Theme Movement against Domestic Violence

Written by Suellen Murray, RMIT University

The nature of leadership and the style of leaders in the movement against domestic violence has changed across the 20th century. Earlier protest against domestic violence occurred in the context of other social movements. In the 1970s, with the advent of women's refuges, a specific movement against domestic violence emerged. Leadership was characteristically undertaken by feminists who shared egalitarian approaches. While such leadership styles are still evident, the collective organisational structures that were typical of the earlier decades have now virtually disappeared. In their place, there are a myriad of initiatives and activities with varied approaches that form the basis of the movement against domestic violence.

Before turning to the movement of the later decades of the 20th century, it is important to acknowledge the efforts of those who came before. Many of the women leaders across the earlier decades of the 20th century protested against violence against women in its various forms. Suffragists such as Rose Scott (Allen,, Louisa Lawson (Radi, and Vida Goldstein (Brownfoot, saw gaining the vote as a way in which women and children could be better protected. Members of the temperance movement linked alcohol and sexual and physical violence against women (Lake, 31-6). Later, those working towards the maternalist welfare state, such as Bessie Rischbieth (Lutton,, Ada Bromham (Birman, and Jessie Street (Radi,, saw the independence of women as a means of reducing violence against women (Lake, 93-7).

What differentiated these earlier engagements with violence against women from those of the latter decades of the 20th century was the development of a widespread, specifically targeted social movement from the 1970s. This domestic violence protest movement engaged with the topic both through work with women affected by domestic violence, and also by lobbying for changes to the policies and practices of the other key stakeholders such as police, courts and welfare agencies. Another way in which the movement of the later decades differed was that participants were committed to collective-based organisations and power sharing (Murray).

Readily discernible groups are evident in the earliest years of the movement against domestic violence that emerged in the 1970s, seen most clearly in the state-based women's refuges that formed the predominantly feminist women's refuge movement. While long-standing services provided by organisations such as the Salvation Army and other church-based groups had provided some assistance to earlier generations of women experiencing domestic violence, the new refuges established during the mid-1970s were very different. Typically, small groups of women came together to set up a service to respond to the needs of abused women in a local area. They took these initiatives because they saw little effective action by government agencies, or the wider community, to curb men's violence in the home. They provided crisis support to women and their children but also assisted them to leave their violent relationships, whereas, in contrast, the work of the older services was characterised by providing respite from the violence. In taking this new approach, the refuges provided leadership in challenging views that women should tolerate violence within their relationships (Murray; Theobald).

The earliest of these Australian feminist refuges, known as Elsie, was established in Sydney in March 1974 by Anne Summers (Heywood,, Bessie Guthrie (Bellamy,, Jennifer Dakers and others (Summers). These women were inspired by the work of Erin Pizzey and her co-activists in London, who had established Chiswick Women's Aid in 1971. Pizzey's book, Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear, published in 1974, was to bring international attention to their work. Initially, Elsie's founders had thought those most likely to come to their service would be homeless women-quickly it was to become evident that the greatest need was for women who had a home but could not live there because of violence. Elsie was to be a model for many other refuges, with a dozen established over the next year across Australia, and more again over the following decade. These women's refuges that led the way included Nardine Women's (later Wimmin's) Refuge in Perth, Women's Liberation Halfway House in Melbourne, the North Adelaide Shelter, Hobart Women's Shelter, Dawn House in Darwin and a second refuge in Sydney, Marrickville Women's Refuge (Weeks and Oberin).

The leadership style of the women who founded and ran these earliest feminist refuges was typically egalitarian, with no designated leader or manager. The refuges ran on a collective basis with consensus decision-making. Not uncommonly, residents of the refuges, as well as the workers, were engaged in these processes. This approach was seen by the women involved to be consistent with their responses to domestic violence. From a radical feminist stance, violence against women and children was considered to be an abuse of power and a form of control. Engaging workers (and residents) in the decision-making of the service was a way of equalising the relationships. Funding for salaries- and the refuges were typically under-resourced- was shared among workers in some of the refuges, again reflecting their egalitarian approach. In effect, many women worked virtually as volunteers in these services. These approaches were not unproblematic and, inevitably, in many settings, some women dominated organisations and became de facto leaders. Despite this, there was considerable commitment to making the collective decision-making process work (over several decades in some instances). While not all the new refuges of the early period of the women's refuge movement operated in these ways, egalitarian approaches were normalised across the sector, despite often less than enthusiastic responses from government bodies from which refuges received their funding (Murray; Weeks).

Around the same time as these earliest feminist refuges emerged, other specialist refuges were also being established. While they did not necessarily consider themselves feminist, they were a part of the growing movement that was challenging violence against women in the home. These specialist services questioned the notion promoted by the women's movement and the feminist refuges of an all-embracing sisterhood. Instead, these services provided assistance to specific groups of women, including Aboriginal women, were sensitive to their particular needs and circumstances, and took into account different understandings of the causes of, and responses to, domestic (or family) violence. They were also developed in response to concerns about racism experienced by some refuge residents.

In the early 1970s in Melbourne, Elizabeth Hoffman (Kovacic,, Joyce Johnson and other Aboriginal women had taken women and children escaping family violence into their own homes. They were to investigate what would best suit the needs of their community and, in 1979, established the first Aboriginal women's refuge in Australia- to be named Elizabeth Hoffman House. Other services that specifically work with Aboriginal women include the Darwin Aboriginal and Islander Women's Shelter (DAIWS) and Cawarra Women's Refuge in Sydney.

For reasons similar to those of Aboriginal women, migrant women also did not necessarily fare well in the newly developing feminist refuges, and again there is evidence of leadership to meet the specific needs of these diverse groups of women. In 1975, the first refuge targeting migrant women was established in Australia. Comitato Assistenza Italiani (or Italian Association of Assistance and known as Co-As-It) auspiced Co-As-It Women's Refuge in Melbourne, initially for women of Italian cultural background, later women of all migrant backgrounds (and more recently of any cultural background, and now renamed Kara House) (Murdolo). Other approaches to working with women of migrant backgrounds developed over the following years, including an outreach model that drew on a pool of support workers from a wide range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds such as what has become the Multicultural Women's Advocacy Service in Western Australia and the InTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence in Victoria.

By the 1980s, the political activities of the women's refuge movement were beginning to jolt state governments into action, refuge workers having found sympathetic responses from feminists and others in the bureaucracy. Across this decade, all Australian governments undertook taskforces or other forms of major inquiry into domestic violence (Murray; Ramsay). Representatives of the refuge movement sat on these taskforces and were able to contribute crucially important information about the lived experiences of women and their children who had fled their homes because of domestic violence. They also had first-hand knowledge of the failings of the service system. The input of other feminists, such as Jocelynne Scutt (Francis, in Victoria and Helen L'Orange (Heywood, and Eva Cox (Francis, in New South Wales, were crucial to these inquiries. Their leadership in contributing to the establishment of these taskforces, as well as their participation in them, paved the way for changes to occur over the next two decades, including, for example, in the law and policing. Importantly, these taskforces were also to establish in government policy, and to begin to do so within the wider community, the understanding that domestic violence was gendered- that it was overwhelmingly violence by men against their female intimate partner. This was a major turning point in domestic violence public policy and the work of the women's refuge movement had led this development.

By the 1990s, new models of service were developing in the domestic violence movement, and others were being drawn into the movement. Until this time, the typical refuge was a large suburban house that operated as a shared residence for women and children. Although the original intention was that women with similar experiences would support each other, and workers would be there to guide and assist as needed, living with others during the crisis of domestic violence was not always easy. Some services decided women's independence was preferable to co-habitation and developed alternative models that comprised separate living units, either on-site or dispersed within a locality. Another change during this time was much closer work with other parties involved in responding to domestic violence such as police and welfare agencies. Until changes began to occur in policies and practice, refuge workers had found it difficult to work in partnership with others in the field owing to different understandings of domestic violence and how to respond to it (Murray; Theobald).

In Perth, in the 1990s, the Pat Giles Refuge, under the long-term leadership of Kedy Kristal, not only initiated alternative residential arrangements, it also pioneered a collaboration between the refuge and the local court to facilitate improvements in the use of protection orders. Since then, a range of other programs has been developed, including one that provides temporary accommodation to the pets of women and children who escape their home as a result of domestic violence and whose safety would be at risk if they remained, and another that involves coordination of the case management of women across the array of agencies involved with them. Leadership has come from women's refuges and activists in other locations, working across disparate organisations to produce integrated responses to women experiencing domestic violence; notable among these responses is the work of Arina Aoina elsewhere in Perth, Betty Taylor on the Gold Coast in Queensland and Robyn Holder in Canberra (Murray and Powell).

A highly visible way that changes in relation to domestic violence have occurred has been through the leadership of the most senior level government and community officials. In her first days as the newly appointed chief commissioner of Victoria Police in 2001, Christine Nixon- the first woman to occupy such a position in Australia- announced that improving police responses to domestic violence was one of her highest priorities. She kept her word, earning her great respect among those working in the domestic violence services and the wider community. In her wake, other senior police were to make similar commitments across Australia.

As well as these service-oriented activities of what was now a movement that extended well beyond refuges, there were other initiatives that aimed to make further inroads into changing understandings of domestic violence across both the professional community and the general public. In Victoria, the Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Centre (now Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria (DVRCV, commenced in 1986, with founding members Vig Geddes and Margot Scott. A similar educational institution with a wider ambit was started in New South Wales- the Education Centre Against Violence (ECAV, under the leadership of Lesley Laing, later to be the founding director of the federal government-funded Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse (, and more recently a social work academic at the University of Sydney researching in the area of domestic violence. Other academics have also contributed strongly to the women's domestic violence movement and its leadership, including Wendy Weeks, a social work academic at the University of Melbourne (Gilmore,

Since the 1990s, domestic violence has remained on the policy agendas of Australian state, territory and federal governments, expressed through strategies or action plans that outline work to be done preventing and responding to domestic violence. Not uncommonly, this policy work was performed by those with substantial knowledge of the domestic violence field, having worked in refuges or other related services. In Queensland, Heather Nancarrow has a long history of work in direct service delivery, policy development, research and professional development. In 2000, Nancarrow was the founding director of the Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research ( at Central Queensland University in Mackay. This centre is one of the few in Australia whose primary focus is domestic violence, and it hosts the annual Indigenous Family Violence Prevention Forums.

Characteristic of the later decades of the movement against domestic violence has been a willingness to engage with governments- a significant shift from the earliest years. The women's refuges have had representative organisations at both state and national levels in most jurisdictions since the 1980s. Integral to the work of these organisations, especially in more recent years, has been providing input to government policy, as well as advocating for the clients of their member services and the workers in these services. In Western Australia, Angela Hartwig has been the long-standing executive officer of the Women's Council for Domestic and Family Violence Services ( formerly the WA Women's Refuge Group). The Women's Services Network (WESNET,, established in 1992, is the national women's peak advocacy body. In 2013, WESNET represents four hundred member organisations across Australia, including women's refuges, safe houses, and information and referral services. Julie Oberin, a long-term rural refuge worker and manager and chair of WESNET, is also chair of the federal government-funded Australian Women Against Violence Alliance, one of six National Women's Alliances established in March 2010 (

As well as input to policy, the grass-roots work of community education is a continuing feature of the movement against domestic violence. This occurs through a range of strategies, including taking to the streets to undertake protest actions. Domestic violence activists contribute to the annual 'Reclaim the Night' marches nation wide. More recently in some states, silent marches have been undertaken to commemorate the deaths of women and children through domestic homicide.

There have been significant shifts in the way that refuges operate. Collectively run organisations have been virtually outlawed by Australian state governments. Instead, increasing managerialism has resulted in shifts in governance of services to boards and committees of management with the employment of chief executive officers or other management positions. Hierarchies have replaced the flat organisational structures of earlier times. Service provision has changed from an emphasis on working with women to case management. While some express concern about the loss of these approaches, others argue that these changes have benefitted both the women and the workers (Theobald).

In the 21st century, the composition of the movement against domestic violence has changed. It now includes not just refuge workers but also policy makers, police, legal officers, practitioners from a range of other related services, community educators and academics. With this diversity, there is a highly dispersed leadership across these various sectors and organisations. Underpinning this movement is a commitment to feminist understandings of domestic violence, and a concern to enact leadership that is consistent with the purpose of the movement- to challenge violence and to empower those affected.

Published Resources


  • Cunneen, Chris and Stubbs, Julie, Gender, race and international relations : violence against Filipino women in Australia, Institute of Criminology Monograph Series, The University of Sydney: Faculty of Law: The Institute of Criminology, Sydney, New South Wales, 1997. Details
  • Lake, Marilyn, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, New South Wales, 1999. Details
  • Murray, Suellen, More than Refuge: Changing Responses to Domestic Violence, University of Western Australia (UWA) Publishing, Perth, Western Australia, 2002. Details
  • Murray, Suellen & Powell, Anastasia, Domestic Violence: Australian Public Policy, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011. Details
  • Pizzey, Erin, Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear, Penguin Books, Melbourne, Victoria, 1974. Details
  • Summers, Anne, Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945-1976, Viking, Melbourne, Victoria, 1999. Details
  • Swain, Shurlee, Born in hope : the early years of the Family Court of Australia, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 2012. Details
  • Weeks, Wendy, Women Working Together: Lessons from Feminist Women's Services, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, Victoria, 1994. Details
  • Weeks, Wendy and Oberin, Julie, Women's Refuges, Shelters, Outreach and Support Services: From Sydney Squat to Complex Services Challenging Domestic and Family Violence, Office for Women, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2004. Details

Book Sections

  • Theobald, Jacqui, '"Passion around Violence against Women": Billi Clarke and the Victorian Domestic Violence Services Movement', in Davis, Fiona, Musgrove, Nell and Smart, Judith (eds), Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-Century Australia, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, pp. 248-260. Details

Newspaper Articles


  • Evatt, Elizabeth Andreas; Arnott, Felix; and Deveson, Anne, Royal Commission on Human Relationships, Comprises of five volumes., Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 21 November 1977. Details
  • Pence, Ellen (Dr.); Mitchell, Sherrilee; and Aoina, Arina, Western Australian Safety and Accountability Audit of the Armadale Domestic Violence Intervention Project, Family and Domestic Violence Unit and the Armadale Domestic Violence Intervention Project., Government of Western Australia: Department of Communities, July 2007. Details



  • Murdolo, Adele, 'Contesting Feminist Spaces: Immigrant and Refugee Women Write History', PhD thesis, The University of Melbourne, 1999. Details
  • Ramsay, Janet, 'The Making of Domestic Violence Policy by the Australian Commonwealth Government and the Government of the State of New South Wales between 1970 and 1985: An Analytical Narrative of Feminist Policy Activism', PhD thesis, The University of Sydney, 2004. Details
  • Theobald, Jacqualine, 'A History of the Victorian Domestic Violence Services Movement, 1974-2005', PhD thesis, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, 2011. Details

Online Resources