unemployment was 4.9 percent; and Roe v. Wade, a landmark case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, made abortion a U.S. constitutional right.
In local headlines in 1973, St. Luke’s Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital merged to become Marquette General Hospital; plans were made to replace the Palestra Ice Rink with Lakeview Arena; a group of local women organized a conference at Northern Michigan University called “The Changing Role of Women in the 70s”. The outcome of that conference would impact the lives of more than 25,000 women and families positively in the next four decades.
The 1960s had been an era for women that would lead to inspiration in the 1970s. In 1963, a book, The Feminine Mystique, hit newsstands. It introduced “the problem that has no name”––the widespread unhappiness of women in the 1950s and early 1960s and was raising some troubling questions.
Girls had been expected to lead a very proscribed kind of life with the primary goal to get married, have children and stay at home. If they wanted a job, girls were counseled to be nurses, secretaries, teachers, office managers. Boys were counseled to be doctors, business owners/executives, school principals, mechanics, engineers and scientists.
Women were expected to keep the house clean at all times, take care of the children at all times, cook perfect meals, and be as beautiful as possible when their husbands returned home from work. Women could not be trusted to hold leadership positions because they were too emotional. Men were the heads of the household, made all the major decisions, and were the ones to go out into the world and work. The best place for a woman was at home. A man was not faulted if he had to use emotional or physical violence to keep his wife “in line,” because his home was his castle. Women who were sexually assaulted must have given the wrong signals, were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were “asking for it.”
Locally, women began to gather in homes for consciousness-raising meetings. For the first time, many realized they were willing to fight for the rights of all women and encourage each other to be all they could be.
Their inspiration was contagious. An outcome of “The Changing Role of Women in the 70s” conference was the establishment of a Women’s Center as a department in the Division of Continuing Education at NMU. The year was 1973. Holly Greer was the part-time director and June Easton served as a part-time counselor. An immediate focus was career advisement, to help women achieve nontraditional high paying jobs.
The Women’s Center remained on NMU’s campus until 1980. During those years programs were
established with collaborative and community partnerships that included the Joan Curto Halfway House for Chemically Dependent Women, the Spouse Abuse Task Force, the Spouse Abuse Shelter, and the sexual assault response volunteer team. Before there was a physical Spouse Abuse
Shelter, women in the community took domestic violence victims and their children into their own homes. It was this task force that led the charge to get a shelter. Before the Sexual Assault Response Team was established, there were no advocates to help victims through the hospital and legal system. There was no rape evidence kit used at the hospital for use later in court.
The 1980s saw a move from NMU to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Guild Hall and the welcoming of Sally May as executive director. The focus broadened to a community based center and nonprofit status was obtained. Programming expanded to include school-age “How To Say No to Sex” prevention and education offered by trained peer leaders, self-defense training and continued career advisement. Women’s Center Counselor Barbara Belew established support programs for child survivors of sexual assault and incest.
In 1986, the current administrative building was purchased on Front Street in Marquette.
Significant support was provided by State Representative Dominic Jacobetti and the Marquette Labor Council. A weekly on-site bingo game generated financial support.
The 1990s welcomed Suzanne Kensington as executive director. A notable achievement was national recognition for refusing to turn over a rape survivor’s file that was subpoenaed. The refusal went all the way to the state Supreme Court. Advocacy and education services were expanded into Ishpeming and Munising.
The 2000s saw the transition of leadership to Gail Nelson. The Women’s Center Pak Ratz Resale Shop––a profit center within a non-profit organization––was relocated within the building. Each person from Harbor House receives a Pak Ratz voucher for clothing, shoes, and household goods. Pak Ratz accepts donations of clothing, accessories, household goods and furniture. The resale shop is open to the public and all proceeds support the Women’s Center and Harbor House programs and
services. Tremendous community response and support allowed Harbor House to relocate to 245 West Baraga Street.
In its fortieth year, the Marquette Women’s Center is the oldest continuously operating women’s center in Michigan. Today, with the leadership of director Phyllis Loonsfoot, this invaluable community asset continues to restore hopes and dreams.
Harbor House, a program of the Women’s Center, annually maintains sixteen beds, provides more than 4,000 shelter nights, and serves 165 women and seventy-five children. It also serves male victims of domestic or sexual violence. The average shelter stay is thirty to forty-five days at an average cost of $2,500.00 per person. Harbor House is at capacity nearly 100 percent of the time. Since 2004, shelter nights have increased by sixty-eight percent.
For some, making the call is the first step in preventing the next crisis. Women’s Center staff provide safety plans for those seeking guidance on how to flee a domestic or sexual violence situation. This can include specific protections on when and how to leave as well as items that are important to bring.
“Coming to Harbor House was the decision that saved my life” is a familiar statement made by those the center helps. Harbor House is always open, always staffed and always ready to help the women, men and children who need safety and access to services.
Emergency assistance from the Women’s Center and Harbor House staff and trained volunteers is provided to domestic and sexual violence survivors at any location where help is sought, such as hospitals, law enforcement agencies and physicians’ offices. The first door that may be opened is the emergency department. The second door is Harbor House.
Services extend beyond the physical shelter. Outreach advocacy and education services are provided each year to 3,000 survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and more than 5,600 crisis hotline calls are received from nonshelter residents impacted by stalking, domestic, sexual and dating violence.
Advocacy programs and services help domestic violence victims start their lives over. Advocates assist with referrals to legal assistance for child custody and criminal issues, transportation, food, clothing and household supplies. Counseling services and programs for children and parents help with healing and building new skills. All services are confidential and provided without charge.
Sustaining the growing financial needs of the Women’s Center and Harbor House is testimony to the statement “It takes a village…”
Limited financial support is provided through local, state and federal grants and is highly vulnerable to the greater state of the overall economy. Partial revenue is generated from building space rental and resale shop sales. Community and individual donations play a critical role in assuring Women’s Center and Harbor House services are accessible to all seeking support and assistance. Special community events sponsored by clubs and student organizations generate proceeds to benefit the Women’s Center and Harbor House. The annual premiere fundraising event hosted by the board of directors and others is the Evening of Elegance Dinner to be held on October 26.
All nonprofit organizations go through difficult times and the Women’s Center is no exception. Throughout its forty years challenges have been met and progress made to strengthen the foundation of the Women’s Center and Harbor House. Today, the commitment to its mission remains strong and the need for services is greater than ever.
Women’s Center board members, together with the strength of community partners, and exceptional staff are looking to the future with optimism and enthusiasm. The answer to those who call remains, “We will take care of you and you will be safe.”
––Leslie Bek, from the Marquette Monthly, Sept 2013