Real Life

Breaking boundaries: 50 Years of Elsie, Australia’s first women’s refuge

Fifty years ago, a group of students, academics, seniors and housewives broke into a Sydney house, creating Australia’s first women’s refuge. Named Elsie, it changed attitudes to family violence forever.

Anne Summers remembers exactly the moment she dreamed up Elsie. It was the night of Tuesday, September 4, 1973. The feisty young journalist and academic was lying alone in her bed in a share house in Balmain. It was the heyday of the women’s liberation movement.

Earlier that evening a friend, Jennifer Dakers, had mentioned reading about a “shelter for battered women” in England, and had wondered whether a similar enterprise was needed here. Over the years, Anne had inadvertently found herself helping more than one woman escape domestic violence. She remembers a young mother scaling her two-metre-high back fence with a baby in her arms to escape a knife-wielding husband. So right away she knew the need was real, and once the idea had been planted, she couldn’t let it go.

Anne understood she would need a team of willing volunteers, so she posted a sign at Women’s House in Sydney and called a meeting. They were an eccentric and, in hindsight, very impressive bunch – the women who answered her call. Anne describes them as “the true mothers of the refuge movement”.

There was Anne herself, then 29, who had spent recent months bashing away at a typewriter, trying to finish Damned Whores and God’s Police, the book that would make her name and reassess Australian history. Jennifer was the publicist for book publisher Angus & Robertson. Lina Clayton also worked in publishing and in her spare time helped to run an abortion advice clinic. Margaret Power was developing a course in feminist economics at the University of Sydney. Just a few years later her lectures would fire the imagination of future PM Anthony Albanese. And Carole Baker would soon become the first female mayor of North Sydney.

Then there was Bessie Guthrie, who Anne describes as “the heart and soul of Elsie”. Bessie was 70, and at various times in her life had worked as a publisher, a poet and an aircraft draftswoman. In the 1950s, she and her husband, the artist Clive Guthrie, had turned their Glebe home into an unofficial refuge for street kids and girls who had been abused or fallen foul of the child welfare system. For many years she had also been a lone campaigner for the closure of the Parramatta and Bidura girls’ homes.

Within week, 48 women and 35 children had stayed at the shelter. (Photo credit: National Library of Australia)

Bessie was a character, a firebrand and had been a welcome addition to the fold when she’d wandered into the Women’s Liberation shopfront in Glebe a year or so earlier. “The room was full of academics and students in their twenties,” as Anne tells it, when one night the door opened and a rather forthright elderly lady walked in. It was Bessie. “I’ve been waiting for you women all my life,” she said.

At that first refuge meeting, tasks were divided among the group and it fell to Anne to locate premises. She started out by approaching the usual suspects – government departments and property developers – but met only dead-ends.

“Then,” she remembers, “I was watching a Four Corners’ report on these huge housing estates owned by the Church of England that were largely unoccupied.” The next day Anne began walking the streets of their estate in Glebe. “These were the days of squatting and Green Bans,” she tells The Weekly, still with a glint of mischief in her eyes at 78. “The law gave squatter’s rights to anyone who could enter premises and establish residence.”

A mother and daughter at Elsie in 1980. (Photo credit: Fairfax)

On one of her walks, Anne happened upon a single-storey terrace at 73 Westmoreland Street.

“It was vacant, it looked habitable, the windows were all intact, it had a big backyard where kids could play, and best of all, it had a woman’s name, Elsie,” she remembers. “A few days later, I came back with Jennifer. She stood guard while I scaled the back fence and checked out as much of the house as I could. It seemed perfect.”

The next step would be to break in, claim residence and transform Elsie’s bare bones into a refuge.

Again Anne spread the word, and this time 50 women answered the call. They gathered at a park in Glebe on March 16, 1974, carrying brooms, buckets, shovels, a bag of tools and new locks for the doors.

“Our hearts were in our mouths,” Anne says, “as we marched down Westmoreland Street, singing to keep our spirits up, wondering whether the cops would be waiting for us.” They weren’t.

“We jimmied open a window, climbed in, changed the locks, and we’d established residence. Then we noticed the house next door was vacant, and it also had a woman’s name, Minnie. We took that one too.”

“What were we thinking?” Anne laughs. “The first few months were chaos.” But somehow, from there, those 50 women built a movement.

Bessie was Elsie’s heart and soul. (Photo credit: Tribune Newspaper via Trove)

What they lacked in experience was made up for by good intentions and the kindness of strangers.

“Bessie went door to door in the neighbourhood where everyone knew and trusted her,” Anne remembers with real affection, “and she said, ‘These girls are okay’. It really helped smooth our transition. We didn’t get any trouble – quite the opposite. People brought saucepans, bedding, things like that. Neighbourhood shops gave us leftover food. The local Rotary guys fixed the back fence and built a playground for the kids. Then Joyce Mayne, the appliance retailer, called me herself and said, ‘What do you need?’ The next day a truck arrived with a fridge, a dryer, a washing machine, a whole lot of things.”

There were hurdles aplenty to navigate in that first year. Husbands turned up with guns, the back shed was firebombed. But the biggest battle was securing funds. For the first year, Elsie was a hand-to-mouth enterprise. Anne famously sold marijuana – known as “Elsie Weed” – to friends and acquaintances to keep the refuge afloat. Benefit concerts and dances helped too, while the women lobbied for official support.

“I remember carjacking the Federal Minister for Health,” says Christina Gibbeson, who was a volunteer from day one and the first person officially employed at Elsie. “It was the opening of the Leichhardt Women’s Health Centre and as the minister was leaving, I jumped in the car with him and said, ‘Come and see Elsie’. You’d probably go to jail for doing that today!”

Women and children at the refuge. (Photo credit: Fairfax)

It was eventually another member of the Elsie collective, Diana Beaton, who inveigled herself into the seat beside the Minister for Social Security, Bill Hayden, at an ALP conference, and invited him to visit Elsie and see firsthand what proper funding could achieve. He arrived, unannounced, two weeks later and the funds flowed from there.

“Elsie probably saved my little brother’s life,” says author Mandy Sayer. “Possibly mine as well.” The first women had begun arriving at Elsie within days of its opening. Mandy, her mother and her baby brother turned up a few years later. Mandy’s stepfather had been inflicting violent abuse on his family for a long while.

“One day,” explains Mandy, who was 14 at the time, “my mother read an article about Elsie in The Australian Women’s Weekly, and remembered the name. Not long after, my stepfather came home one night and [as had happened too often], bashed us all up and dragged my mother through the house by her hair.

“She escaped his grip, grabbed the baby, who was only six months old, and we ran into the street in the rain, wearing our pyjamas. It was around midnight and we just kept walking along the road into the darkness. She hailed a taxi, told the driver we were in danger and mentioned Elsie. The driver took us on, and he found the refuge.

“We pulled up in front of Elsie. We had no money, it was still raining. We knocked on the door and the women let us in, paid our taxi fare and looked after us with such care. I remember sitting in the front room of the refuge that night, weeping, and the women giving me tea. It was a relief.”

The houses in Glebe gave women and children escaping domestic violence, some who fled their homes with nothing, a safe haven to rebuild their lives. (Photo credit: Fairfax)

In its first six weeks, Elsie provided refuge to 48 women and 35 children. Within 18 months, 13 women’s refuges had been established around the country. In the 50 years that followed, more than 800 refuges sprung up, saving thousands of women and children’s lives.

“It’s a growing business and I have mixed feelings about that,” says Anne. “It’s great there’s somewhere for women to go, but I wish we didn’t still need them.”

In March, to mark the refuge’s 50th birthday, the Elsie Conference at the University of Technology, Sydney, will shine a light on the changing face of violence, and honour the work of the thousands of women who’ve kept the refuge movement alive.

That afternoon in March 1974 – when a mob of women met in a park, full of hope and armed with cleaning products – was, Anne writes in her memoir, Ducks on the Pond, “one of those rare moments when the right idea leads to an important social change.”

“Something happened that day,” she adds, “and although, sadly, we have not come close to ending the scourge of domestic violence, we now as a society accept that we owe those afflicted a safe haven and the chance for a new life. It was one of the women’s movement’s finest hours.”

If you or someone you know needs help, contact 1800RESPECT. To find out more about the Elsie conference, visit elsieconference.com.au

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