Ex-editor explores history of protecting ‘runaway wives’

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It was as Margo Goodhand was contemplating leaving her position as the first female editor in the long and distinguished history of the Winnipeg Free Press that she decided to write a book.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/05/2017 (1925 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was as Margo Goodhand was contemplating leaving her position as the first female editor in the long and distinguished history of the Winnipeg Free Press that she decided to write a book.

No, not about the Free Press.

About battered women.

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press Files Former Winnipeg Free Press Editor, Margo Goodhand.

Or, more precisely, a history of the women who first collectively gave those women on the run shelter from the abuse. Along her research way, Margo would even come across a “scoop,” which is old newspaper-speak for what’s more commonly known as an “exclusive.”

But it is the fateful way Margo came to write the book — and chose the topic — where the story behind the story should begin.

In her own words.

“I had a very big job at the Free Press. And I loved my job. Absolutely loved my job.”

She was telling me that over the phone from her winter home in Victoria, as if she was speaking with someone who didn’t already know that.

And then she said something I didn’t know.

“But I always wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to write a book.”

All it took to get her started was the thought that her grandmother was 80 when she finally wrote a book about Riding Mountain National Park. That and a little direction from her oldest sister, Joyce Goodhand, who was visiting Winnipeg. It was the late summer of 2012, when the idea for the book materialized like a message they were both supposed to get and share.

“We were just talking… fantasizing. ‘What would you do if all the obstacles were gone? If you didn’t have to worry about the paycheque and you didn’t have to worry about your kids and your husband? What would you want to do with the rest of your life?’ And it was one of those moments.”

Which is how Margo told Joyce about always wanting to write a book.

“And then we started brainstorming. What would you write about? I wanted it to be about women. And I wanted it to be a good story about women. An inspiring story about women because I don’t think women write history books. Most of them are written by men writing about men.”

And then her sister had a suggestion.

Joyce had worked with women’s shelters for 15 years, including with the national umbrella organization in Ottawa.

“She ran a battered women’s shelter in Swift Current, Sask. And she used to talk to people and they didn’t know how these shelters came to be.”

Little wonder.

The women who opened them had been too under-resourced, overworked and overwhelmed looking after women and children in need to document their own history.

“I think that’s when I knew I was going to leave the Free Press. I thought this was a great project. It would really be fun to do. And I needed the time to do it. And I just thought, if not now, am I going to wait till I’m 80?”

Joyce decided it was a story that had to be told. So she quit her job, too. And that’s how the two sisters came to climb into Margo’s red Dodge Caravan and set out together to do what the pioneers in the shelter movement didn’t have time to do; and do it before time ran out for those women, most of whom were in their 60s and 70s by then.

What the two sisters soon discovered was something as fateful as the conversation that started their research.

The country’s first five women’s shelters started in the same year — 1973 — but independently, without knowing what the others were doing and how they were doing it.

That was the scoop that became the thread for the narrative and also what probably gave the project added propulsion. The first women’s shelter in Canada was in Toronto, and the rest — Langley, B.C., Calgary, Saskatoon and finally Vancouver — took root from seeds blown and scattered afar in the same kind of parched soil.

Why 1973?

Because, Margo discovered, it was money that then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau made available to various grassroots groups that allowed the women to open the first wave of women’s shelters.

I wondered how many of the founders they interviewed had been victims of domestic abuse themselves.

“That’s what’s so extraordinary,” Margo said. “Each group was so different.”

Saskatoon stood out, though, because four out of the five founders had experienced domestic abuse.

“They were the poorest, they all had kids, they were single moms. Two of them told horrific tales of years of abuse where they finally fled… and extraordinarily enough, in Saskatoon they had no troubles getting money and donations and support because they spoke honestly, and from the heart. The community just said there’s no places for these women to go, and we know we must help.”

So where did abused women go before women’s shelters were created?

“They’d go to a friend’s house,” Margo said. “They’d put up with it. They’d get killed sometimes. Or social services would put them up in some horrific hotel and they would end up going back home. There really wasn’t anywhere for them to go.”

Meeting and listening to the stories of women who had taken the personal and made it political was the privilege and the joy; but the bonus for Margo was spending so much time on the road with her sister, and getting to know Joyce in a way she might never have if it weren’t for their joint passion for the project. But then, when the road research ended, Joyce said she had to go and let her kid sister do the writing.

It would take Margo five years — a period interrupted by a 2½-year stint as editor-in-chief of the Edmonton Journal — before she completed the manuscript and handed it over to Winnipeg’s Fernwood Publishing. The book is titled Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists: The Origins of the Women’s Shelter Movement in Canada and is due in bookstores in September.

So, at least until the book tour begins, our runaway editor can take a deep breath and a much-deserved deep bow.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

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