Following are paragraphs from an article written by Lee Lakeman, a member of the 30-woman collective at Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter. This article was written a couple of years prior to the recent decision in favor of Vancouver Rape Relief but was recently added to VRR’s website. The article offers Lee’s thoughts about the importance of defending women’s groups and all equality-seeking groups from attacks on their integrity.
[Kimberly Nixon’s] lawyers argued that there is no need to share the lifelong experience of being treated as a girl or woman to join [our training programme for volunteer peer counselors]. But in our opinion, without that shared experience and shared consciousness of our circumstances as girls and women, Nixon cannot facilitate the peer counseling, consciousness raising, mutual aid or group advancing advocacy that logically follows.
Assaulted women call us to receive feminist assistance from other women. Across the country they choose women’s services like ours over police, medical facilities and de-gendered counseling services. They do so precisely to assure that they will be greeted by women, that is: by others who have suffered the same basic life-long conditions and therefore can understand the assaults and resistance in the same way.
Among the women who came forward offering to testify for us were women who had very particular sets of such expectations. One mother had been herself attacked by a police officer in Europe during war, by a husband later in Canada. She brought her adolescent daughter to us after an attack saying very clearly she did not want to discuss such things with a man or someone who had been a man.
…more often the worry was that someone who had grown up being treated as a male to adulthood simply did not share the references women make in our telling each other about assaults, the objective or subjective experiences of being raised from girlhood to womanhood.
We don’t all share exactly the same experiences but there is a predictable constellation for most of us made of genetics, biology and social-political conditions, recognizable to us, so that even the exceptions confirm the norms.
We know from the social sciences and from our own work that women speak and act differently when not in the presence of a man or someone who has been a man. All of this is vastly more so in the situation where women are trying to escape, discuss, plan about, and change male violence against women.
At Vancouver Rape Relief, we are careful to limit the times when social workers or policemen can come to the house. Rarely do they enter. Usually they are met elsewhere. Always women are warned that they are coming so nerves can be soothed. Men are always chaperoned by one of us if they are in the entry of the shelter. They don’t get beyond that into the building normally. The sound of a male voice sends tension through the house. Such care is not because every man will be an attacker but because in this house it is important that women don’t have to guess or decide which ones will use the potential to abuse and to get away with it. Women and their children can go “off duty” for a while from the necessary hypervigilance in their lives.
There have not been many incidents of women being harmed by husbands and ex-husbands while at Canadian shelters but there have been some including some deaths. More often men have followed shelter workers or residents and terrorized them.
Workers can go off duty too from the need to protect male egos from the outbursts and generalizations of women escaping male violence and from the rough edged, if insightful, thinking women do as we try to imagine how to respond to the ongoing situations of danger and harm done to women by sexist violence.
In our defense Rape Relief argued that the B.C. government had made provision in Human Rights Law for equality-seeking groups to choose our membership consistent with our equality-seeking purposes.
We claim that this provision is consistent with The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and with the United Nation understanding of human rights law and the recognition of women as an historically disadvantaged grup.
Men dominate and disadvantage women, pushing us into “otherness.” Once so pushed down, we form groups of similarly disadvntaged, to defend ourselves. We assert our freedom of association. Surely it must be we who define the membership in those groups.
We say that for our purposes the experiences of girlhood and womanhood are the raw material of consciousness-raising.
At Rape Relief we operate and make decisions collectively and cooperatively. And we carry that attitude into our crisis work. We are political as opposed to professional: we regard the women who call us as equals. We learn from our callers and they learn from us. We ally with them as equals to make all of us stronger in an ever-growing democratic movement of women determined to end the abuse of women. Consciousness-raising between equals of similar experience, we argue, is the raw material of our theorizing and strategizing to end violence against women.
[The Kimberly Nixon case] has distorted what natural alliances might have developed between feminists and transgendered males to females. Supporting Nixon against the airline bosses who refused employment after Nixon began dressing as a woman would have suited us well. Both sides agree that most violence in intimate relationships like that suffered by Nixon is committed by men and serves heterosexual male power enforcing sex and gender hierarchies. Everyone seems to be saying that transgendered people and transsexual people have a need for services, political organizations and human rights legislation. We have said so too, to all levels of government. But court processes are adversarial, demanding and injurious to most, never mind such fragile, potential political alliances.
…[barbara findlay] argued the principle that all persons must be assessed individually in relation to the service or employment being offered…The Nixon case claimed that these principles of individual rights override or trump the rights of equality seeking groups.
…the feminist legal opinion given to VRR is that once that door is open there is no closing it. Men could successfully argue (as Nixon has argued) that their individual qualifications (such as empathy, counseling training, participation in counseling, experience of being assaulted by men) should be considered as qualifying criteria in their applications to join women’s gruops.
…A man, Mr. Johnson, has in fact challenged the “no men” hiring policy of a women’s shelter. At the Human Rights Tribunal level, he won…On review, the women were succdssful, relying on our case. The judge found that our case decided the point in favor of the women’s group. …The matter did not end there– it was remitted to the Tribunal for reconsideration, but a reconsideration that accepted the authority of our case. …
In turn, that case was used by the United Native Nations Society (UNNS) to defend itself. A non-Aboriginal man applied for a position as Executive Director of the organiziation. UNNS defended its decision not to hire him on the basis that it is a non-profit society whose objets… are the advancement of the interests of Aboriginal people. …although not specifically mentioned, our case is obviously the blueprint, both for how the evidence was led in the case by the UNNS and for the decision itself. It is clear… that the Society learned from Vancouver Rape Relief how to defend itself. The decision of the Tribunal reaffirmed the rights of groups to form and grant preferences to members of that group.
…So far our case has become a positive tool for equality-seeking groups… Rape Relief, unlike other pressured groups, has not crumbled and it has not compromised its very nature: it is still here. Vancouver Rape Relief’s success thus far has enabled two other equality-seeking organizations to defend themselves from attacks to their group integrity. That is worth celebrating.