“I guess you can say I was at the right place at the right time,” Bernice Belair Sisson said, recalling how she started her work as an advocate for battered women in the early 1970’s. No laws had been created yet to address the issues of domestic abuse and almost no one was talking about violence against women.
In St. Paul, MN, where she was living, she was part of a loose collective of women who, with a grant from a local attorney, had started a hotline offering support, legal advice and information about women’s rights and divorce when it became clear they were facing a horrible reality. The women they were talking to were victims of domestic violence and needed a safe place to go. Two years later, in 1974, that crisis hotline evolved into the nation’s first women’s shelter, Women’s Advocates, Inc.
Bernice, who came to Grailville in 1944, was one of the co-founders. She has been working with victims of domestic abuse ever since.
She stayed with the shelter as a volunteer until the late 1980’s when she was asked to create a support program for women leaving the shelters, through the St. Paul Intervention Project and the Community Advocacy Programs. Always aware of the struggles a woman might be facing as a victim of domestic violence, she created programs for daytime and nighttime, making them accessible for young women and mothers to attend when they could.
In the late 1990’s, Bernice observed a different and growing trend: elderly women were attending support group meetings. These were not young women with young children; these were women married for 40 years, with grandchildren. She realized that there was an age group affected by domestic abuse that no one had ever thought about before.
But reaching this age group would be different. There needed to be something to draw these women together, that didn’t scream “attend a support group for battered women!”
The guilt and shame is multiplied significantly when women have experienced domestic abuse for 30 years or more. It is just one of those topics women didn’t discuss. Especially those married in the 1950’s or 1960’s.
A quilters group was created. It was a lot easier for women to converge over making a quilt instead of discussing their abuse. Bernice said not all the meetings centered around discussion of domestic abuse and violence; they included positive things like creating a quilt. In addition, she said, creating something of beauty creates beauty in your personal life. This was a project that created positive self-images and confidence among the group and many women came to work on that quilt for years.
Bernice also created two support groups that met twice a month on alternating weeks in different areas of St. Paul. She made a point to schedule these meetings in the afternoon, since “older women usually do not like to drive at night.” If they took the bus to their sessions, they were reimbursed for the bus fare. It was important that there be nothing to keep them from coming.
“The Grail has been an inspiration and the base for my whole outlook on life,” Bernice said. “It gave me my start in the life-long work for women and girls.”
Bernice left Grailville in 1946, and went on to the headquarters of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Des Moines, IA with Mary Jane Brady. At the NCRLC, she and Mary Jane planned and organized two national conferences and published the periodical, Land and Home. In 1948, Bernice came back to Grailville to marry her beloved husband, John. She now lives with her youngest son and his family in the St. Paul home she shared with her husband until his death in 2005.
Bernice’s work with battered women grew into a movement that eventually gave a name to a silent epidemic, created much-needed legislation and empowered not only the champions of the abused but empowered the victims, giving them a voice.