Photo+by+Alberto+Bigoni+on+Unsplash

In the early 1970’s, Lane County was part of a growing consciousness happening across the country and the world responding to violence against women. Womenspace started as a grassroots response with a core group of six women who established a crisis line in 1975. These women were Mabel Armstrong, Mary Jeanne Jacobsen, Lee Pettigrew Nancy Barnes and Connie Holvey. Their efforts evolved into establishing a 501 © (3) nonprofit organization and the Womenspace shelter opened in 1977. Over the past forty years, Womenspace has continued to grow in response to local needs, adding youth services, transitional living support, culturally appropriate services, and legal assistance while advocating for effective public policies on local, state and national levels.

Womenspace ‘HER’story

When we first started working on a history – or ‘her’story – of Womenspace, it was going around that the shelter was organized by a group of women sitting around a kitchen table. That image describes much of how Womenspace was initially created.

Julie Aspinwall-Lamberts remembered, “A kitchen table, or sitting around a living room floor with bottles of wine between us, is just so typical of the way women tend to do things. We interact in situations that are comfortable.” And Lee Pettigrew laughed, “It was not any kind of a political structure or anything at that point, we just got together in people’s homes.”

We are reminded that it is difficult to imagine a group of women organizing against domestic violence in an executive boardroom. Documenting the history of Womenspace is important to us because we believe that understanding our history strengthens our own ability to end domestic violence.

Where They Started

I don’t think Womenspace is a Eugene story. I think that it’s more a part of women’s history. It is one of the things that a group of women have been able to achieve. They were able to help each other. I don’t think that it could have come from anyone else. It was something that the women had to do from themselves. – Nancy Barnes

It was 1975 when the group started getting together in people’s homes. Mabel Armstrong, Mary Jeanne Jacobsen, and Lee Pettigrew began organizing after they returned from the 1975 Oregon Political Women’s Caucus. This caucus meeting was the first to introduce them to treating domestic violence as a political issue. They then decided to begin work on domestic violence in their own community.

Earlier, two other women had joined together because they both wanted to do something about battering. Nancy Barnes and Connie Holvey were working together with the help of local social service agencies to organize the local community.

Nancy was the single mother of five children and had recently settled in Eugene after directing a free clinic in Washington, D.C., where she worked with women emotionally and physically abused. Nancy decided she wanted to establish a home for women. Connie was a survivor of domestic violence and also a single mother. Nancy and Connie put the word out through the women’s community, which brought them together with the LCC activists.

After the first meeting, a group formed. Seven women were active consistently from the initial meeting in 1975 until the opening of a shelter in 1977. Of the seven, three were survivors of domestic violence; six were single or recently divorced; and five were single mothers. Two of the women were busy as full time parents, the others worked full-time outside the home; one as an attorney, the others worked at LCC in a variety of jobs.

Domestic Violence and the l970’s

The meetings, often relaxed and informal, were about struggling to end domestic violence. Any survivor or battered women’s advocate will tell you that domestic violence work is often very painful and frustrating. Jill Heiman shares, “Womenspace creators were tough, there wasn’t one of us that hadn’t been through the mill in one way or another. Most had no personal experience with domestic violence, but they had a lot of experience with discrimination and sexual unfairness.”

As both survivors and activists, Womenspace organizers identified their work with a more broad vision of equality for women, as feminist political activism. By identifying with the feminist movement, it helped motivate and strengthen our commitment.”

It may have been a period of time when a lot was going on politically, but domestic violence was still a secret. Mabel Armstrong remembered, “When I first started talking about abused wives in 74/75, it was before people had considered it a problem. It was an issue that people just didn’t want to hear. The law enforcement agencies didn’t have a clue. I remember the DA saying, “There is just a certain amount of violence in American marriages, what can you do?’”

Lee Pettigrew looked at how community awareness was changing, “ I think the legal system and the law enforcement agencies were changing; we were just a part of that change. We needed more than anything else to be an underground network”

Their Goals

“I met Connie and Nancy as a team. What a strong team they were! Nancy was outgoing, sparkly, fun, smart and a good organizer. Connie, was passionate and dedicated. They were empowered and inspired other people. A very dynamic team. The ability to make people understand what was going on came from them.” Jill Heiman continued, “Nancy and Connie provided an unquestionably solid foundation for the underground network that was to become Womenspace. They seemed to breathe life into the project, practically and emotionally. They were the first women in Eugene to provide direct services for battered women. Using referrals from White Bird Clinic, and Family Shelter House, they volunteered their services, from counseling, to a safe night’s sleep on a couch.”

The goal of establishing a shelter house came closer into view when Nancy and Connie joined with the activists, Lee, Mabel, Mary Jeanne, and Julie, from LCC. A hotline was established with Nancy Barnes’ number as the contact. She recalled, ’’It was very informal. Connie and I both had taken in women. My number was used as the emergency number. We got a small mention in the women’s newspaper and word got out.” Nancy explained, “A shelter was always the goal. It was time for us to branch out and no longer continue operating out of our homes. We did that because there wasn’t anything else. The idea behind the shelter, originally, was a shelter and resource space. We wanted to be available for crisis calls, community education, and training volunteers. We weren’t just focusing on a shelter, we wanted it all.”

Mary Jeanne Jacobsen described the goals, “We wanted a shelter where a woman could be safe with her children, anonymous from the public and secretive from spouses, and blend into the neighborhood. We developed a set of goals that we wanted to achieve. Education, public relations, dealing with law enforcement, advocacy for women to get psychological, medical, financial, and legal help.”

Reminding us again of the general political context of the mid-1970’s, Nancy explained that one of the decisions in opening the shelter was, “A politically charged issue. It was felt at the time, that it needed to be run by women, for women. And it needed to be a secret place.”

How They Did It

Not only was the shelter secret and run by women, it was also created entirely through the work of women through networking. Womenspace was organized through grass-roots networking; volunteers did everything from filing legal documents, to painting the first shelter house.

Lee Pettigrew and Nancy Barnes started teaching a class at the U of O on domestic violence. Julie Aspinwall-Lamberts served on the Eugene Commission of the Rights of Women and worked as a liaison to the Commission representing Womenspace. The crisis line was switched, no longer at anyone’s home. The line was set up at the Wellsley Center at the U of O and answered by a growing number of volunteers. Meanwhile, fundraising, community education, and an increasing number of crisis calls demanded attention.

According to Mary Jeanne Jacobsen, “Eventually our work was organized through an evolution of what the likes and talents were of all involved. Some did the advocacy and the hotline; some were artistic and worked on the logo. I’m very structured and so I worked on the bylaws and vision statements.”

The End of Organizing; The Beginning of an Organization

The first shelter in Lane County for battered women and their children opened in 1977, a three bedroom home in the Coburg Rd. area. It’s opening represented quite an accomplishment; they had raised funds, developed bylaws, tax-exempt status, hired staff, fixed up the shelter, arranged for liability insurance, conducted media interviews, gathered statistics on local police responses to domestic violence calls, worked with the media to release public service announcements, spoken with the governor, educated the police force, and pressured the District Attorney.

Soon the shelter had outgrown the three-bedroom house and was moved to a seven-bedroom house in the Ferry Street Bridge area.

Lee Pettigrew explained, “As we became successful the whole thing became more complicated. We needed to expand. And when you expand, things change. It became a regular agency with a regular Board of Directors; staff needed hiring; funding sources had to be found. It was so different than what we started with. What we had set out to do had been accomplished.”

Their Success and Our Work for the Future

Julie Aspinwall-Lamberts saw the group’s accomplishments in terms of broad changes in attitude, “Just in the time that I was involved I saw a change. First it was denial, then limited acceptance, then finally, that domestic violence is a very deep, pervasive problem in society. There is a problem around attitudes towards women and it dominates our culture.”

Strong friendships and working relationships were necessary to accomplish such a large goal. Julie Aspinwall-Lamberts remembered;

“I don’t know how to impart the feeling of togetherness we had. In spite of the differences and the long hours, with your stomach tied up in knots, we still inched our way forward and kept coming back and hassling things through. It felt right. We had fun at our meetings. A lot of laughter, a lot of arguing.”

Womenspace’s organizers established the first shelter and resource house in Lane County, and made large numbers of people realize the seriousness of domestic violence.

The work of ending domestic violence is ongoing, knowledge of our shelter’s history is important. We are not sitting around kitchen tables or living rooms anymore. This history of the origins of Womenspace should only be the beginning of our knowledge of its history. Knowing from where we came should help us to understand how much we have accomplished and how much we have yet to do in this business of ending domestic violence.

In the words of Mary Jeanne Jacobsen; “Ending domestic violence is an ongoing task, and not fully accomplished until its no longer needed.”