Interviewee: Lois Aarons
IWY TX 001
Interviewer: Ann Lane
Date: November 19, 1977
Lois Aarons, of Brooklyn, New York, was the Director of Staff at the Center for Battered Women in Austin, Texas. She was 30-years-old at the time of the interview. Interview includes discussion of how she became interested in the women’s rights movement, her earlier career in advertising in New York City, and how a women’s conference and activist Kate Millett inspired Aarons to become more involved in the movement. She has been an “out” lesbian since she was 18. Aarons helped organize two women’s centers and one women’s counseling center. She also discussed her interest in organizing for lesbian rights.
Ann Lane: Lois Aaron in the workshop room at the exhibition hall, and she’s going to tell me her name, her address, her age, her occupation.
Lois Aarons: My name is Lois Aarons, my address is 1005 Eason, Austin, Texas. My occupation is Director of Staff, Center for Battered Women in Austin, Texas.
AL: Your age?
LA: My age is 30.
AL: Why are you here?
LA: I’m here because a year ago in November, I got involved working, starting this coalition on battered women in Austin. And we were the only group doing that in Texas. And I haven’t been out of Texas for about a year and a half to meet other people or talk to other people, and I thought that this would be the opportunity to meet people from other shelters and see what they’re doing and see if anything is happening on a national level.
AL: And what have you found out?
LA: I found out that a lot is happening on a national level. About an hour ago we formed the Texas Coalition on Battered Women in this room when we met ad hoc. I had been speaking to other women from, like Corpus Christi, Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth, who’d be coming up to the shelter in Austin, since we were the only one in Texas that exists. So I’ve been meeting them one at a time, but we had never all sat down together. And there was a caucus meeting for people that were, somehow working with abused women at nine this morning, which lasted for three hours. And all the Texas people ended up sitting in the same corner, so we decided to meet afterwards.
AL: You know it occurs to me that when somebody in a few years gets around to writing different aspects of the women’s movement thing may not have a record some place on file about the history of this movement.
LA: Of battered women?
AL: Battered women, yeah. Almost anything you would like to talk about, whether you think it’s increased or what kinds of women come to the movement, what kinds of support you give them, the whole business, legal support. Just go.
LA: Okay. The thing about the issue, I’ve worked in the women’s movement for a number of years doing all sorts of organizing, organizing of women’s centers and organizing of different types of political groups; sometimes men issues and sometimes specific issues and sometimes around sort of ideology. And this is the first project or issue that I’ve ever worked on that successfully cuts across all sorts of lines; economic lines, class lines, ethnic lines, age lines, in terms of women’s interest in it. And the reason that it does that is, it is the phenomenon that everyone, all women, all classes of women, all colors of women, all ages of women, are being beaten up by men. Or I’ve had mothers who were beaten up by fathers or boyfriends. And so it is an incredibly unifying issue and it is a way to talk to women and raise consciousness about what is it that is going on that all of these women, no matter what their status is, no matter what their husband’s status is, are being beaten up. And they are not being beaten up by getting slapped across the faces, they are being beaten up by being actually physically brutalized by people that supposedly love them. And it is happening everywhere and it is happening in huge numbers. And I can go and talk to the Junior League or I can talk to Rossi Unita or I can talk to women that use a Model Cities Clinic and Austin, and the numbers of women that will approach me afterwards and talk about their experiences of being beaten by husbands is absolutely incredible. No matter what group it is.
And so as an organizing vehicle, I mean, if you would want to look at it as an organizing vehicle, which is one way to look at it and which is one way that I could look at it, it is incredible. And the abortion issue is not like that. Certainly credit is not like that. The ERA is not like that. But it’s something that transcends all of those race/class divisions. And so that’s been a real consciousness raising experience for me in starting to get involved in it and seeing who the women are that I work with on this project. Fifty year old woman that works at IRS that shot and killed her husband ten years ago? You know, after she was beaten up for twenty years, and he came at her with a sledge hammer? Just – a social worker at a mental health center, black woman from a ghetto in Austin which is East Austin, that works at a, like as a shipping clerk, that was the lesbians that had been married, had been involved with men who had been battered. Every type of person was the type of person that formed this coalition that –
AL: Are there any patterns at all? Are most of the women who are beaten, beaten by lovers or husbands? With men they’re involved with generally rather than by fathers or –
LA: Right. Well in the shelter that I’m associated with we will take any women over 18 years old who’s a resident of Travis County which is partially how we got our funding from the county that we’re in. So we have that stipulation. We’ve had a couple of women who were beaten and raped a number of times, one for over a period of five years by a father. But because we have this over eighteen year old stipulation, we would refer those children that are being either abused or sexually molested to either a sex abuse place in town or child welfare which handles abuse. So we’re not, we have a lot of tie into them in that there is a huge amount of correlation, you know, if you ask a woman that comes into the Center, were you abused as a child? She will say very man times, yes. Was your husband abused as a child? She will say very many times, yes. Did your father beat up your mother? Yes. Did his father beat up his mother? Yes. Does your husband abuse your children? Yes. Does he sexually abuse your children? I mean, obviously you’re not asking questions in this way but I mean, this is the information that comes out. Lots of times, yes.
If you talk to a woman, I was talking to a woman who’s fifty years old who was staying at the Center, she said, “Oh, I’m having such trouble with my son.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Well he’s gotta go to court.” I said, “Well what does he gotta go to court for?” She said, “Well he’s violated a peace bond.” I said, “Well who’s the peace bond out against?” “Well his girlfriend took a peace bond out against him.” Right, and here’s the mother of this son sitting in our shelter. I mean, so I mean, it is just a perpetuating, perpetuating, perpetuating phenomenon.
AL: Do you get the feeling that there is a certain segment of the population which has always, female population, which has always been involved in relationships which are abusive? Or that in general most women at some point have had some abusive relationship?
LA: I think most women have had some, at some point, an abusive relationship. And I think that the number goes up if they have that as part of a, like extended family constellation and that is a norm and they will accept that as a norm.
AL: Do you have the impression that it is because of the women’s movement in the last decade that these women are becoming aware or are willing to look for help?
LA: They would’ve always gone for help. Absolutely.
AL: And always have.
LA: And always have, and they have gone to police, to ministers, to counselors, to – I mean, the pattern is a woman comes in you say, well what have you done? Well, I’ve called the police. I mean, there is some statistic for instance, a Kansas City statistic that something like 80% of homicides that take place in Kansas City, the police intra-family homicides, the police had been called out for at least five times for family disturbance calls. So everybody has called the police and not gotten much satisfaction. Cop comes out and walks the guy on the porch, says, “Cool off, buddy. It’ll be alright.” You know, “You alright, ma’am?” “Yeah, I’m alright.” Gives ‘em a pat on the back and leaves. So I mean, the police have been called many, many times. Women have gone to marriage counselors with one half of the marriage, with themselves, you know, he goes twice and then she keeps going. Have taken their kids to counseling. Have talked to all sorts of church-related type people. Have gone to al-anon meetings which are AA for family members, not for the alcoholic. She has been everywhere, and what he’s doing is lots of times drinking and beating her up.
AL: I was going to ask what kind of a correlation, and I know all of this is very subjective and impressionistic, what kind of a correlation there is with drunk husbands?
LA: The correlation is that if a husband drinks he will beat up his wife. But if he’s not drinking he will beat up his wife. If he is drinking he can wake up the next morning and say, “Oh my God, I was so drunk I just didn’t know what I was doing.” Very convenient excuse for people that drink anyhow. But if you ask a woman, did your husband beat you up when he drinks and she says yes, and if you follow that question up with, does he beat you up when he doesn’t drink, she will also say yes. Now, it could be he will be a little bit more out of control, a little more violent, certainly a lot more remorseful afterwards. But he will, in terms of the frequency it doesn’t change the frequency, I mean, it doesn’t –
AL: And your feeling is that this has been going on a long time.
LA: I think that women –
AL: Forever, or at least for the foreseeable past, and it hasn’t gone up and it hasn’t gone down in the last decade.
AL: It’s just now we are more aware of it or?
LA: I think it is another sort of out of the closet issue. In the same way that maybe alcoholism was twenty years ago, twenty-five years ago, was starting to be, and the same way that rape was five years ago and the same way that child abuse is two years ago. This is a new thing, I mean, in terms of something that is being brought into public consciousness.
AL: And what’s your impression as to why women stay in those kind of marriages?
LA: I think women stay in those marriages for a whole variety of reasons. I think generally, I mean, there are sort of like psychological reasons and political reasons and economic reasons.
AL: Reasons of fear as well or is that not such a big one?
LA: Sure. If you’re leaving your husband and he says, “If I see you on the street I’m gonna blow your head off.” And he just has taken a shot at you with a shotgun and missed, you might tend to believe him. So I think there are, on the psychological reasons there was a phenomenon which all of us have and that is that lots of times we will stick with the most horrible shit because we know it, rather than pursue something that we don’t know that maybe could be better, maybe could be worse. But it has the quality of being unknown. And I think that that is a real, like operating dynamic for women today.
AL: And of course for the women who are involved as children in –
LA: That’s the norm!
AL: – being victims of or observing violence they assume that is the way all relationships are.
LA: Right. I mean, whatever family you grow up in no matter what it is, is the norm for families for you. I mean, I think that’s true, everybody else is just a little bit different.
AL: Okay now, I know your essential interest is not in the men who do the beating, it’s in the women who get beaten.
LA: No, I don’t think that that’s true.
AL: Why do men, you said men who supposedly love their wives. But in fact they probably really do in whatever way they define love. Why do they do it?
LA: Right. I think some of the same – well let me go back to the reasons for why women stay because I think that there is very popular mythology of female masochism and I think that along with other Freudian mythologies I think that that’s one of the things that plays right into, like old psychological interpretation of why it is that we stay. And I think that has to be de-mythologized, otherwise people are just going to say, ‘this woman loves it and so there is no reason to deal with her’, which is what people have been operating on in the past–the police have been operating in the past, the mental health establishment has been operating in the past–on in the past.
I think that – in the State of Texas, for instance, a woman on AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, with one child gets eighty-six dollars a month that she is asked to live on. For two children she gets something like ninety-five dollars or something like that, a month. Now, that’s a very hard prospect, it takes at least six weeks to get that, you have to be living apart from the man in order to get it, which means that she has to find some way to get this wonderful sum, if in fact she wants to do that. I mean, I think that there are certain economic realities and I think that there are horrible economic realities when you’re talking about poor women or middle class women that have no training, have never been out in the world. Whether they be nineteen year old women with four kids, Chicano woman with four kids, or a thirty year old woman–middle class, because she is wedded to her husband with two kids that are in the second grade and kindergarten–the fact is that those women are absolutely scared to death about how it is that they are going to survive. True, the middle class woman has more options for sure because of her middle class-ness, but still it is a very scary prospect. And in terms of finding job training for her, finding somebody that’s going to hire her at thirty years old even, it’s just a scary prospect for any class of woman. So I think that that’s true.
I think the other thing that’s true in terms of the psychology of women who get beaten up is, is one, lots of times before there is physical abuse there is a huge amount of emotional abuse. And so that by the time the kick comes or by the time the punch comes her ego is so denigrated and so debilitated that the actual physical punch is the afterthought. She already feels like she is a worthless human being. She has been told that she is a worthless human being on innumerable occasions.
Somebody told me this story about, this woman was married to an alcoholic that beat her up and he, they got up in the morning and she finally convinced her husband that it would be a good thing to eat breakfast. So he finally resigned himself to let her make him breakfast, and he said, “I want two eggs, one scrambled and one fried.” And so she went made them, presented them to him and he said, “No, I wanted this one scrambled and this one fried.” And that is a beautiful story for women who are involved with men that beat them up. Whatever they do it is wrong; if they’re wearing pants they should be wearing a skirt. If they’re wearing a skirt they should be wearing pants. And any one of those things that she is not doing right at a given point is a trigger, it’s a trigger for literally this sort of bomb, you never know when it’s going to go off, it just hangs there. So the woman is in a constant state of terror about what it is that is going to set this bomb off. One day she does things one way, next day she does things the same way, but that is no longer the acceptable way that day. So you have this phenomenon of sort of like walking around on eggshells about what it is that is going to trigger this behavior when you don’t know, because it is something that is not a rational phenomenon.
The other thing, the other phenomenon that asks why women stay is, is that if you are being beaten up, especially if you are middle class, and even if you are not middle class, you are embarrassed. You internalize the guilt for the failure of that relationship, you are a woman. Your job in life is to make marriage work. If marriage isn’t working, and one of the signs of marriage not working is that you are getting beaten up which is probably the worst sign of your marriage not working, you don’t go tell your friends.
AL: Mary Hartman which was one of my favorite TV programs had a sequence, I don’t know if you watched it, on –
LA: I saw little pieces of it.
AL: — it was brilliant because it not only did the two things you are referring to; one is the extraordinary psychological abuse that destroyed this woman so that she was almost waiting for it so that scene could be over. Since she knew that was the last act. And the other thing was the embarrassment, and she ultimately turned to her mother for help, who looked straight through her and said something about, “Darling, your kitchen floor is getting dirtier, you haven’t been taking care of the house.” Total unwillingness to face the reality of it. The other aspect was the double message because the husband, in public view, was a nice guy, and loving.
AL: Very loving, affectionate, supportive.
LA: Right, the thing that’s so amazing when I talk to women is that no matter what the woman is, this black woman that lives in the ghetto in, what our equivalent is of a ghetto, it’s about an east of equivalent, in Austin, or I talked to a woman from an upper middle class suburb, whatever their, like equivalent, like spouse is, in his way that he deals in his, like little cultural society, for each one of those people they are always married to the nicest guys, everybody loves them, they think they’re terrific. I mean, they are, I mean, that is the phenomenon, they’re always Mr. Nice Guy no matter what environment it is that they’re working in.
Anyhow, they’re always, you know, Mr. Nice Guy. I mean, they are not somebody that appears to be, I mean, there are two groups; there are family assaulters and then there are general assaulters that assault their family and also assault people in bars and anybody that looks at them funny. That isn’t the majority for sure. But the family assaulters are just friendly old sweet guys that go home and try to kill their wives.
AL: Okay, now why? Why?
LA: I think – my feeling is, is that there is a definite cultural pre-condition for men in this society, and that cultural pre-condition is that it’s alright: pow! right in the kisser. Funny, Jackie Gleason, it’s terrific. No, well it’s—‘I went home and I beat my wife and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah’. I mean, there is definitely a societal standard that says it’s okay on some very basic level to beat up your wife. And what that is is a private thing that happens within the license of marriage. And there are very many women that I’ve spoken to who said, “I got my marriage license and I started getting beaten up. Before that when we were courting he was terrific.” And the marriage license, literally that piece of paper was the thing that secured him enough in that relationship that he now felt that it was alright for him to start beating her up.
I think that men feel, and they have it validated by everyone around them, that that is an okay thing to do. And there have been studies set up where you have three different staged arguments on a street corner and one argument is between men and men fighting physically and people always intercede in that; and one argument is between women and women fighting physically, people always intercede to break that up; and the other one is men and women fighting physically on a street corner and nobody breaks it up. And when you ask them why it is that nobody breaks that up they say, “I thought she was his wife.”
And in that Kitty Genovese case that was such a notorious case, when they interviewed like thirty-nine or forty people about what it is that they thought was going on and why this woman was screaming like that and why they didn’t intercede, they said because they thought it was a husband fighting with a wife. So I mean, there is a tremendous, like just phenomenon in the fact that this is allowed and either look the other way or sometime even smiled on as a phenomenon that it is a way to keep women in line, this woman belongs to you, I mean, the whole, like women as property issue. And I think that this is one manifestation of it in society.
AL: On the other hand little boys are raised in most sub-cultures in this society to respect little girls. I mean, they are getting double messages. You don’t hit a little girl, you don’t pull something out of her hand, she’s a little fragile, delicate creature.
LA: On the other hand all the messages on TV is big heavy terrific dude, tough, sexual guy is the way that he exercises this toughness and this control is by slapping his girlfriend around. And what does she do? She loves it. I mean, if you watch any TV, like just primetime TV or movies or anything and really pay attention to how many times women get hit, it is mind boggling. Or take for instance a Rolling Stone album that says, I’m black and blue, from the Rolling Stones, and I love it. Promo for the Rolling Stones as a message, as a message to teenage youth who admire the Rolling Stones or whoever it is that admires the Rolling Stones, older than teenage youth I suppose.
I mean, I think that there is this sort of like politeness like thing about that you don’t beat up women and you don’t hit people with glasses or something. But in fact in terms of what all the real information that you’re getting is, the real information is, is that your father’s beating up your mother; your neighbor’s beating up his wife; so and so’s doing this to somebody; your aunt is sitting in the living room at three in the morning with a black eye when you’re ten years old. How come? The real thing is, is that people are being beaten up, women are being beaten up, and that gets confirmed on a, just daily level. So that’s one thing. The other thing is –
AL: Do most of the men feel remorse when it’s over?
LA: Yeah, I mean, that is just the most common thing. They are very remorseful afterwards. They are very, very remorseful afterwards. And that is genuine scared and remorseful. Yeah.
The other thing is that lots of men come from families where they have been abused as children, which is we’re finding out a very common phenomenon. Or that their mothers have been abused when they were children we are also finding out is a common phenomenon. So that then again is a model for behavior. Violence is a model for behavior. Just a general given. All of this socialization of men to be physical rather than be verbal, or way away from intimacy and affection except in sort of rare moments when that is allowed, like maybe in the bedroom is conditioning for that. So I think that those are, like all of those things are pre-conditions that sets it up.
Then on top of that my feeling is that there is, for some of these men, for some of these I do not think that this is true but for some percentage of the men it’s true and I don’t know – and this was one of the reasons that it will be good to start having some interaction with other people that are working in shelters – is that to me there are still, of this whole huge group of men, I mean men as a group, the thing in hearing women talk about what the phenomenon is. What seems to happen is, is that men will suddenly be triggered and suddenly be exceedingly violent. Now the thing that is so incredible about this is that we’re talking about millions and millions of men. We’re not talking about five million men in this country, we’re maybe talking about twenty million men, twenty-five million men: huge numbers of men.
And they will be triggered in this way that they will become exceedingly violent and it will be they are going along on this sort of ‘keel, keel, keel’, ‘even, even, even’, and then they drop off the edge and lose it. Now what that exact trigger is of losing it, or how it is that they lose it in that way that they can jump up and down on their wife’s ribs until they are broken and stab her or try to choke her until she passes out or choke her with a telephone wire or try to run her down with a car or break her jaw or crack her skull open in that fit of violence. What that trigger is and what that is that gets triggered in so many men. Not a tiny, not like a psychotic portion of the population, I mean, we want to talk about psychosis. I don’t know.
AL: It has something to do with the women being vulnerable.
LA: Well, it has something to do with power relationships for sure, but I mean, what it is that pushes him, that type of power, of powerful beating up on powerless. Husbands beating up wives end up beating on children. Powerful finding powerless. I mean, that exists, we know that that exists. But to me it moves into another realm for those men, and if what this societal pre-condition has caused is mass psychosis among men that that’s the way they act out on it then that’s what it is, I mean, if we want to give it like a sort of clinical thing. But it is something where men go along, seemingly normal men, seemingly in control men, and then lose that control.
AL: Do you think it’s the same kind of psychological phenomenon that permits mothers to beat up children?
LA: I think that there is a phenomenon of powerlessness, but I don’t think, I mean, in the same what that I don’t think it’s caused by alcoholism and I don’t think that it’s caused by having a bad job. Because there are plenty…I mean, a woman was staying at the shelter and her husband is this very famous, very well paid professor at the university, and very well respected in his field, very well known, making lots of money, traveling around the world giving lectures, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. This man is not frustrated in his job, he is self-actualizing, he is blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and he comes home and beats (tape cuts out at 32:09, resumes at 32:11). What’s amazing to me is that all of this is going on, and has been going on, and really nobody knows. You know, I mean, nobody has even begun to look at the women who are getting beaten up, and the effects that has on them, and their lives, and their children’s lives, and the cycle of that on their children’s lives. And nobody has begun to look at either, at the men. I mean, I think that there is this political analysis, political/cultural analysis which I think is absolutely true and absolutely on target and is a necessary part of any analysis why men beat up women. Because it’s not just people beating up each other, it is men beating up women, in huge numbers.
Above that though I think that there are other things at play and that deals with that individual man and that individual family constellation and that extended family constellation. And that’s another area that needs to, I mean, it’s starting to be looked at in terms of dynamics of family violence.
AL: Okay so on a short range basis, short of total reconstruction of the human consciousness which is a long way off, what do you do? What do you advise the women who come to you for help?
LA: First thing that we do is we give them a place where they are safe where they cannot be found. We do not publicize where we are located. And a woman calls up, we send someone out to go get her if that place is safe, or arrange a neutral territory to go pick her up, and pick her up and pick her kids up and bring her to the Center. We have various types of services at the Center, we have now, thanks to SEDA a staff of eight. When I started in June there were two of us so that – so there is progress. I mean, there definitely is progress in that two years ago there was nothing. Now maybe there are thirty or forty in the country, to handle probably about twenty million women. So I mean, some progress anyhow.
On our staff we have two counselors, we have a counselor that specializes with women and their children and another one that specializes in alcohol abuse and women in alcohol-related problems; that is their husbands are alcohol abusers. We have a childcare worker so that woman is free to move around if she needs to, to get things for herself and not take the three children on the buses with her. We have a grant writer so that we can hopefully sustain ourselves. And we have a lawyer to do legal work for when we need it. We’ve got myself, I’m the director of the staff, and an administrator who handles our bureaucratic type reporting and budgetary and stuff like that. And a house manager that administers the workings of the house. So what we do is we offer, but we also trained about one hundred volunteers in about five months.
So we have peer counseling, about fifty percent of the women that are peer counselors are in fact peers to the women that come in in that those women are ex-battered women. They are all ages and all races and all classes just like the people that come and stay with us. So we have peer counseling available, we have information and resources and stuff like that, and liaison with various types of social agencies, welfare department, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, housing. We have a person that comes in and can certify people for Manpower training right at the place without them going down and hassling down at Manpower. We have right now three different types of groups that go on for women who are residents or ex-residents or non-residents; one which is the al-anon group, one which is the child management group – teach women to better deal with their children, and we have a problem-solving and support group. We also have one-to-one professional counseling either with a certified alcoholism counselor or with our other counselor.
AL: Do you work with men at all? Are there men who are willing to come in and –
LA: We can’t have men there at all in that our location is secret.
AL: Right. Okay, what happens if there is a man who would like –
LA: We will refer them out.
AL: Okay. Is that very common or not?
LA: It is very uncommon. My feeling is that the only thing that will work for men is an AA-based, like modeled program that is peers, people that have gone through the same thing, like Batterers Anonymous type of thing.
AL: Which does not now exist.
LA: Which does not now exist at all anywhere. I think that would be one of the few ways that men will actually go into a counseling situation. Otherwise if it’s not masculine enough, it is too cissy-like, it is too – [interruption] they do not go into counseling. To go into counseling, if anybody wants to go into counseling there has to be some admission at the onset that there is a problem. If there is no problem there is no reason to go to counseling.
AL: Of course with the men who can connect it to their drinking, they can allow themselves out of that problem by saying, I only do it when I’m drinking.
LA: Yeah, sure. And, I mean, complicated by the problem is that huge numbers of people that are alcoholics are not admitting to that. I mean, so there is, like no recognition of that as a problem and there is no recognition of – if all your buddies are doing it and what it is that they’re doing is slapping their wives around a little and everybody makes some crack about it or it’s, ‘ha-ha’ type thing, or seems like appropriate type of behavior for how to treat your wife then there is no demand that there is – I mean, I think it would have to be peer pressure, this is no longer acceptable behavior.
AL: What do you advise women to do legally? Do you advise them to file for divorce, contact the police?
LA: Our philosophy is that we provide options. We do not advise, we provide options. We do not advise divorce, we do not advise reconciliation.
AL: Do you advise legal involvement in some way that it be interference by the law?
LA: I might, if someone comes in that has a cracked skull and she’s been at our County Hospital for a week and is numb on one side of her body still, I would advise that she might want to go talk to the DA’s Office. For very women if they just have, like maybe a totally black and blue body and maybe a torn cartilage or something around their ribs, that, at least in our part of Texas is simple assault which is a misdemeanor and that is not attempted murder or that is not assault with intent to bodily harm or anything like that, which would put it in felony class. That is in a misdemeanor class and misdemeanor you know how – if they file a warrant and if he gets served and if he gets picked up he can be out on $50 bail in less than twenty-four hours, he can just go walk right through the jail. And he is out and he is mad. So it’s very hard to advise women necessarily to go through the hassle of going down to the police station, to homicide and getting their bodies photographed and going through and talking to this sergeant and the desk sergeant and another sergeant and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
AL: Who are probably doing the same thing to their wives.
LA: Probably doing a lot of the same things to their wives. And the satisfaction that she will get for that is not a whole helluva lot. If you have a really aggressive DA or assistant DA or something that is willing to make charges, felony charges, and really try to get them to stick then you’re dealing with a whole other phenomenon.
AL: Does that happen very often?
LA: I mean, there probably are some cities where there’ll be a DA’s office that has, like a women’s crimes division or something like that, I mean, which to some extent we have, too, but I mean, and are really actively trying to pursue that in some cities. Then that’s a different –
AL: Well then what in fact do most of the women who come to you for counseling end up doing when they’re finished with –
LA: Well, those women that come and stay, and some women stay at our place over night and a couple of them stayed up to three months, about sixty or sixty-five percent of them go back. Others either find a job or get involved in some sort of job training, try to get some sort of child support, file for divorce, try to find an apartment, and have to completely reconstruct their lives starting from point zero. Which is, if you have two or three kids and you have no money, no experience, feel like shit in terms of self-image, have not been out in the world, it’s a very, very hard thing to do from scratch. Given the fact that you’re starting from this very debilitated sort of lack of ego strength place. So I mean, everything, every single thing is against, I mean–starting with the fact that that woman was born female–is against that woman making that move out of that relationship. Also give the fact that lots of women still love them. “But I love him. And he’s so nice to me when he doesn’t beat me up.” “And he’s always so sorry.”
AL: Yeah, that’s what the cops in my classes in New York say.
LA: Right!… That’s right…
AL: First of all they say it’s really out of their hands because these are –
Unidentified Speaker: Excuse me, I didn’t mean to interrupt; is one of you Ann?…
AL: Yes, I am…
Unidentified Speaker: Um…well…
(recording stops, then resumes 44:05)
AL: — the New York cops argue that they –
LA: It’s not only New York cops that argue, it’s every cop that argues that.
AL: I’m sure. And I think many of them—honestly–that there really is nothing they can do because the court procedures are against anything sticking, that the women are not in a position and they’re not in a position to help them get out of that situation.
LA: Well, I think that one of the things that we hope to show is that if a woman has a safe place to go and she doesn’t have to fear immediate retaliation by this guy being processed through the criminal justice system in twenty minutes and then back at her, angrier, that – and if she has other types of support–that she will be more apt to file charges and that those, and she will be more apt to pursue that, those charges.
Unidentified Speaker: I’m doing a workshop here. I’m supposed to be doing a workshop here in about ten, seven minutes.
LA: In seven minutes?
AL: We’ll have to move out in seven minutes. We’re not connected to the workshop.
Unidentified Speaker: Pardon?
AL: We’ll move out in seven minutes…
Unidentified Speaker: But I’d like to set up.
AL and LA: Oh.
LA: I’ll take my orange peel.
(Recording pauses, then resumes at 45:12)
AL: Okay, after a couple interruptions we’re moving to a new location starting again.
LA: Right in the entrance way to this whole conference.
AL: Before we have to run off tell me, do you think this conference is speaking to those kinds of concerns?
LA: Well, I expected that this conference would absolutely, on an official level, not speak to these concerns at all. There was a resolution that was passed dealing with battered women and that apparently was passed sometime yesterday, it was a specific resolution. What its effect will be, probably it’s negligible since that basically is my feeling about what the effect of any of the resolutions that were passed here is going to be. There are two different bills that are proposed in Congress, or both in the Congress and the Senate, one is a joint bill having to do with funding for shelters that would be administered through NIMH, National Institute of Mental Health, and another one would be administered through Action Program for Action training people, community people to be workers in shelters. Both of them have research components. I’m opposed to big pieces of each of those but that’s sort of tangential issue since it probably won’t even get passed. Anyhow, possibly what the resolution here could do is be some sort of collective support for the passage of this legislation.
AL: As well as just generally giving publicity to the whole issue.
LA: Generally giving publicity. Unfortunately, probably the only thing that gets publicized out of this conference is the ERA. My feeling about the ERA is that it’s very nice and that nobody is paying attention to certain historical lessons about the one issue, women’s movements, and what happens when that issue so-called gets solved, that is the passage of the ERA, if in fact that happens. Maybe in some way it’d be better for the women’s movement as a whole if ERA doesn’t get passed, I mean, it has continued things to keep working on.
Anyhow, I am not, on its official level, I am not particularly enthused about the amount of money that’s been spent by the attention to this basically one issue, the ERA, by the fact that –
AL: Although the abortion issue and the lesbian issue are the really hot ones that are going to hit the floor today.
LA: Well, except that, I mean, the conference itself, I mean, would probably have chosen not to deal with those issues basically. In Texas they didn’t even want to put an out lesbian on the delegation. And there was a huge fight that started in Washington that came down at the direction of Washington not to have an out lesbian on a Texas delegation. So from an official level from the beginning they wanted it not to be an issue, but it was just outside forces being too strong, both the pro-family which I read as anti-lesbian group and the lesbians group and the fact that I think the pro-family people have had enough contact with women’s movement people at this point to understand that to a large extent the force and the energy and the ideas behind lots of the projects in the women’s movement are lesbians. And so feminist is becoming a euphemism for lesbian, or at least it sounded that way when I was watching TV last night. So as a whole on an official level this conference is not very interesting to me. Maybe interesting as a cultural phenomenon but not in terms of anything with real power.
On an unofficial level what has happened is that because of a workshop which had gone on apart from where delegates were meeting on battered women, it was possible for me to meet other women from shelters, which is why it is that I came down here. Who are working in shelters since I have been working in isolation completely and everything that I have been thinking and everything except for people that I am working with who have also never been to another shelter or spoken to another person that’s worked in a shelter, or spoken to another person who has worked in a shelter; we are each re-inventing the wheel. One person is doing it in Texas and somebody else is doing it in Louisiana and somebody else is doing it in someplace else and –
AL: Do you expect some kind of national organization to emerge soon?
LA: There is going to be a national organization. We’re going to talk about it this evening. We met for three hours this morning, we’re going to meet again starting at five, those people that are just being service providers, and then again at seven with people from different Congressmen’s offices and Lindy Boggs from Louisiana who’s introducing some of this legislation, and –
AL: That’s probably happening on a lot of issues. The workshops have helped in making connections that women otherwise would not be able to make.
LA: I think that that’s true. I had heard something yesterday at a protest rally across the street that lesbians are trying to come up with some sort of national thing. Now I don’t know–I think that the issue of lesbianism is a lot more diffused and amorphous and much harder to organize around in some sense, except there’s a reacting to the pro-life people type of thing; whereas, issues of battered women can be much more concrete and things can be sort of ‘confretized’ in a way that they can’t be with lesbians–.
AL: That’s interesting, I spent yesterday morning with the ‘anti’s’, with the pro-life people interviewing, and all the ties were there on all the issues. And I finally asked the woman I was interviewing about battered women and she came up with the same connection. I was hoping that she would, on that issue, but no, she said, “Women who are battered can look for legal help.” I mean, “They like it. And if they didn’t like it they wouldn’t stand for it.”
LA: Yeah, I think amazingly enough those women to me are the only group of women that I’ve encountered that are not pro this issue. But everybody else, I mean, Republican women, and the Junior League women, and business and professional women and, I mean, any of the maybe generally more conservative women are not–are for this issue, just because they realize that it’s happening among themselves.
AL: Let’s talk a little bit about how you got to this kind of work… A little bit about your background?..
LA: My background is odd. My background is that I graduated from high school and went to a half a year of college in 1965 in New York, and stopped doing that almost immediately. And had earned some money while I was in high school, and went to Europe for a little bit and then came back and tried to figure out what to do. And worked as a file clerk, and worked filling out little computer cards in a publishing house, like editing a phone book (laughter).
AL: Lots of exciting jobs…
LA: Lots of exciting jobs… And then I got this job working for an advertising agency in New York and–large advertising agency in New York. And kept getting myself promoted until I was a producer of various and sundry types of TV commercials for very large corporations. And I did that for four years. And this was at the same time as the anti-war movement was going on, and it became more and more incompatible with what I was thinking. It was also the very, very, very beginning of the women’s movement, in like ’68 and ’69, and it was pre-gay movement. But I’ve been associated with this gay women’s organization, Daughters of Bilitis, which is like the first lesbian organization. And various people were coming and talking, like Kate Millett and stuff like that, so it became apparent to me that I should stop doing what I’m doing and start doing something else. (laughter)
And so in, like late ’70 or early ’71, I quit working for this ad agency, took a trip across the country and ended up visiting some friend of mine a long time ago, ex-lover who lived in Austin. And liked it. Went and visited a bunch of other cities like Austin and started just to move to Austin. And since ’70, ’71, have been doing various types of organizing around women’s issues.
AL: You were born and raised where?
LA: Brooklyn, New York.
AL: Oh, you’re not a Texan?
LA: No. No, I mean, if you speak to anybody from Texas they could tell you that easily.
AL: But I was born in Brooklyn, New York, therefore I hear your accent.
LA: Yankee! Yankee!… Yankee!…(Laughter)
AL: (Laughter) –It sounds to me like Brooklyn’s gone and Texas is here.
LA: My mother thinks I have a Texas accent, too!
AL: I did too! (Laughter)
AL: …that’s fascinating!
LA: (Laughter, unintelligible at 57:16)
Anyhow, I’ve helped organize two different women’s centers and one women’s counseling center in about three different organizations having to do with various types of issues; rape, abortion reform. I tried to organize a non-profit abortion clinic right after the Supreme Court decision, to no great avail, we still don’t have one in Austin. I mean, I’ll probably have one in the next couple-a weeks, finally. Just one, poor women won’t be able to use it.
I spent one academic year at Sarah Lawrence College as part of a fellowship program that Sarah Lawrence was doing for activist women, basically non-academic activist women. And that to me, I think that year and this last year that I’ve been doing this work having to do with battered women have been some of the most informative and consciousness raising and also sort of intellectually expanding years that I’ve had. I mean, I think that I was appreciative of it when I was up there and I think that I am more appreciative of it as time goes on. I think it’s just a very important year for me in terms of having the time to do a lot of reading and having the time to do some thinking and having the time to meet some of the people that were up there; faculty people. And I think it was just a really good experience for me in terms of helping me to put things in more of a conceptual framework than I had before, aside from just learning a lot of things I didn’t know. But that’s my background.
AL: Well, what do you see in terms of changes in the next decade, say, and on any of the issues, on the one that most concerns you right now or – the whole range of women’s issues?
LA: One of the things that most concerns me now is the growing conservative-ism of the country, that the most amount of organizing that seems to be being done right now in this country is on the right as opposed to – in the ‘60s, I mean, it seems to me in a reversal from the type of organizing that was done in the ‘60s, that this is the reaction to that time. And to have twenty thousand jammed into an arena for an anti-lesbian, anti-abortion rally is a very frightening prospect. As someone who has basically since I’ve been out which is since I was eighteen as an open lesbian, lived as an open lesbian and function both in sort of straight and non-straights worlds and function as a lesbian in straight worlds, myself and for other women I am afraid. I’m afraid about sort of what just the personal infringement on my life and my ability to function without concealing huge portions of my life, without concealing sort of affectional preferences in my life, and being able to be taken seriously as a thinking person, rather than as a crazy person because of my lesbianism.
AL: I sat with these ‘anti’s’ yesterday and their arguments were not persuasive, but they were well thought out and the women were intelligent and articulate and everything was fine until we got to the lesbian issue and then they went berserk. And they said crazy things. Everything made no sense.
LA: People are homophobic.
AL: And why is that?
LA: Because people are homophobic. I think that people are really on a–it’s a gut level reaction, and it’s not something that gets processed intellectually. And so you can have a rational conversation with people about other things and then when you get to that issue they can no longer talk rationally. It is some basic innate fear of relating to women of the same sex; it is dirty, it is somehow disgusting. I mean, I don’t know what exactly it is, but it is some actual –
AL: I don’t either. And men have that same reaction, too.
LA: Right, it is an actual phobic reaction. And I think that –
AL: Do you think that any area of sexuality triggers off –
LA: No, I think people could more easily accept child molestation almost than the homosexuality. (Laughter) It is not –
AL: Why, because that is what they can see as an extension of their own –
LA: It’s an extension probably of the way –
AL: – the way they actually feel or?
LA: – maybe. Or maybe allow themselves to feel, I mean, I think that those people that probably are most homophobic are those people that have somehow had a twinge of homosexual feelings somewhere down the line and had to do a tremendous amount to repress those feelings. I don’t know, I mean. I think that it really is like, that that is truly some sort of, the strength of that reaction really is some sort of character disorder, rather than the homosexuality that they’re accusing, as being the disorder.
AL: It doesn’t sound like a very…mentally healthy society we’re in. The issues that trigger off the gut issues–driving people crazy.
LA: Right. Yeah. I think that’s true. But it really does concern me, I mean, not only on a personal level, but just on a larger level, of its effect–the whole conservative thrust of everything, so that instead of being forward-moving in terms of organizing it puts everybody—it puts people that are on the left, or people that are in the women’s movement–maybe don’t identify themselves as left people or whatever–in a defensive and reacting situation instead of having sort of freedom of movement to move ahead. And so you’ve spent all your time reacting and reacting and reacting instead of being able to do constructive types of things. I mean, they are a negative force and then what you end up responding to is a negative force and then there is no energy for some positive movement. And I think that that’s a very good technique for stopping things from happening, and I think that that’s what happens.
AL: Except that one gets the sense here that that didn’t come off quite as well as they expected it to.
LA: Well, it didn’t work out.
AL: ..it didn’t work…
LA: I don’t know why it didn’t work. I mean, I don’t know –
AL: …is that your last one?…
LA: I think…okay.
AL: I won’t take your last one…I’ll take your last one.
LA: I have to buy some more anyhow, I mean, I’m not going to walk around without them…. (Wrapper crinkling in the background)
AL: The first day I was here, I kept picking up rumors that the lesbian resolution was going to be dropped, that it was too hot.
LA: Yeah, um-hum. I think it still might happen.
AL: It might but it doesn’t look like it.
LA: Well, I have been at other conventions where it looked like one was – well, one was the IWY thing in Texas and one was many, many years ago at a national women’s political caucus convention down here in Houston where everybody was voting very liberal, liberal, liberal, liberal, liberal, and when they got to the lesbian issue the liberalism faded fast. Because I think this sort of separates folks out.
AL: Except that I’ve interviewed now about fifteen people in the last two days, as has everybody, and we always touch on that at some point in the interview. And I’ve been amazed at the number of rather conservative, straight, establishment-type women who shrug and say, “People oughta be able to do whatever they want.”
AL: And it’s surprised me because it is a potentially divisive issue at this point.
LA: Um-hum, it definitely is. I hope that you’re right. It is the last agenda item and you know I mean, when they were talking about, well are they going to go to eight, or are they going to cut off everything at eight, I thought to myself last night, well it’s going to be the last goddamn issue and they’re not going to have time for it and they’re just going to cut off debate like two down –
End of Interview