Texas Battered Women's Movement

Texas, Our State probably conjures up more negative stereotypes in feminist minds than most – from John Wayne to J.R.; the popular media portrays Texans as super-macho, gauche or materialistically greedy.  A slight change of focus, however, provides a more positive viewpoint.

Texas has always been rich in resources, but the past few years have brought Texas to national attention as one of the more “recession-proof” of the Sunbelt states.  With our still growing economy, low employment and expanding population, Texans can be more optimistic about the immediate future than perhaps other parts of the nation.  This is particularly important to the Texas battered women’s movement’s need to grow rapidly to meet the needs of our huge and diverse state.

Texas women stand on a solid base built by their pioneering grandmothers and mothers.  Political activism and volunteer services are both strong traditions of Texas women.  Feminists in our state are fortunate to have strong role models in their history from Emily Morgan (The Yellow Rose) to Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson to Barbara Jordan and Sarah Weddington.

When in late 1976, a group of women in Austin began to meet together to decide what their community could do for battered women, they exhibited the same determination and sense of power of these more famous Texas women.  When the Austin Center for Battered Women opened a scant 6 months later, it was thought to be the first such shelter in the State – until the Texas Women’s history project turned up this forgotten episode:

“The first Battered Women’s Shelter (was established) in Belton in 1875.

Martha McWhirter as a refuge started the shelter for abused women:  those beaten by their husbands or those whose husbands spent the crop money on Saturday night binges.  They lived a communal life in the 102 Battered shelters, which continued into the 1890’s and became so prosperous that it donated money to Belton for civic causes.  The group finally sold the property, moved to Washington, D.C. and bought a hotel.

The house in Belton in which the center was housed still stands, riddled with bullet holes from the time an irate husband got a vigilante group together and tried to shoot the residents out of their refuge.

It didn’t work.  “The women shot back.”

Few, if any, of those who started out to provide services to women and children from violent homes realized the magnitude or complexity of the problem they had undertaken.  BATP, spurred on by discoveries, such as, a woman taking refuge from her violent home overnight in a dumpster (!), or a woman and her children sleeping in an area park for lack of any alternatives, opened our shelter on May 15, 1996.

From its modest beginnings, the Texas shelter movement has grown rapidly and effectively.  However, as rapid as its progress, the services available to violent families remain far out paced by the requests for help.  The very existence of shelters provokes a continuing dialogue in the press, electronic media, churches and in small town coffee shops, increasing each day the number of people willing to do something about the violence in the families.

As shelter groups emerged in Texas, they came with many ideas and philosophies in common.  Most of these principles were reflective of the U.S. shelter movement in general; they are:

  1. Services to violent families are best provided by private non-profit community-based organizations.
  2. Such services can be most effective, efficient and economical if they are delivered primarily by a volunteer – professional and peer groups.
  3. Family violence organizations should not duplicate existing services in a locality, but should work to make current services responsive to the needs of battered women; networking is a key word in the shelter movement
  4. Public education about the dynamics of family violence and homelessness is the key to engendering support for change and prevention of future violence and crisis.

These basic commonalities among shelters provide an environment of networking, volunteerism, and economy of effort.

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