Isabelle Côté

This blog post is based on a conference paper which was presented at FWSA 2015 Conference


In the 1970’s, in Britain, the United States and Canada, feminists and grass-root advocates have taken a stand against the patriarchy by challenging men’s violence against women in intimate relationships and developing shelters to help battered women escape their abusive partner. Unlike other refuges at the time, domestic violence shelters were political in nature. In fact, these brave women decided that domestic violence was no longer a private issue and that this problem needed to be spoken about in the public sphere : the personal is political.

But who were those women? What inspired them to build domestic violence shelters? How did they individually and structurally work with “battered women” at the time? These questions are rather difficult to answer given that on the one hand, very little attention has been paid to the pioneer’s perspectives and, on the other hand, these women were way too busy to write down their story. Consequently, forty years later, we still don’t know much about them and their legacy. Since they have played a critical role in our history and in the recognition of domestic violence, isn’t it crucial to hear them out?

In considering these questions, I decided to take upon the challenge of documenting their stories[1]. I began to actively search for these women, driving thousands of miles across the province – even finding myself in a retirement home at one point. I carefully listened to each of these 15 pioneers and veterans, stunned with the passion, commitment and devotion they had had and in some instances, still had. In this paper, I will report a brief summary of what they have voiced during the interviews.

The Study

This article draws upon a section of a doctoral thesis conducted in Québec, Canada, which looks into the evolution of domestic violence shelters practices from the 1970’s up until today, but focuses on the perspectives of pioneers and veterans. The study was conducted in three stages, beginning in 2013 with an exploratory interview with a pioneer. The first stage was followed in 2014 by documents analysis and wrapped up in 2015 with 48 individual interviews. Out of the 48 participants, 15 were actively involved in domestic violence shelters between 1975 and 1985[2]. They can be divided into two categories:

Pioneers (N=8). The pioneers were women who, between 1975 and 1985, have either opened a domestic violence shelter, contributed to the development of the first coalition of shelters, or developed intervention guidelines for domestic violence shelters’ workers.

Veterans (N=7). The veterans were women who, between 1975 and 1985, have been involved as employees, volunteers, intern or activist in a domestic violence shelter but did not “fit” the criteria’s of the pioneers, as stated above.

Those 15 participants were recruited through snowballing sampling technique. Data are currently being analyzed through a coding tree developed with an independent researcher and consultant. The results presented below, draw upon preliminary results emerging from the data.

Preliminary results

Setting up the first domestic violence shelters required outrage towards male’s violence and eagerness to end the secrecy surrounding this issue. A third of pioneers and veterans disclosed having been victim of male’s violence and were “revolted” about the way they have been treated by their families, their friends and social services. They had hoped for major changes so that women wouldn’t be treated as such in the future:

“I would say, especially in the early 80’s, we were easily revolted. We were revolted by the way those women were treated… They would treat women as if it was a mental health issue; but it wasn’t!”(P2)

Generally speaking, professionals didn’t know how to handle this “new” phenomenon, but the pioneers and veterans themselves were equally clueless about the appropriate interventions required in those instances. The following pioneers were working in three different contexts, respectively in a women center, in a law firm and in a gym (teaching self-defence classes) and had a similar concern: there is a significant number of abused women and yet, no one knows how to handle this issue :

We had a project in Montreal to implant the New Women Centre (…). We quickly had an important proportion of women in the centre who were victims of domestic violence. But… we didn’t know what to do with them! We didn’t know how to insure their safety… To the point where we would bring them to our homes sometimes” (P3)

“I was working for judges and lawyers (…). My bosses didn’t know what to do with women who were victims of violence… So I was aware of it and I thought: we have to do something” (V1)

“Women in the city would start saying: Call (P1). At one point, I started receiving too many call. I didn’t know what to do with them!”(P1)

The intertwinement of outrage, revolt and a desire to meet the needs of abused women led to the development and implantation of the first domestic violence shelters in the province. Without any guidelines and limited financing, pioneers had to be polyvalent in order to set up shelters (finding furniture, painting, repairing), and simultaneously develop an analysis of domestic violence and appropriate intervention strategies. In that sense, lengthy discussions were needed to make sure the shelter was functioning adequately and that women would receive appropriate services:

“We had to furnish the shelter, we had to do everything but at the same time we had to think about: how do we intervene with women? How should we organize ourselves inside the shelter? It was challenging.” (P4)

“There was five of us, all feminist… more intellectual than hands-on! So organizing a shelter… we were not given any instructions so it was like: ‘Do whatever you want.’ So we took lots of time to discuss ‘What should we do?’ And slowly, we decided on things…” (P2)

An interesting finding emerging from the data is that pioneers perceived themselves as activists who fought gender inequality, male violence against women and essentially promoted social justice. In this sense, domestic violence shelters were seen as a temporary solution offering a safe and secure space for women but would no longer be necessary in the future. Pioneers believed that if they kept working towards women’s rights and equality, those shelters would disappear, making their main duty activism:

“The first few years I would say, we were more focus on activism to eradicate injustices, eradicate the way our society allows male domination over women. I remember in our shelter we had been criticized for the fact that we were never in the shelter. We would be on every committee, involved in so many things in our community… but we were never in the shelter. We were activists” (P2)

“We thought that maybe, domestic violence shelters would be transitory” (P4).

Given their activism which sought to put domestic violence on the map, the media were very much interested and curious about this new phenomenon and were eager to learn more about “battered women”. Shelters were thus sparking an interest from the media, which in turn helped creating awareness in the general population:

“We did not even need to call the media for interviews; they were calling us (…). It was very sympathetic.” (P5)

“They often asked us to be interviewed to discuss this reality on TV” (V7)

Participants encountered multiple reactions with regards to their involvement with the shelter’s movement. Interestingly, the general reactions were much more positive in Montreal than in rural areas, where shelters were perceived as a threat to the patriarchal family. Here’s a few examples as a matter of comparison:

Reactions in Montreal

“Finally, someone was standing up for women” (P1)

“Massive support. It was a damn good cause” (P3)

Reactions in rural areas

“It was us who were wrong to help out these women. There was a joke at the time: “If he doesn’t know why he beats her, she knows it.” (V3)

“How was it perceived… A bit alien-like! Like it was not important. A bit trivialized I would say.” (V4).

Finally, when discussing their legacy, the pioneers were mostly proud of the fact that they succeeded at making domestic violence a social issue, moving away from the traditional conceptualization of this problem as a private matter. The province of Québec is internationally recognized with regards their strong feminist-oriented social policies tackling domestic violence since the mid-‘80’s. The pioneers thus had to work on a structural level to achieve this, with the ultimate goal of changing society:

“We wanted to change the world! It was an exciting decade where we thought we could change the world.” (P1).

“We couldn’t just intervene with women. To accommodate them it’s OK, but there were things in society that had to change. If you just accommodate them, it’s like putting a bandage on a wound. If you don’t change society, the problem remains” (P2).



Insight from the mid-‘70’s and the beginning of the ‘80’s provide a snapshot into the shelters’ movement and the motivations of pioneers, as well as social reactions they have encountered. Forty years later, domestic violence shelters are an integral component of social services in the province of Québec, benefiting from state-funding and umbrella organizations working at a structural level with policy-makers. The evolution of practices during those forty years has not been studied, and this research will uncover fundamental considerations regarding the purposes of domestic violence shelters and the role of shelters’ workers. This study will explore the breadth of knowledge developed by pioneers, veterans, and current shelters’ workers to draw a more comprehensive picture of the transformations and changes practices have encountered over the last forty years.


[1] This study is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

[2] The first domestic violence shelter in the province opened its doors in 1975 and the first public policy on domestic violence was adopted in 1985, where domestic violence has been officially recognized as a social issue, constituting a key moment for the shelter movement in the province.


Isabelle Côté is undertaking a Ph.D. in social work, at the University of Montreal, Canada. She is a founding member of the Feminist Anti Violence Research Collective (FemAnVi), a collective of feminist advocates, researchers and students who work on the issue of violence against women. Isabelle works closely with her local domestic violence shelter and is involved in various initiatives in her community. In her wildest dreams, she overthrows the patriarchy single-handedly. You can follow her on Twitter at @icote066.