I was anxious the first time I went there. I had this idea that women who’d done time would be, I don’t know, different somehow; not people you meet in the street, the woman you sat next to on the bus.
I was warned I might hear things that would test my morals. That I couldn’t underestimate what these women had been through.
My partner knew about my involvement at the center, but I didn’t tell my family. They would have rolled out the usual clichés. I could visualize Dad, glancing up from his morning newspaper, ‘Can’t do the time, don’t do the crime…’. So the sermon would have gone. Mum would have been quieter, but her opinions were, essentially, his. She spoke when necessary, and generally in his tongue.
I wanted to experience something for myself for once, with an open mind.
I’d never felt so raw, so out of place that first morning. One of the other center volunteers came and buzzed me through the security doors. ‘Sorry about that, but we have a lot of angry boyfriends and husbands come by; we have to offer the women here complete protection,’ she told me. I’d been told no men were allowed on the premises, and I wondered how that would feel.
I was shown into the group room; a comfortable, rectangular space with chairs set out around a large conference table. Women of all colors and sizes sat around the table, though I did notice there were more dark-skinned than light. I again felt momentarily out of place, obvious. I didn’t need to worry: my differences became irrelevant as the discussion got going.
An attractive, almost unbearably thin woman, with long wavy black hair and olive skin, kicked off. She’d done time for acting in self-defense against her abusive boyfriend, attacking him with a meat cleaver. I stared in disbelief at this tiny, sophisticated woman who had almost killed a man. Her disabled son was now living temporarily with foster carers due to her sentence, she told us, at which point she broke down.
I thought about my home life. My parents were traditionalists. Dad was Victorian in his values. Expected a home-cooked meal on the table when he walked in. My mother, consequently, never worked, other than an unofficial caring role for a friend. School was there to be endured; University was never discussed.
Essentially, my parents felt that a woman’s place was to support her husband and have children. Ambition was something male.
I remember when I was around 17, working in my first job after school, finding my mother in my parents’ bedroom, wrapping something up in tissue and putting it into a cardboard box. I knocked on the partly open door.
‘What’s this?’ I asked, sitting beside her, causing the bed to dip slightly.
‘It’s your bottom drawer box, honey,’ she said, smiling.
‘My mum had them for my sisters and me when we were growing up. Whenever I see things I think you’ll need, for the future, I buy one and put it away. Then, when you leave home and get married, you’ll have all you need to get started.’
Getting married. Something I hadn’t even considered, not in a serious way, anyway. I asked if I could have a peek. I think she was pleased I was interested, and she pulled out pink hand towels, a set of knives, and her recent purchase: a steam iron. Her face beamed proudly, telling me how she got the iron in a sale, a real bargain.
I had to swallow the bile in my mouth; I’m not sure what I was hoping for. What would my ideal box under the bed have contained; maps of great travel destinations, maybe? Music Festival tickets? A guide to navigating a slippery career path in a woman’s skin? A publishing contract…? I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be yet – so how could my mum know?
As I looked into her kind eyes, I saw the pleasure putting this box together had brought her. I couldn’t tell her of the dreams I harbored, the books I wanted to write; of how I held crazy notions of trying to change the world somehow. Of how there were places I needed to see, people I had to meet. She wouldn’t understand or would pretend she didn’t.
I smiled, told her it was great, really useful, wondering but not asking why there wasn’t an identical box for my brother.
Back at the center that bright autumn morning, a young girl of about 18 was relaying her story. Abusive partner, prostitution, giving birth to a baby girl who was now in care.
She told the story in a deadbeat tone, occasionally stopping to dab at the corners of her eyes with a scrunched up tissue that had seen better days. ‘I just wanna see her for Christmas,’ she said, her bare belly replete with purple stud rising up and down under her midriff top. Would this girl be here if her mum has had a ‘bottom drawer box,’ I wondered.
A beautiful ebony-skinned woman with a tight, short crop that only enhanced her perfect bone structure cut in to ask a question. She spoke in halting English; she was philosophical. She had escaped her country to give birth in jail to her daughter. It was preferable to the slum she came from. Her child now suckled milk eagerly from a pendulous breast sticking out under her t-shirt. She had dreams of learning enough English to attend college someday.
When I was the same age as many of these women, I couldn’t wait to get out of my hometown. I felt stifled, conscious of my selfishness at all that my parents’ provided for me but unable to bear the mechanics of my family’s relationships to one another.
They say education can broaden your horizons: for me, it was getting out into the world, working amongst more educated adults who inspired me to be more. The late 80’s seemed an exciting time: women’s rights and equality were on the political agenda.
I listened, I was interested, but I was still the quiet feminist at the back of the room, conscious of my small town roots.
That first visit to the center threw life’s possibilities wide open. Absence of men was a liberation, and it occurred to me how much more open everyone was. I saw how I’d often felt talked down in debates by a perceived stronger male, or given had given into a stronger opinion.
I’ve often heard talk of ‘an education in Life,’ and I guess that’s partly what I got from my placement there. I saw how hard life could be for women when they’ve not had the benefit of a safe and secure home. I realized what a comfortable and easy childhood and upbringing I’d had, despite my parents’ politics. Many of the women and girls I met lived under the shadow of abuse, every day a struggle, not even attending school regularly enough to get a decent education, a way out of their situations.
But I also saw that I couldn’t go on being the quiet feminist anymore. The back-of-the-room feminist I’d sought so far wasn’t going to help these women or the young girls who came after them. And in the long-run, it wasn’t going to help me, either.
I gained some solace from the place. That wasn’t what I expected. But when I cast my memory back to times in my early teens, I could see examples of when maybe decisions I’d made could have landed me in similar positions to the women there.
The time I found out my ex-boyfriend was selling Ecstasy to teenagers down the co-op parking lot. The party I went to when I woke up in a strange room with a guy leaning over me I didn’t recognize. I didn’t tell anyone. I buried these things beneath my shame that it must have been my fault. Luckily for me, I had the strength to end that relationship soon after, watching him move on to some other girl he could control more easily, nursing my broken heart for a while, before moving on.
It didn’t take much to imagine how my life could have changed in that single second. How I could have been one of those young women, sitting in that center, pouring out my sad life because of a stupid mistake; because of whom I’d chosen to trust.
Sometimes, in darker moments I felt like it was out here that I felt out of joint. Like in there, the people were open-minded, not judging or condemning one another, or me. I was there to help them to learn, to try to change their lives. But I sensed it was me who was getting saved, right from the beginning.
Before I started working with the women at the center, I considered myself a feminist. I’ve always (quietly) defended women’s rights to education, contraceptives, a safe relationship.But that was just it: I was quiet about it. I thought it was enough to feel these things; I never actually did anything to support my ideals.
It wasn’t long after my involvement there, though, that I realized it isn’t enough to believe in something. I found myself becoming a more strident, committed feminist.
Before, if I heard people in general conversation muttering racist or sexist comments, I would just avoid them or shake my head, thinking they didn’t get it. After my work at the center, though, I found I couldn’t do that anymore. It wasn’t enough. I began to speak up, to speak out.
I got more involved in women’s support groups and activism; I used my writing skills to defend women’s rights and bring them to people’s notice. I wanted to shout about women’s equality, wherever they came from in the world. It made me outspoken; some people I’d known a long time didn’t like it. But I’d finally stopped hiding my passions and beliefs in a box under the bed, along with that bargain steam iron and the pink towels that’d never see the light of day.
I finally realized who I was, how I could contribute my little bit to the world.
Maybe some of those women at the center remember me, and maybe they don’t. It’s been a long while. Perhaps I had an impact on their life at the time, and perhaps I didn’t. I hope I did. But I know that the strength and courage I took from their life experiences has stayed with me as I’ve forged my own way.
And these days, I’m no longer the quiet girl at the back of the room. I’m the woman at the front, insisting that changes still need making; that attitudes and beliefs, and making good life choices, are often all that separates us from one another.
I realized long ago that I could be a strong feminist, and try to change minds, but my family will always be the way they are. It’s no longer necessary to try and change them. They raised me how they thought best: no more, no less.