Is the Issue of Family Violence Finally Hitting Home?

What was it like to cover family violence in the 1970s and 1980s? Journalist Shirley Stott Despoja describes the frustrations.

Video still from Hitting Home

A still from ABC TV's Hitting Home

Hitting Home: trailer

Trailer for Hitting Home

Watching Sarah Ferguson’s ABC TV report on family violence, Hitting Home, I felt the revulsion I’m sure most people felt, but there was also another, hard-to-describe feeling, too. The feeling was of hope – elation even – that at last this subject can be spoken of, shown, forced upon our attention. But I have learned that hope is a dangerous feeling to have about halting family violence.

In my younger years, family violence could hardly be mentioned openly or safely. In the late 1970s and 1980s, I was one of very few journalists writing about ‘wife-bashing’, as it was often called, if it was named at all. With limited space and sceptical superiors, I wrote about the deaths, the torture, the need for control that gave rise to the violence and the hypocrisy that surrounded the subject. It was hard to convince editors and hard to ignore the sneering of some colleagues, who thought I was a ratbag feminist fantasist. It was hard, too, to maintain energy for the endless arguments to prove that women were not complicit in their fate. 

I knew some board members were keen to be rid of me and I got death threats in the mail. And, before the 1980s ended, it was troubling to discover the lengths to which some influential men would go to keep the lid on extent of the problem.

It was troubling to discover the lengths to which some influential men would go to keep the lid on extent of the problem

Today, a strong suspicion of violence in the home would likely halt the rise of any man in public life. I hope I am right about that, but as I said, hope is a dangerous thing to have about family violence. In earlier days, I dare say few men who were violent at home ever thought they would be exposed. The rise of the women’s shelter movement in South Australia in the 1970s startled them. For the first time, some perpetrators thought they might be in trouble.

Christies Beach Shelter, in the then newish suburbs south of Adelaide, was one of several women’s shelters in the city. Shelter workers provided security, strategies and peer group support for women who had no other option but to flee their homes with their children. They tried to change the way criminal assault in the home was understood in the community, including by police and politicians. They tried to convince women to seek help and to contradict the prevailing belief that women were largely to blame for their own fate.

There was tacit social agreement at that time that assault in the home was a lower-class thing, mostly caused by alcohol. Suddenly Christies Beach women were talking out loud about what domestic violence really was, how prevalent, how bad, how it occurred in all sectors of society. In particular, the charismatic Dawn Rowan became a formidable speaker about family violence, and there were others, in other shelters, just as determined. Women leaving the shelters carried with them knowledge that helped them and others to keep safe. 

This knowledge made perpetrators feel threatened as never before. Injured women in the shelters felt safe to talk for the first time in their lives about what was happening to them. Some of them were from leafy, lovely, privileged Adelaide homes.

There were powerful people who did not appreciate the outspoken approach of Rowan and others like her. I can’t begin to describe my contempt for the state government of the day, which allowed untested accusations against the shelter workers at Christies Beach to be aired in the parliament under parliamentary privilege. These allegations – including claims that shelter works misappropriated funds and harassed women in their care – were reported widely in the media and destroyed reputations. A minister referred to them as ‘bully girls’. Shelters lost their funding. 

Women leaving the shelters carried with them knowledge that helped them and others to keep safe

I wrote at the time that this disgraceful ambush would set back the movement in South Australia to expose and stop violence against women and their children. The Christies Beach women were cleared of all but an accounting technicality, but litigation to restore reputations continued for many years. The story of Rowan’s fight for justice through the courts is epic. But it is unmentionable in certain political circles even now. 

A resource for convincing the community of the seriousness of family violence and keeping women safe had been shut down and women virtually silenced. The public could now largely remain ignorant of the plight of victims unless they ended up dead. About a year after the closure of Christies Beach, I wrote a column about a popular local radio personality who used his program to broadcast that his wife had taken the children and left him. It may not have been intended, but it came over to some as a ‘hunt the wife’ exercise. The reaction to that event, and to my column, showed that most people had little idea of how dangerous such a situation could be.

The ownership of my newspaper changed. My ability to argue for publication of my writing about violence, including sexual abuse of children, was quashed. I became a major irritant in the office, objecting to victim-blaming headlines on stories about murdered women. I once had to argue for the removal of the headline, ‘He Loved Her Too Much’ for a story about a homicide. I rang sympathetic police for help in arguing cases. They tried to support me. My days were numbered. I don’t imagine that I am the only female journalist with a story like this. 

The impressive leadership against family violence today can be traced to the women’s shelter workers and their supporters of the 1970s and 1980s, not just in South Australia but around the country. Those women are still my heroes.

I hope the new initiatives prevail. I hope Sarah Ferguson’s work makes a difference. I hope resources are found to help the increasing numbers of women seeking help. But hope doesn’t get you far in getting rid of family violence. 

Portrait of Shirley Stott Despoja

Shirley Stott Despoja has worked as a journalist for more than 60 years. She worked in the 1950s at the Anglican, then covered general news at the Canberra Times. Later, Shirley became the first woman to be employed in the general newsroom at Adelaide’s Advertiser and the paper’s first arts editor. Today she is a columnist at the Adelaide Review, a member of the South Australian Journalists’ Hall of Fame and a United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Award winner.

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