The Women’s Project took a layered approach to resisting forms of power and control enacted by a patriarchal society. They tackled oppressive violence by supporting women to realize and use their power in their homes and communities.
When the term “battered women” reached Northwest Arkansas in the 1970s, a small group decided to start supporting women facing violence. Suzanne Pharr, who would later found the Women’s Project, was among them.
The early battered women’s movement was scrappy and explicitly feminist. Organizers worked at the intersections of many issues affecting women: child care, health care, housing, employment, education, and women's general status in society. Shelters were sometimes staffed, but many were set up as volunteer collectives. Battered women often took on leadership roles in these spaces, and everyone involved saw themselves as collectively impacted by the violence. Shelters rarely existed in rural areas.
While supporting the growth of shelters and other mutual aid projects across Arkansas, Pharr was deeply influenced by Black feminists who were forging pathways and language to address intersecting oppressions. One such source was the Combahee River Collective—formed in 1973 by a group of Black feminists in response to their experiences with oppression in the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1970s. They outlined their philosophy for action in a groundbreaking statement:
“We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.”
Combahee River Collective Statement, April 1977
What we now call “intersectional political analysis” helped Pharr make connections between the realities she was seeing on the ground in rural Arkansas, particularly increases in domestic violence, child abuse, racist and homophobic violence, and economic injustice.
Soon after his election as U.S. President in 1980, Ronald Reagan fulfilled his campaign promises by making sharp cuts to programs like food stamps, welfare, and child care. The squeeze sent many working-class people and their movements into survival mode. Reagan justified the cuts using the “welfare queen” trope and other racist and victim-blaming rhetoric.
In the face of these compounding crises, Pharr decided to build on her experiences and seek support from others with relationships and resources across the state. She wanted to organize a project challenging the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, and capitalism.
“I got a lot of calls from people who wanted to set up something in their community to help women. But they didn’t know how to do it. They had the ideas and the caring but didn’t have the skills to implement them.”
Suzanne Pharr, “Grant enables feminist to organize state’s women,” 1981
Pharr started offering training and support to women in rural areas and small towns so they could build their own organizations. The first year was funded in large part by a federal grant that allowed Pharr to bring on five Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) workers as community organizers in Fort Smith, Dermott, Camden, Forrest City, and Batesville. But in 1981, the Reagan administration slashed the VISTA program’s funding and banned remaining volunteers from participating in community organizing or anything else perceived as political. The policy gutted the fledgling project alongside other organizations across the U.S.
Pharr kept organizing for the next few years without VISTA volunteers. Kerry Lobel moved to Arkansas from California in 1984 and helped Pharr incorporate the Women’s Project as an independent nonprofit in 1985. They established a board of directors and brought on more staff.
After operating out of Pharr’s dining room in Little Rock for a few years, the Women’s Project bought an old Victorian house at 2224 Main Street. With an extensive library and inviting front porch, the office quickly became a safe haven and center of intense organizing activity.
As the Women’s Project grew, staff members Janet Perkins and Damita Jo Marks traveled across Arkansas to build relationships and hold meetings around a range of issues. Board members like Betty Overton also took a hands-on role.
Conversation about child abuse was new across the U.S. in the early 1980s. The Women’s Project organized “good touch, bad touch” workshops across rural Arkansas. They were a novel intervention, especially in conservative Christian communities where abuse of children, like violence against women, often was not discussed.
Women’s Project staff Suzanne Pharr and Kerry Lobel were among a number of self-identified lesbians across the U.S. who were central to the growing battered women’s movement. As they helped build a movement to stop violence against women and children, they recognized that a significant source of violence was coming from other women. They called it lesbian battering.
In the rapidly professionalizing battered women’s movement, white and straight leaders were consolidating power. Others decided to intervene.
Not only did lesbians experience homophobia within the battered women’s movement, they also often faced doubt and denial about battering from other lesbians. Recognizing a need, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) Lesbian Task Force decided to tackle lesbian battering in a more public way with a statement. The Task Force also started work on Naming the Violence: Speaking Out About Lesbian Battering, the 1993 book that Lobel edited.
Back in Arkansas, Women’s Project volunteers Amy Edgington and Lynn Frost used their personal experience with lesbian battering to offer support to other survivors and to create a space for tough conversation about the politics of domination.
“At the end of August in 1981, I found myself in a small town in Arkansas, where I knew no Lesbians other than my new lover, Lynn. I wanted it that way. We were living in hiding from my armed and vengeful ex-lover who had abused me for four years and had threatened both of us with deadly harm… I knew I had been battered, but I did not understand how deeply I had been injured.”
Amy Edgington, “Gaining Ground” in Garden Variety Dykes: Lesbian Traditions in Gardening
Lobel and others encouraged them to start hosting battered lesbian support groups, and Edgington started writing about her experience.
In 1988, the Women’s Project invited survivors of lesbian battering from across the country to meet in Little Rock to talk about addressing the issue.
In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act as part of the infamous Crime Bill (Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act). The law followed a trend within the national battered women’s movement toward a social services and punishment model, revolving around foster care, policing, and prisons. It signaled the power of the movement but also cemented its professionalization as federal money flooded into battered women’s shelters.
Through writing and speeches, the Women’s Project spread an analysis of the ways the battered women’s movement had succumbed to these pressures. They saw volunteer-run shelters moving away from their grassroots beginnings and professionalizing by hiring social workers and other credentialed employees. Increased staffing then meant increased budgets, which led organizations to seek material support from churches, homeless shelters, YWCAs, and other institutions that had often helped foster the dynamics of power and control that fed into the violence. As they further institutionalized, the organizations sought credibility from mainstream power holders by forming non-profit boards with men on them and moving toward language of individual harm and healing rather than systems of patriarchal oppression and control.
The Women’s Project consistently held out a different framework.
“We came of age at a time where there was a conflict between people who are looking at problems as an individual issue, and people who looked at them as a product of women's status, people of color’s status, classism, racism, homophobia. So trying to explain to people, like, it's not your fault—you have some choices, but here's a system. Understand yourself in a systems way.”
Kerry Lobel, 2019 Oral History
The Women’s Project took on political education around abuse and battering because they saw it as possible and necessary to change cultural patterns of harm. They broadened understandings of violence against women as politicized hate violence intended to intimidate and control women as a whole and keep them from achieving liberation.