Johanna Den Hertog Keynote Speech on the Occassion of Vancouver Rape Relief's 35th Anniversary

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Johanna Den Hertog - a founding member Keynote Speech at Rape Relief 35th Anniversary


Congratulations and thank you Alice and the Rape Relief Collective
Sisterhood greetings from my friend Janet Torge 

35 years of work, sisterhood…struggles and success

some of you may not even have been born then, hundreds and thousands of women since then;
a little window on how this organization started…a bit of personal story of the three of us; a little bit of a window on the times and our beginnings

Beginnings of Rape Relief – personal

1972 – I was 20 and had come from Holland as an immigrant to Edmonton where I grew up to Montreal to Vancouver. I had been in university and at university moved from social concern to activism – and became passionately committed to women’s rights issues – involved in women’s groups in Montreal, in student activism; in challenging Vietnam war; came to Vancouver – I, like so many, wanted to ‘make a difference’.

With friends put together money to rent a big house on West 14th Avenue – 8 people and a dog and for a few months even a few chickens in our back yard. A communal house – buying our food at Lifestream or buylow; food coop. Poor and happy. Worked to wrap cheese at a factory on 4th where there are now high end shops. Entertainment was .25 beers at the Cecil; 99c movies at Starlight cinema on Hastings, or Chinese dinners at Greek hole in the walls or Red Door in Chinatown. We tried to grow our own vegetables; we made our own granola and yogurt. We fought about whether the guys were doing their share of toilet scrubbing – they never did!

Women’s movement in 1972- 73

And the women’s movement was a huge part of what life was about in Vancouver – and that’s where I found Janet Torge and Teresa Moore. Janet lived in another house with friends on 17th and Cambie; Teresa in a small basement suite in Kits point. We found each other through the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective, through women like Melanie Conn. At the women’s health collective there were ‘conscious raising groups’ – which I joined. The Health Collective was a place where for the first time we as women became ‘in charge’ of our own health – running self help health clinics to promote women-run pelvic exams (at the Seymour Medical Clinic) and women-centred sexuality and health awareness. Feminist doctors supported us (liz Whynot). We faced lots of opposition by conservatives, but we persevered and succeeded. Lots of young women got referrals – including for abortion assistance, sexually transmitted disease, and birth control.

But nowhere in Vancouver was there a place where women dealing with rape or sexual assault could turn. (Nowhere in Canada).

That rape was a ‘women’s issue’ was obvious – to us. But not so much to others
Rape was not classified as an assault – it was considered primarily a sexual act – not primarily an assault. Women victims in law had to overcome presumptions of responsibility – by being accused of being in the so-called wrong place at the wrong time; of ‘encouraging’ the behaviour; for the rare woman who would lay charges, her entire sexual history would be laid bare in the courts; if she was married, she could not complain of rape if the perpetrator was her husband; to disclose rape or any other form of sexual assault was to invite shame – the attitude that sexual assault was in many ways the ‘fault’ of women, was the ultimate symptom of low and unequal status of women as ‘persons’ in law and in the values of our society.

I became interested – and heard that in a few places in the States there were groups of women trying to organize Rape Crisis Centres.

The early organizing days – joining with other women I put up notices at the Health Collective, looking for others interested in working on this project with me; and in the womens papers.

I had friends going down to California and went to Berkeley where I visited a rape crisis center – and became excited by this women-run, women’s collective group that had begun to support women who had faced sexual assault.
Then back in Vancouver, Janet Torge and a few weeks later Teresa Moore and I became the threesome that soon jelled as a team to explore this project.
Janet was a few year older, came from Ohio and had left the States for the more progressive Canada. Janet worked at Crossreach for Seniors, to pay the rent, and was our publicist – she could write, make the best lists, had accounting skills and had the best sense of humour – plus being a great cook on the least money. Teresa had the bare bones of legal skills – had dropped out of law school, was a sharp talker, had courage to fill anyone’s boots, enthusiastic fighter and communicator – plus she had the best Southern Comfort; Teresa temp’d at various admin jobs to pay her rent.

We had no idea if we could make this happen – but in the fall of 1972 started to figure out what it would take.

I went to Boston to attend a Rape Crisis Centre conference and training session.
We started holding meetings – in each of our houses – planning what it would take: a collective of women volunteers to support women; public information and education to change the attitudes and consciousness about sexual assault – as a feminist issue; a 24-hour crisis line; advocacy for women to deal with the police, the courts, and the emergency wards .. oh yes, and some money, a place, an organization.

We received a small Opportunities for Youth grant, and then a 4 month Company of Young Canadians grant of a few hundred dollars a month. We had no experience with setting up an organization – but we were women, we could organize, and what the hell… no one else seemed to know how to do this either.

Getting serious – attention, opposition, and support – from women
Before we knew it …we started getting attention

Media – interview requests from the papers, and from one or two radio stations – both positive and hostile callers.

Opposition – from some quarters – the Crisis Centre – no need, duplication, and we had no adequate experience.

We started putting funding proposals together: at first, no one would take the first initiative: Health Canada, Vancouver Foundation, Vancouver City, BC Provincial Ministry of Health, Sect of State/ Status of women – someone first.
Letters of support

Women started supporting us: Darlene Marzari, councilor at City Hall – supported us, encouraged us and gave introductions and letters of support; Carol Anne Soong, Sect of State for a grant; Rosemary Brown, MLA – support – and when we visited her, said ‘you’re asking for too little’; Appealed to Min of Health BC (Dennis Cocke, Minister) – his wife, activist and provincial sect of NDP, put in a word (we heard) and pushed him to fund us. We got a grant: $20,000 for 1- 3 years…I cant remember…but it was more money than we could imagine. (All three govt’s supported us).

Outreach; to police, to prosecutors, to emergency wards,
How we managed – out of shoe box: Until then, taking messages at our respective house (training my communal house mates to take ‘serious messages’

Setting up - opening Rape Relief - 1973
Women were volunteering to join our collective – we went to Seattle to attend their Rape Relief volunteer training sessions; and adapted and set up our own plans to do the same in Vancouver. After that first session in 1973, we would hold regular training sessions every few months: the collective of volunteer women was the strength of the organization. The few paid staff came from the collective, over the years.

Teresa got it figured out how to register as a Society. Janet set up our books – on paper ledgers.

We hunted for cheap cheap space, with bus service. Main and Kingsway offices.
We had one car (a ten year old Beetle –mine); and Teresa had a friend who had a car she could borrow.

Janet wrote our pamphlets and media materials. Teresa did a lot of our work doing education with Police and prosecutors.

And there were women supporing us in the media: Fanny Keefer springs to mind…who gave us air time and were sympathetic.

Running the organization was a little different than today. Of course – the equipment was a little different in that time. No cell phones – did not exist. No photocopiers or fax machines yet. No email or computers or internet.We had gestetner machines to ‘run off’ forms and materials. And a used IBM selectric typewriter – and carbon paper.

We set up an answering service, with a 24-7 schedule: at first just three of us, til we had done training. Then a two-person per shift schedule for the whole month..and several week training sessions for women volunteers. Our house mates had to be tolerant.

Being on call: at the phone for your 8 hour or 12 hour shift. Then in the car as needed to the call, hoping you would not break down.

We opened the lines and as you all know, we never looked back
We were there for each other, for women who called, of all ages and situations.
We met women in their apartments and rooms and homes. We talked and supported, and cried and laughed. We helped to find women safe places to stay. We were advocates and went with women to emergency wards, to police, to courts. We spoke, wrote letters, pressed for legal changes. We spoke at schools, on radio on women’s T V shows. We linked up with other rape crisis centers – and became a network (Toronto was founded within a month of Vancouver). We supported the work towards a transition house for women. And always women supporting women.

Janet Torge - a founding member letter on the occasion of Vancouver Rape Relief's 35th Anniversary

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Dear Rape Relief’ers,

I am so sorry I cannot be there for the 35th Anniversary Party. The reasons for my absence speak directly to the occasion:

First, I throw an annual Women’s Day party at my own place in Montréal. The gathering has expanded over the years to include mothers, daughters, sisters and any female who loves how loud we talk, how much we eat and the constant hysterical laughter. I hope your party contains all of the above.

Secondly, I am not there because I can’t afford a trip to Vancouver. You’ll not be surprised that the founding mothers of your organization still work hard, help people and don’t drive Mercedes. That’s as it should be.

I know that the organization has changed a lot since we first decided to help – who were at the time called – “rape victims”. You should all be thankful and proud about that. You have been spared some ridiculous battles:

1) We actually had to discuss the myth that it’s impossible to rape a woman… the favorite example thrown at us was a defense lawyer who held a coke bottle in his hand and dared the prosecutor to stab it with a pencil as he ran around the room. This actually happened and was quoted frequently. Thank God, those days are over.

2) It was generally believed that the best prevention for sexual assault was changing the behavior of the women. Take off those “revealing” clothes (define “revealing” please); don’t drink and flirt at the same time; don’t walk anywhere alone after dark; never hitchhike and never say “No” to someone you’ve already slept with. I know there are some remnants of these ideas still around today, but they were written in society’s DNA back in 1973.

What probably has not changed is that working at Rape Relief exposes you to so many different women…. Underlining the fact that sexual assault does not show preference to class, physical appearance, religion, economics or lifestyle. While many of the women I met lived lives completely foreign to my own, it was not difficult to find shared experiences almost at once. I remember one woman who was raped by a motorcycle gang and hid in the basement of my house while awaiting the preliminary hearing. She was a real survivor. I marveled at her strength even though I couldn’t imagine two minutes with those guys under any circumstances. But as cups of coffee were drunk and worries shared that they would find us and do unspeakable things, we discovered we both had lots of sisters and our common ground was found.

As you all celebrate so many years of hard and heart-felt work, perhaps the warmth and closeness between women that emerges during these dire circumstances is also cause for celebration.

Thanks for keeping a small idea alive and well 35 years later.