In mid-March 1974, a group of 15 radical feminists – enraged by the government’s refusal to provide housing for women and children trying to escape domestic violence – forced their way into downtown homes and changed the system forever.
The Church of England’s two vacant cottages on Westmoreland Street in Glebe, Sydney, became Australia’s first women’s retreat – nicknamed ‘Elsie’.
The story of the women’s legendary actions is still celebrated by the women’s rights movement.
Feminist author Anne Summers, who later became a high-ranking bureaucrat and adviser to two prime ministers – Bob Hawke and Paul Keating – led the invaders and wrote about the episode in her book Ducks on the Pond.
Children in front of Elsie Women’s Shelter, two houses originally for sale by the Church of England in Sydney but inhabited by feminists
Within two months, 48 women and 35 children were living in the Glebe shelter
Summers told 9 In the papers, she called the world’s first women’s shelter, the Chiswick Women’s Aid Shelter in London, to ask how to set up one.
“Just do it,” she was told.
Summers, Bessie Guthrie, Jennifer Drakers, and 12 other women armed with broomsticks and shovels, marched to the houses – they knew the church had put them up for sale – smashed into the windows of each, and entered.
“The next thing we did was change the locks,” Summers said. “And then we called the media.”
Summers contacted John Laws, who announced the refuge’s phone number on his 2UW talkback show, and battered women and their children began arriving.
Brigitte Gunther (pictured right) with her daughter, Silvia Gunther, at Elsie Women’s Refuge in March 1980. Photo SMH / Julia Featherstone
Penny Gulliver, who was one of the first women to occupy the houses, says the activists felt justified because of the cause they fought for.
“Breaking into a house wasn’t that bad, times were changing and the people running it were like the Chicago Seven, we took the steps we took because things needed to change,” she told Daily Mail Australia.
“I think it was another day at the office for the radical lesbian feminists of that day.”
After the media responded to Summers’ call, a local white goods wholesaler donated refrigerators and washing machines.
Volunteers from the Sydney Rotary Club repaired the property and brought in playground equipment and for the children who live there.
Local shopkeepers participated and donated groceries – often just sacks of potatoes, but the women struggled to make ends meet.
“I shared marijuana that year,” Summers said. “That’s how we got the money.”
The houses were not only a shelter for battered women and children, they became the center of the women’s liberation movement in Sydney at the time.
“If … the police had picked me up, I would have been in big trouble,” Summers wrote.
“I didn’t even think about the illegality of what I was doing because we needed the money so badly.”
Mothers and children at the front gate of one of the two Glebe houses that formed Elsie’s women’s shelter
The women’s shelter was also the epicenter of a growing women’s movement in Sydney
Summers even claimed that locals in the West sought her cannabis’ because it was Elsie pot. It was politically correct.
Summers said journalists who were invited “couldn’t really understand what all the fuss was about.”
But in May 1974, 48 women and 35 children were living in Elsie.
“ We expected women to come, but I still remember the collective sense of success when I knew it had happened and that no government would change it, but the overwhelming anger, sorrow and bloody despair as women and children kept coming certainly fueled our decision, ”wrote one woman, who helped her first arrivals at Elsie at the age of 16.
“I remember sitting on the roof all night with a woman with a .22 rifle, guarding the place from men threatening to take back their wives and children.”
Feminist author Anne Summers (pictured left with former Prime Minister Julia Gillard) was among those who broke into two church-owned houses that became Australia’s first women’s retreat in 1974. arrived
The woman said looking back at photos of the first women to arrive made her “emotional.”
‘I look at it and remember so many of those faces. I can see the trauma on every child’s face … bodies still learned and ready to fight or run, ”she said.
I can see and feel the oppressive exhaustion carried by every woman as well, the need to throw their bodies down somewhere to rest their minds. They didn’t know where.
‘I can also see those women wandering alone and shocked … and then the circles of friendships that form their hideous stories that bind them.
“When the laughter started and the kids started to play, Elsie became that safe place we had all hoped for.”
Summers said one of the first advocates, Diana Beaton, convinced the then Federal Secretary of Social Security Bill Hayden to visit.
But no one told any of the moms guarding the front door, and when Hayden knocked, he was sent packing.
“I don’t care who you are,” the mother replied, Summer wrote. ‘Men are not allowed!
“She slammed the door and Hayden started walking down the street, when one of the workers recognized him, ran after him, and dragged him back.”
In January, the federal government gave the shelter $ 24,250 in funding – the equivalent of more than $ 200,000 2020
Elsie Women’s Refuge continues to operate as ‘a crisis relief and case management service for women with children who have experienced domestic / domestic violence’.
It offers ‘secure shared accommodation with individual bedrooms’ and is owned by St. Vincent de Paul.
Summers, now 76 and living in New York, declined to be interviewed, except to tell Daily Mail Australia, “It’s been a long time.”