Black and white photograph of Elsie Refuge with children playing out the front

Elsie Women’s Refuge, Glebe 1974. By Drusilla Modjeska. Contributed by National Library of Australia (nla.pic-vn3997705)

There has been a lot of discussion in the last 12 months about domestic violence and how it is everyone’s responsibility to put an end to it.

Sydney, and particularly the suburb of Glebe, was at the centre of a very important move in the 1970s to provide a safe haven for women suffering from domestic violence. Dr Catie Gilchrist reveals all in her article Forty years of the Elsie Refuge for Women and Children.

In the early days of autumn 1974 an intrepid group of Sydney Women’s Liberation members, including Anne Summers, Robyn Kemmis, Jennifer Dakers and Bessie Guthrie, broke into two adjoining vacant houses, ‘Elsie’ and ‘Minnie’, at 73 and 75 Westmoreland Street on the Glebe Estate. Armed only with broomsticks, shovels and energetic determination, they changed the locks to establish residency and claimed squatter’s rights. On that day, 16 March, the women declared Elsie Women’s Refuge Night Shelter open as Australia’s first emergency safe haven for women and children subject to domestic violence.

So began a remarkable and fearless social experiment, grounded in activism around feminism and housing campaigns, which would inspire services for women and children experiencing domestic violence across New South Wales and Australia.

Glebe was a hot-house of the Women’s Lib movement, with residents involved in collectives and anarchist approaches to social problems. The women behind Elsie saw the proliferation of empty houses as an opportunity to address the pressing need for abused women to be able to exercise agency and escape from violent family situations. Their action had profound consequences for hundreds of women in Sydney and was a precedent for a later nationwide movement.

Elsie Refuge for Women and Children in Glebe was the first women’s refuge to open in Australia. It inspired hundreds of similar refuges to open nationwide. Many of these refuges also adopted women’s names for their services. For forty years, Elsie remained independently-run, providing care, support and anonymity to women and children fleeing domestic violence. Today the future trajectory of women’s refuges in New South Wales, and across Australia, is uncertain.

In August 2014, Elsie Women’s Refuge was taken over by the St Vincent de Paul Society under the NSW Government’s Going Home Staying Home policy. Elsie was not the only New South Wales refuge to suffer a change in management. A total of 44 shelters in New South Wales that catered specifically to women, the Indigenous population and young people were closed or placed in alternative management. St Vincent de Paul has provided assurances that Elsie will remain a women-and-children-only service.

Elsie’s important role in Glebe’s history and the nation’s history was recognised in 2012 when a walkway in Glebe beside the public school was named after the refuge: Elsie Walk. This commemorative naming was championed by Councillor Robyn Kemmis and the Glebe Community Action Group. They were proud of Glebe’s role in supporting women and creating a better society.

I was reminded again of the importance of Elsie when I attended the memorial service for Robyn Kemmis, held last week at Sydney Town Hall. Robyn was a councillor at the City of Sydney and was a great supporter of the Dictionary of Sydney. We are all saddened by her passing. She made a difference to the lives of Sydneysiders in subtle, humane ways.

I encourage you to read our article on Elsie women’s refuge. Elsie Walk, and the Women’s Refuge Movement are just two of the legacies of Robyn’s love and commitment to caring for our community.

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