews, at enormous expense; but despite countless meetings the collective could not agree on what should be included in the film, and the project was abandoned. Rules were made to clamp down on what staff felt was undesirable behavior—hitting children, drinking, not helping to clean up, staying out late—but people who hadn’t been part of making them didn’t feel as committed to insuring that they were enforced. For a while, there was a policy that a woman could come to the shelter only three times, because some women repeatedly returned to their partners, but there were always exceptions.
The women who went back to their partners drove some of the staff round the bend. “That was a separatist time,” Nanette Veilleux, who started volunteering at the shelter after college, in 1980, says. “The idea was that if they just didn’t have men in their lives they would be fine. The idea that batterers came in different flavors, and some were more dangerous than others—we didn’t let ourselves see that. But the women who came to our shelter weren’t thinking about being separatists—they were thinking about falling in love again.”
Some women had other issues that had not been anticipated. One came into Carole Sousa’s office, saw the “Star Trek” posters on her wall, and confided that she had been abducted by aliens and knew quite a bit about them. A couple of women had psychotic breaks while they were living in the shelter, which was scary, because everybody was living together in such close quarters, and there were children around. Nobody had a clue how to deal with this sort of thing, and the staff began to wonder if they should go against their principles and hire a therapist. By the mid-eighties, “feminist psychologist” was no longer an oxymoron. And, after all, even if there was nothing mentally wrong with a woman to get her into a battering situation in the first place, by the time she got out of it she was sure to be traumatized. Soon, the decision was forced upon Transition House: Massachusetts passed a law requiring anyone working as a mental-health counsellor to be professionally licensed.
Bringing in therapists changed the shelter profoundly. “It felt infantilizing and disempowering,” a former staff member says. “It felt like people with degrees were coming in to take care of these poor women who were victims. Suddenly, it felt like social service, not social change.” In the beginning, the idea was to see no difference between women who worked in the shelter and women who lived there, but now, with therapists on staff, what had previously seemed like barriers to be broken down came to seem like boundaries that were ethically necessary. Policies were laid down about staff not considering residents friends, and certainly not romantic prospects. At some point, the staff started referring to women in the shelter as “clients,” and Transition House as an “agency.” There were no more group outings to bars.
Despite these precautions, sometimes the boundaries didn’t hold. One staff member who had been battered became more and more judgmental of the residents, until finally she left. “It was in part a situation of her being under incredible stresses in her life where things from the past were bubbling up, and seeing herself as a younger woman reflected all around her,” a staff member who was there at the time says. “Mirrors everywhere. You could imagine what a house of horrors this could turn into.” With time, the rule that there had to be formerly battered women on staff was abandoned. It seemed that having staff who identified with the residents’ experience was not only unnecessary—it could actually be worse.
A year after Transition House opened, another battered women’s shelter opened across town, in the South End of Boston. It was started by a group of Latinas who had been meeting with a community organizer to talk about women they knew who were being abused. They named it Casa Myrna Vasquez, for a local activist. They held bake sales and solicited in churches to raise money to rent a house. They went door to door in the neighborhood to recruit people to work there.
Casa Myrna was different from Transition House in almost every way. For one thing, most women who worked there did not call themselves feminists. Feminism seemed too radical, or too white, or too obsessed with gender oppression to the exclusion of other kinds. Transition House saw itself as a bunker, but Casa Myrna saw itself as part of the community, which included men. And Casa Myrna was not a collective—it was a traditional nonprofit, with a hierarchy and a board. The founders didn’t want to get rid of power—they wanted access to power, and they wanted to be a ladder for women of color to ascend to professional positions. They paid proper salaries, with vacation and health insurance, and they had an executive director who wore suits and sat in a large corner office.
Cartoon by Liana Finck
Casa Myrna had lots of rules, explicitly stated. There was mandatory counselling, forbidden this, compulsory that. “There was a sign on a door, ‘The Rules of the House,’ and it said ‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, you can’t, don’t,’ ” Julie Kahn-Schaye, who worked there before becoming the clinical director at Transition House, says. “And then it said something like ‘If you don’t follow these rules you will be exterminated.’ And I was like, Oh, my gosh—I mean, I understood that they weren’t saying, We will kill you, they meant to say, You will be terminated, which is also a problematic word. But for some reason I couldn’t find the way to say that because I knew that I was going to come across as this snooty white girl with a master’s, so it just stayed there.” Transition House had accumulated quite a few rules, too, but everyone wanted the freedom to be flexible when it felt like the kinder thing to do, and this meant that nobody was sure what the real rules were. In practice, whether a rule was enforced or not depended on the personality of the enforcer and how she felt about the woman who had broken it.
The staff at Transition House believed that one of the most pressing difficulties that battered women faced was the hands-off attitude of the police: policemen would often just tell a batterer to cool it, or take a walk around the block. Police, for their part, hated “domestics,” because half the time they would show up and the woman was too scared or conflicted to press charges. Transition House sent women out to lead training sessions with the police, but in the early years this was a losing battle. “Practically all the officers opened the Boston Herald and read it through the whole training,” Carole Sousa says. “They would say that we hated men, that we didn’t know what we were talking about, that they would go on calls where it was the woman who provoked the guy and what was the poor guy supposed to do?”
By the late eighties, several states had passed laws requiring police to make an arrest when a domestic assault appeared to have taken place, but this change brought its own problems. For one thing, a lot of women genuinely did not want their husbands to be arrested—they just wanted the beating to stop—so the laws took away their option of calling the police altogether. Fairly often, the police, unable to determine which partner was to blame for the violence, arrested both. And, while the mostly white feminists at Transition House welcomed the imprisonment of batterers, to women of color at Casa Myrna the issue felt more complicated. “The feminist movement never really dealt with what it meant that black men were also oppressed by white men,” Curdina Hill, Casa Myrna’s first executive director, says. “It never dealt with women who were being abused but who still wanted to support their men on a political level. It wasn’t that they were not aware of it—they didn’t deal with it.”
Tensions between black feminists and white feminists had existed since the beginning of the movement. “We had a hard time keeping women of color as staff,” Nanette Veilleux says. “I think at some point it was decided that it was better to hire a woman of color than to hire someone who wasn’t homophobic, so we had very devout Christians who were homophobic working at the house. And then at another point all the white women were lesbians and all the black women were straight, and that did not work well. How could that happen? But it did.”
In the early two-thousands, several black women on staff accused the white director of discrimination. She had fired a black staff member, after which several others left in protest. The director was forced out, at which point she turned around and sued Transition House for discriminating against her because she was white. The shelter subsequently arranged for its staff to participate in anti-racism training sessions, and held long, wrenching discussions in which it was made clear to the white staff that the black staff were unhappy and not being listened to.
Part of the issue was the shelter’s culture of never making anything explicit. So many things were left unsaid that there was an assumption that everyone just somehow understood what was expected of her, which masked an assumption that everyone thought more or less alike. “I didn’t really see this until years later, when I went to work in a family literacy program,” Carole Sousa says. “I was turning my job over to an African-American woman, and she kept asking me, ‘What do you do, and what is this expectation,’ and I kept saying to her, ‘You can do it however you want,’ but she kept pushing me. And finally I realized that, for her, you have to understand exactly what these white people want, because if you do what you want it might come back at you as, You’re not a good fit.”
Eventually, Transition House succeeded in hiring and keeping a diverse staff, but this did not put racial conflict to rest. “The only way that good change happens is through conflict,” Sarah Gyorog, Transition House’s current director, says. “So damn right we had conflict about race. Are you kidding me? I’m glad we had conflict, and are forced to acknowledge it, and know that racism is the air we breathe.” The tension over the shelter’s relationship to the criminal-justice system persisted, but it had to persist—that was the nature of the problem. “We definitely need the police, but people in prison are victims, too, and they are going to come back, and how do we want them to be back?” Gyorog says. “We want them to be able to have a relationship without holding power over someone, and prison is not going to deliver that. Black feminists knew that the criminal-justice system was not a panacea, and they were saying it, and the white feminists were not listening. Black feminism looks at how you can’t take a batterer out of a situation and expect it not to have a ripple effect on the rest of the community. But through the white lens it was: just take these batterers out and everything will get better.”
When Grace was in her early twenties, in 2006, living in her native city in southern China, she met a man online, who had emigrated from her city to Boston with his parents when he was a child. (Grace is a pseudonym.) Despite the distance, he pursued her on video chat. For four years, they spoke every day for two hours, and once a year he came to China for a month to visit. He was very sociable, talking with her mother for hours, and he took Grace out to restaurants. She grew to love him, and she thought he must be in love, too, to spend so much time courting her. He told her that if she came to America he would pay for her to go to college. He applied to get her a visa, and she moved to Boston to live with him and his parents. They married a few days after she arrived, and soon she was pregnant.
Right away she noticed that in Boston he was different. He seemed to have no friends. He made a good income as a computer engineer, but he hated to spend money and gave her just twenty dollars a month. He was angry all the time. At first, he and his father had terrible fights, but soon he turned to criticizing her, as did his parents. They seemed to fight less among themselves once they had her to blame.
While she was pregnant, her husband and his parents were nicer, but after she had the baby, a girl, things got much worse. They didn’t allow her to go out of the house without one of them as a chaperon. She asked him about going to college, as he had promised, but he told her that it was her duty to take care of the baby and his parents. He allowed her to call her mother in China, but his parents often listened to her conversations. If she spoke to them, they told her she was being impudent, so she tried not to speak. The only outsider she was allowed to talk to was an elderly woman next door.
From early in the morning until late at night, Grace did chores. She swept the floor three times a day and mopped it. If she made tea too hot or too cold, or put oil in the frying pan before salt, her in-laws shouted at her, and her husband slapped her hard on the face.
She wanted desperately to win their affection. Her goal was to have one day when she was not blamed for anything, but there was never a day like that, so she came to believe that she was a very stupid and useless person who could not do anything right. Sometimes she would cry, and her husband would scold her that it was her fault the family was unhappy. She wanted to save her marriage. She knew that, if she divorced, it would be so shameful that she could never go back to China. And because she was not allowed to leave the house by herself, and barely spoke English, and had no money, and was constantly yelled at, she became convinced that she would have no way of surviving in America on her own. It was one thing to die on the streets by herself, but she could never do that to her daughter. So she stayed.
Then, one day, when she was at her elderly neighbor’s house, she broke down crying, and told her what was going on. The neighbor connected her with a local organization, the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence. Grace had never heard of domestic violence, but now she learned that she was a victim of it. The Task Force suggested that she tell her husband she wanted to take an English class and carry her own I.D., and wasn’t ready to have a second baby, and she did. This made her husband furious, and he went on a hunger strike for two months, which made his parents blame her even more. He punched the wall so hard that his fist bled.
He started threatening to divorce her, and she thought, He does not love me. Her in-laws accused her of being a bad mother, and she thought, They are trying to build a case against me so that, if we divorce, they can keep the child. She thought, I was trying to save my family but they don’t want me at all, they only want the baby. The Asian Task Force told her that if she left her husband she would be able to find a place to live and was entitled to child support. Finally, she took her daughter and fled. For four years, they were homeless, moving from shelter to shelter—five or six altogether. Later, she understood that, in America, if you wanted help you had to ask for it, but she had been told to be quiet for so long that she said nothing. Later, she learned that American therapists expected you to cry, but she had been forbidden to cry so many times by her husband that she had trained herself not to.
One of the shelters she stayed in was Transition House. Its staff helped her to get a full scholarship to a community college, and found her a temporary apartment that she and her daughter shared for two years with another woman—by that time the shelter itself was only one part of Transition House’s work. At last, she got a government voucher to rent an apartment of her own.
As the years went on, housing in Cambridge grew scarcer and more expensive, and the idea that a woman could be expected to find a place to rent within a couple of months, which had been reasonable in the seventies, became completely unrealistic. Women started staying at Transition House for many months, sometimes more than a year, and often they came from some other shelter. As a result, it became almost impossible to find an emergency bed. Transition House worked with the city to provide transitional shared apartments that people could live in for a couple of years, but there weren’t enough of those, either. All these difficulties were compounded for immigrant women, who might not speak English and might not have documents. Women in the shelter had to ask for extensions of their stay. “They had to come to us and beg,” Nanette Veilleux says. “The power differences became very clear.”
In the mid-nineties, Transition House officially abandoned collective decision-making: residents, volunteers, and staff would no longer have equal say. There would be a board and an executive director—real ones this time, not fake ones on paper. “The killing of the collective—in the end, nobody fought that, because it had already happened,” Veilleux says. “The separation between staff and residents had already changed.” The staff also decided that, in order to attract good candidates for the executive-director position, they needed to pay according to the industry standard, and so they retired Transition House’s commitment to similar pay for everyone.
As more professional therapists came to Transition House, the staff began to think more psychologically. At first, it had seemed so clear that, once a woman found her way to the shelter and discovered that she could make it by herself, she would be free of her batterer forever. But women kept going back. Some women went back because leaving meant becoming homeless, or for some other practical reason, but often they went back just because they loved their partners and wanted to give them another chance.
At some point in the two-thousands, the staff settled on a new approach. If a woman wanted to stay with her partner, they might suggest a safety plan. They might buy her a TracFone that her batterer couldn’t monitor, or suggest a code word that she could use to signal to someone on the phone that she was in danger. They might offer one-on-one counselling for her or her children. “It’s about having conversations with people who want to stay with their partner so they don’t feel judged,” Ronit Barkai, Transition House’s assistant director, says. “That’s our plan for the future—not demonizing. There is no bad or good choice. You’re losing so many people when you’re saying to them, This is a monster.”
Eventually, even the founding rule about keeping the shelter’s location a secret—the rule everyone had agreed on—was called into question. When Risa Mednick joined the board, in the early two-thousands, she realized that secrecy in the old sense was no longer possible. “We had to reckon with the fact that in a couple of keystrokes you’re there,” she says. “We had a staff person who was cyber-stalked by her boyfriend, and he knew where she was in the building all the time.” When Mednick later became Transition House’s director, she and the staff did what they could to make the shelter secure, installing cameras at the doors, and advising residents to disable geo-tracking on their phones and to be careful what they posted on Facebook. But she also realized that a little less secrecy could be an advantage. Neighbors sometimes called the shelter to report suspicious people hanging around; the police knew where they were, and the staff wanted them to know. Mednick also thought that donors would feel more connected to the shelter if they could be part of it, so she decided to throw some garden parties in the back yard. “It took a lot of cajoling,” Mednick says. “There were some Old Guard people who—maybe the word is ‘appalled.’ ” “Women needed a safe space, and Risa had parties there!” Wylie Doughty, who started volunteering at the shelter in the eighties, says. “The residents were like her canapés. She would trot them out—it was disgusting.”
Also in the early two-thousands, Transition House appointed its fund-raiser as an interim director, and this produced a torrent of outrage, because the fund-raiser was a man. Chris Womendez, Cherie Jimenez, Betsy Warrior, and other women who had been involved in the early days wrote the agency a furious letter. “What does it say to women who are trying to escape dependence and the authoritarianism of male domination when they come to a supposed refuge and find a man is in charge?” they wrote. “Former residents have reported to us that he assigns them housework and then, in some cases, admonishes them on the inadequacy of their efforts.” (The interim director denies assigning or critiquing housework, and says that he worked mainly in the administrative office.) What was worse, Transition House had announced that its search for the next director would be gender-neutral.
“Our planes have been grounded. We’re not mad, just disappointed.”Cartoon by Maggie Larson
The interim director was rapidly replaced, but there was worse to come. Around 2010, a new regulation stipulated that any emergency shelter that accepted federal funding must not discriminate on the basis of gender: Transition House had to be open to men. There was more outrage, but the law was the law, and Transition House could no longer survive without government funding. The staff apologized to the women in the shelter, but the women found the idea far less strange than the staff did. Around 2011, a man came to stay. The staff looked on, nonplussed, as the women coddled him and shared food with him in a way that they didn’t do with one another.
Chris Womendez, who had gone on to found a shelter called Finex House, was forced to accept the new reality, but she didn’t like it. “It’s very different from sheltering women, very different,” she says. “One guy was showing women pictures of his penis on his cell phone. One guy, even though he said he was gay, ended up crawling into bed with the women and trying to do stuff. They would shave at the breakfast table, reading the newspaper like a guy, just taking over everything.”
It was understandable that the founders would be upset by the idea of men in the shelter, but by then the gender analysis that had driven the passion of the early years was no longer tenable. If women could batter other women, and men other men, then gender could not be the taproot of oppression. If women who stayed in Transition House went back to their batterers, then consciousness-raising and a place to run to were not enough. Many of the women who worked at Transition House in the seventies believed that if only people knew what was happening and knew there was an alternative way to live, then violence against women would soon end. Four decades later, nobody thought that anymore.
“We had debates about it,” Risa Mednick says. “I remember saying, If we can’t aspire to eradicating domestic violence, then why are we doing this? But the other side was: We’re here to be supportive of the victims—isn’t it misleading to say that we do more than that?” “It’s like the nonprofit industrial complex, right?” Cherie Jimenez says sadly. “Now they’re a social-service agency, and their whole thing is about maintaining the agency. But that wasn’t the initial intention, to have shelters forever.”
Transition House has survived for forty-three years because it moved beyond the blazing revolutionary purity of its early years and adapted to the complexity, and perhaps the permanence, of its foundational problem. It was necessary to see the complexity for what it was; and it had been equally necessary, in the beginning, not to see it. But, inevitably, the adaptation felt, to some of its founders, like a betrayal. “It is in some ways the antithesis of what it set out to be,” Ann Fleck-Henderson, who wrote “Transition House 1976-2017,” a book to mark the shelter’s fortieth anniversary, says. “But, if you’re going to make a revolution, it’s not so easy to see the difference between succeeding and selling out.”
When Michael was in college, he fell in love with Tom, a boy he’d known since he was a child. He and Tom became a couple and stayed together happily for thirty years. They moved away from their home town to live somewhere warmer, and started a business together. But then Tom died suddenly, in an accident, and, two years later, Michael met Ed. (All three names are pseudonyms.) For the first year, everything was great: Ed was handsome and charming and loving. Soon, he moved in. Ed had two cars, and he added Michael’s name to the titles. Michael felt he should reciprocate, and he and Tom had shared everything, so he added Ed’s name to his bank accounts and the deed to his house.
Ed wanted Michael with him all the time. At first, Michael found this endearing, but soon, if they were apart, Ed would accuse Michael of cheating on him. Even if Michael was just watching a movie in the next room by himself, it would drive Ed nuts. Michael also noticed that Ed didn’t get along with most people. He thought all his colleagues were idiots.
It started with a shove. Barely a shove, more like a tap. Then harder shoves. Then, a few months later, Ed gave Michael a black eye. The next day, he apologized and said that he had to learn to control his temper, but a few months after that he punched Michael in the jaw. It was always dumb things that set him off—maybe Ed wanted to go out for dinner and Michael wanted to stay home. Michael started doing whatever Ed wanted, to avoid a fight. A couple of times, Michael called the police, but they were useless. Even though Michael was obviously injured, and Ed was six inches taller and close to a hundred pounds heavier, they said, Oh, you’re two guys, you should just work it out.
The incidents started to escalate. Ed knocked out Michael’s teeth, broke his ribs, broke his fingers. He smashed his head against a wall so hard that Michael had to get his scalp stapled back together. Sometimes Ed would be horrified and rush Michael to the hospital. Michael felt sorry for him—he wondered what awful thing had happened to make him so violent—and he kept hoping that Ed’s remorse was strong enough that he wouldn’t do it again. But he also started thinking, How do I get out of this? After a bad battering, Ed would take Michael’s wallet and a few pieces of good jewelry that he loved and hide them, to prevent him from leaving. If Michael promised not to leave, he would give them back.
One day, Ed beat him up so badly that he broke his leg in several places. At the hospital, the doctor told Michael, “We’ve got to get you away.” But where would he go? Shelters to Michael meant places full of addicts and homeless people; he couldn’t imagine going to one. But his doctor kept pushing him. He said, “He’s done so much to you already, the only thing left is to kill you.” When he said that, Michael thought, That’s silly, he’s exaggerating. But the doctor kept at it, and finally Michael thought, Maybe he’s right.
He moved to a city across the state, and got a job working for a friend of a friend. He told the company accountant not to put his name on any documents, because Ed, who was clever with databases, would find him, but the accountant entered his Social Security number into the system, and a few months later Ed showed up at the office. He begged Michael to come back, and promised that he would get help and everything would be different. This time, love was no longer a factor—Michael felt nothing for Ed anymore. But, if Ed could find him in a nearby city, Michael realized that, in order to be free of him, he would have to move to a different part of the country, and it was awful to think about giving up his whole life: all his friends, who had known him for decades when he was happy with Tom; his town, where they had lived. And, since Ed’s name was on all his titles, he would lose everything he owned as well—his house, his car, his bank accounts. He thought that maybe if he went back he could salvage some of it.
He decided it was worth the risk—he knew that Ed would likely be penitent and sweet at first—so he went back, but immediately started making plans for a permanent escape. He withdrew cash and hid it. He put money onto gift cards and hid them, and bought a burner phone that was difficult to trace. He put his birth certificate, his Social Security card, and some credit cards in plastic bags and buried them under a rock in the back yard. For six months, Ed kept his promise, but then one evening they got back after a long car ride and Ed kicked their dog. For some reason, seeing the dog in pain was the moment that something clicked for Michael. He thought, The doctor’s right, he really is going to kill me. He called a friend and asked him to take the dog to a shelter.
One morning soon afterward, Ed was in a rage and Michael sensed that he was about to attack. Luckily, just then, the phone rang, and it was Ed’s boss, so he had to take the call. In that moment, Michael realized, This is the moment: go, go, go. He ran out of the house, grabbed the plastic bags from under the rock, ran to a friend’s house, and called his doctor. The doctor checked him into a mental hospital, because he knew mental hospitals weren’t allowed to give out information about their patients. His friends called and told him that Ed was looking for him—they saw him driving by their houses again and again, circling the block.
Michael fled the state and ended up in Boston. He had lost almost everything, but at least he was alive. At one point, he consulted a lawyer about getting his house back, or prosecuting Ed for assault, but the lawyer told him that he would have to appear in court and reveal where he was. The lawyer said he could take out a restraining order against Ed, but that was just a piece of paper, and wouldn’t keep him safe. It wasn’t worth it.
Through Transition House, he rented a place that he could inhabit anonymously—the agency’s name was on the rental contract, on the electricity bill, on the cable bill. He hated Boston’s freezing winters, but he liked his apartment. He decorated it all in white, and kept it spotless, vacuuming every day. He felt safe there. ♦