Feminist pioneer Lee Lakeman reflects on four decades at the front lines of male violence
One of Canada’s most dedicated feminist pioneers will be honoured by her peers at an event in Vancouver on Saturday (June 21). Lee Lakeman, a former staff member at Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter, will be recognized by the advocacy group for her life-long dedication to promoting safety for abused women and social-justice issues.
“I was honoured by UBC with a Doctor of Laws [in 2013] and I was very aware in that circumstance that law reform is a very limited part of my work,” Lakeman told the Georgia Straight during an interview in East Vancouver. “In this case, it feels more like being praised by the home team, which matters more.”
Lakeman began helping battered women in the early 1970s, converting her Ontario home into a transition house for abused women and their children. She eventually secured financing from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation for the Woodstock Women’s Emergency Centre, paving the way for other transition houses to get funding. In 1978, Lakeman moved to Vancouver and began working for the then-five-year-old Rape Relief.
“It’s an incredible privilege to work for the liberty of other people, for the liberty of yourself and other people, and anyone who gets the opportunity should take it,” she said
Over 35 years, Lakeman handled thousands of calls from women resisting male violence. She was instrumental in helping Rape Relief open a transition house in 1981. She also encouraged the collective to form alliances with other feminist groups, including the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network and Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution.
“For me, the importance of being in a group, learning political discipline, having democracy within the group, and honouring class and race divisions are critically important,” Lakeman explained. “There’s no doubt at all that many things have gotten better, but I think we’re in a period of threat and backlash. I think more women can have a job, but more women have to have a job. I think more women can leave a dangerous marriage, but there’s also a very grim danger as you’re leaving a threatening marriage. I think more women get abandoned too than ever before. The things that were won from the period of the 1950s to the 1980s are being withdrawn, and I think those who are withdrawing them are very good at it.”
To that extent, Lakeman has chosen to devote a portion of the Rape Relief event to discuss issues that she sees as being most critical to women living in Canada. These include women living in poverty, the status of migrant workers, the Conservative government’s prostitution legislation, missing and murdered women, pipelines and the environment, the safety of women on school campuses, and spousal abuse.
“Obviously, the murder of wives has been my work since 1973, but we are in a present and urgent crisis in B.C., and I believe it’s escalating—not just the violence but the lackadaisical approach to that violence on the part of the government and many professionals,” Lakeman said. “It’s a serious issue right now. I’m sick of the ‘Where is the pea in the shell?’ game. I don’t care if it’s the prosecutors or the police. I care that women are dying.”
Although Lakeman retired from Rape Relief in 2013, her work as a women’s equality activist is not finished. She said that there is still a lot of work to be done on behalf of women in Canada, and believes that young people across North America are becoming increasingly angry and resistant about the status quo.
“I think we’re in that kind of a moment now where the outrage at the security forces and the hopefulness of women talking to each other and the desperation of some peoples are mixing in a way that’s potentially explosive,” Lakeman explained. “We’ve watched Occupy, which embodied a lot of the ‘You’ve got to live the politics’ mentality, which came from feminism. We’ve watched the fights over immigration law, which are inclusive in the global understanding of liberty. We’ve watched the fury of young women on campuses, or the mansplaining discussions, or the ‘Yes but all women’ discussions. It’s spectacular and very, very hopeful to me.”