Helen Aarli: 2nd Wave Feminist and Pioneer of Chicago Anti-Rape Movement

3 Aug

Saturday night I had the pleasure of meeting and having dinner with 85-year-old Helen Aarli, a pioneer in the anti-rape movement circa 1970 and a true inspiration!

Helen Aarli (Photo from )

Helen invited my girlfriend Amy and me to her apartment to talk about feminism. When we arrived, she hugged us warmly and welcomed us in to her home. Our refreshing summer meal consisted of tuna salad, quinoa, tossed salad and spicy corn bread. “I subscribe to Cooking Light,” Helen told us, “And I try to make a new recipe each week. I play games with myself like that.” Helen has more energy than many adults half her age, which I’m guessing has something to do with her extreme positivity and zest for life. Although long retired, she keeps busy with projects like hosting and producing a show on public television called “Senior Beat”, engaging in political activism, and learning all she can about topics that interest her. (Her current curiosity is memory and Alzheimer’s.)

Helen co-hosting Senior Beat with guest Tammy Baldwin!

Helen, who has two masters degrees and was an inter-generational communication program director, kicked off discussion with questions about the . (The Third Wave refers to the current generation of feminists. The refers to the feminists behind the “Women’s Liberation” movement which we think of as happening mainly from the late 60′s through the early 70′s. Activists from the Second Wave helped pass (1973), protecting a woman’s right to make decisions about her own reproductive health, as well as which protects women’s rights in education. They also pioneered the , making important institutional changes, teaching the first women’s self-defense courses and coining the phrase “No means no.”) I told Helen that my generation was born out of the 80′s in which there was a severe backlash against feminism that is still felt today, so many young women hesitate to even identify themselves as feminists. Recently, what many are calling the “War on Women” has energized young activists.

Rally supporting Planned Parenthood

I was surprised that Helen had not yet heard of Slutwalks, and I was excited to tell her the story. When I reached the punch line– that thousands of women have taken to the streets in protest of victim-blaming and slut-shaming, some scantily clad and almost all holding clever signs, in Slutwalks all over the world– she laughed and laughed! Her eyes sparkled and she exclaimed, “Oh! To throw it in their faces!” Her demeanor suggested that she thought the whole thing to be cute, fun, and perfectly appropriate for the issue at hand. She immediately connected the concept to when she first heard her gay friends starting to reclaim the word “queer”, which one could easily argue was as strongly associated with violence as the word “slut”. She remembered being shocked also by the use of the upside-down pink triangle to show safe spaces for LGBT people,

Do we remember today where this triangle came from?

because as a Jewish woman, she of course knew that it was to identify homosexuals for persecution. As someone who has been educated to conclude that we can’t reclaim hateful words, I was secretly embarrassed to be reminded that “queer”, a term I use freely to describe myself as a bisexual woman and to generalize about the LGBT community when my tongue tires of acronyms, was and still is used as a homophobic slur. As someone who always thinks she is right, I started to think I should hang out with much older people much more often.

Helen asked what my issue was, and I told her it was sexual assault prevention. She asked about how things were going in that field and I told her I didn’t think all that much had changed. Her face darkened and she said, “I’m very disappointed to hear that.” I asked her what her issue was. “It was the Anti-Rape Movement.” I was immediately struck both with a deep sense of humility and a feeling that I had just put my foot in my mouth. Oops.

My girlfriend brought this magnet as a gift for Helen but of course she already had one from her daughter on her fridge!

Helen told the story of her participation in the movement in Chicago, from when she lead consciousness-raising groups for self-defined “older women” (she was in her early 40′s at the time) to when she saw a passionate anti-rape speaker smash a misogynist record over her knee on stage and felt she had found her issue. Together with a group of other activist housewives, they hit the ground running. She and her sisters used space in a church to staff a rape crisis line. Two women always worked together, and in the snowy winters they would wait to make sure that both of their cars would start before leaving, in order not to leave the other woman stranded alone at night.

Helen's favorite 2nd Wave poster by her friend Estelle Carol of the Chicago Women's Graphics Collective which distributed thousands of feminist posters world-wide.

They decided that the institutions that needed to change were 1) the hospitals, 2) the police and 3) the courts. One Chicago hospital refused even to admit rape victims. Helen let the hospital’s name slip to the press and they changed their policy the next day. The activists (who were viewed by professionals as “just housewives”) took it upon themselves to go into the hospitals and train staff on compassionate care, insisting that a woman be present in the room rather than having only a male doctor who launched into an internal exam on a traumatized patient. They also trained hospital staff in collecting physical evidence to be used in trials.

I told Helen about the program used in Wisconsin hospitals as well as many other states and she was pleased to hear what a long way care for rape victims has come.

The Chicago Police were the toughest and scariest crowd she had to address. She told us of the first time that they went to the sexual assault department and she saw that over the department sign they had hung a gigantic pair of pink ladies’ bloomers. Tears came to her eyes as she recounted the memory. “It was a big joke to them,” she said. When they returned with an undercover investigative reporter, they had taken the panties down. She described the police as extremely insensitive to the issue. Once she came in with a victim as an advocate (although the police assumed she was “just the mother”) and the officer said, “If you’ve been raped, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.” She asked the police, “Isn’t it true that you have a manual that instructs police, when dealing with a rape victim, to first question whether the rape actually occurred?” The officer replied, “There is no such manual.” As she was leaving, someone who worked behind the scenes pulled Helen aside and said, “That manual he just said doesn’t exist? Here is a copy.” The next time she brought it up in front of the press and the police denied the manual’s existence, she pulled it out. “Oh, they did not like me very much,” she said seriously. “I was afraid of them.” A friend of hers had warned her that the police would probably see it as a big joke to rape the women who came in to the station as advocates.

Although I think the police still have some ways to go, I was happy to tell her about who works closely with the and trains law enforcement on how to sensitively interview victims and follow up with investigation of the perpetrators (rather than the victims).

When dealing with the legal system, Helen and her fellow feminists attempted to train lawyers in how to address rape cases with sensitivity. When speaking with one lawyer, she said, “He asked, ‘Are you a lawyer?’ and I said ‘No.’ I thought he was going to hit me! Who was I, a woman, who was not even a lawyer, to tell him how to do his job?” She remembered in one case, an African-American woman named Paulette who “had dared to go into a bar alone to dance and have fun” was gang-raped by several men in the bar. When the case was brought to court, the judge said, “Boys will be boys.” Helen stood up, shocked, from her seat and was immediately surrounded by security who instructed her to sit down or be removed from the courtroom. Helen told this story to TV host Lee Philips who was inspired to make the film The Rape of Paulette.

Helen and the film Paulette's story inspired are featured in this book

Another time, a group of 7 African-American women told Helen they wanted to speak with her. She went to meet with them and, one by one, they each recounted their experiences of rape. (Trigger warning) They told her that one of the women wasn’t there to tell her story herself. She was at a bus stop holding her baby, and the attacker raped her at knife point in front of her baby and then slit her throat, leaving her for dead. Fearing for her life, she fled with her baby. One of the women could not bear to tell her husband what had happened to her, but she walked her daughter to school every day afterwards. They were all brought together by something they had in common: they were all raped by the same man. They knew his identity, but he kept getting off on mistaken identity when he was brought to court. There was a law that did not allow multiple charges to be brought against the same person and Helen asked the courts, “Can’t you get creative and find a way around that?” She shook her head, “They did not like me for saying that!”

Helen and her group called themselves Chicago Legal Action for Women, or CLAW. One woman suggested they should make their logo a big claw, but they decided to downplay it instead. “Like we didn’t know,” Helen laughed, “Like we were just innocent little housewives.” Together they wrote and printed a comprehensive handbook for lay advocates. “I don’t know,” Helen shrugged, “We just figured we were experts based on our experience on the ground. We just thought we could do it.” So they did.

Helen with CLAW Handbook! How cool is she??!

Helen showed me the materials she had saved from that time, including¬† business cards from the rape crisis line they staffed, the CLAW handbook and brochures, a 1971 “Stop Rape” handbook that included (of particular interest to me) an article called “Fighting Back” by Cate Stadelman, which included some of the earliest self-defense tips for women, and– I almost died when I saw this– the second printing of Our Bodies Our Selves by The Boston Women’s Health Collective. 35 cents. It was a thick pamphlet. I asked her, “Did they have any idea then how big these things would become?” Helen shook her head, smiling, “Oh I don’t think so.”

Second Wave Literature, probably printed with mimeograph (never seen one myself!)

Thinking back on my idiotic statement from earlier in the night that things had not changed, I told Helen, “You know, I think what happened is that the institutions changed, but the culture has not changed very much.” I cited statistics that show the majority of college-aged men (84%) who commit rape do not identify their actions as rape and the majority of college-aged women (88%) who are raped do not recognize themselves as victims. “Somehow,” I told her, “People still don’t get the most basic message of ‘No means no’.” She was very interested and surprised to hear that. I guess I’m surprised too.

*NOTE: Although I’ve written this based on Helen’s stories and experiences as an individual, she would not want to be viewed as a “one-woman wonder.” “We prided ourselves on being made up of collectives,” she said. “Part of second wave feminism was ‘shared leadership’ as opposed to the male model of the one person in charge and the rest somehow subordinate.” I hope my readers will recognize that sisterhood fueled feminist collective actions during the 2nd wave, and Helen was one of many who worked to create changes we benefit from today.

3 Responses to “Helen Aarli: 2nd Wave Feminist and Pioneer of Chicago Anti-Rape Movement”

  1. Swati August 3, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    amazing and inspiring post. she sounds like such an incredible wombyn and it’s so great to see where we/our movements started from!

  2. August 4, 2011 at 10:24 pm #

    Helen is a TRUE inspiration! Thank you for sharing this!

    Lucky Star
    Author,

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