After more than 30 years of working with various women’s agencies in Toronto, lesbian activist Darlene Lawson knows that after every victory there’s always another battle on the horizon.
“That’s an interesting thing about social change,” says Lawson. “You only know where you are. You can try to anticipate where you’re going, but in the successes new challenges make themselves evident.”
Lawson, 57, was recently awarded YWCA’s Woman Of Distinction award for social justice in recognition of her commitment to fighting gender inequality, homophobia and heterosexism, especially as they relate to women facing violence.
In the early 1970s Lawson found her way into the feminist movement — largely through Women’s Place, a centre for budding feminists located at Dupont and Avenue Rd — and came out as a lesbian. She was studying at the University Of Toronto at the time, where she saw a notice up on a campus bulletin board from a woman named Lynn Zimmer. Zimmer was looking for others interested in starting a shelter for women and children fleeing abuse. Lawson responded and became a member of the founding collective of Interval House — the first shelter of its kind in Canada.
“I don’t think we really understood ourselves what we were getting into at that point in time,” says Lawson. “There wasn’t a lot of public discourse about violence against women. When we started trying to find funding, people asked if this was really a problem.”
Lawson says that having women come together in one space to discuss their experiences of violence made her realize the many layers of the problem including domestic violence, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, ritual abuse and, globally, honour killings, female genital mutilation and rape as a conscious war tactic.
“It’s always been when we have created opportunities for women to be together and talk together that the layers of experiences of violence begin to get peeled away,” she says.
Lawson was also instrumental in the closure of the Kingston Women’s Prison in 1991. At the time it was the only federal prison for female inmates, housing women from all across the country who were serving sentences of two years or more. Many of these women were hundreds or thousands of miles away from their families, friends and existing support systems.
“This just didn’t seem right when there were regional centres for men across the country, although their numbers were much higher,” says Lawson.
Together with the Elizabeth Fry Society, Lawson lobbied the federal government to shut the prison down and build five regional centres throughout the country.
“Of course, one can never anticipate the impact of things until they completely happen,” says Lawson. “Women are now closer to home, but there are certain disadvantages to this setup, one being that the Elizabeth Fry Society had to ensure programming and ethical treatment was equal in all the centres.”
The idea that social change is ongoing is what Lawson says has kept her going for the past 30 years. She says her success has been due to her ever-evolving set of approaches, programs and practices.
“It’s been this absolutely organic and fluid step-by-step opportunity in different places,” says Lawson. “I have just done who I am, and in the doing have become who I am.”
Currently Lawson is the executive director at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a centre that provides counselling, legal and interpretation services for women in violent situations. The clinic opened its doors in 1985, five years after the murder of young lawyer Barbra Schlifer. The clinic provides services for 3,600 women every year.
Looking back on her early experiences, Lawson says that bringing the issue of violence against women to light in the ’70s wasn’t the cure-all activists expected it would be at the time.
“I think we thought that if the issue alone was exposed, it would be a short and direct line to eradication,” says Lawson.
Lawson stresses that her work at the Schlifer clinic is only one part of the what needs to be done; that providing shelters and other centres for women does not change the social fabric that allows abuse to occur in the first place.
“All the laws and the changes in law and the opportunity in the world don’t change homophobia,” says Lawson. “All the services, programs and equity things that are built for women don’t change the fundamental roots in our society of the way women are discriminated against. Let’s not make the mistake that because we’ve got a shelter movement now, that that is the answer. We cannot confuse progress with success or a solution.”