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(May 24, 2001, Gazette)

A local ‘her’ story

Lynn HarteryPhoto by Chris Hammond

Lynn Hartery

By Alexander Dalziel
SPARK Correspondent

The Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Information Centre has been providing support to the victims of sexual assault since its establishment in 1977. Despite the fact that volunteers have made major contributions to the women’s movement, little study has been dedicated to their impact.

A Memorial graduate student is out to remedy that.

Lynn Hartery is researching and writing a master’s thesis in Women’s Studies entitled The St. John’s Rape Crisis Centre and the Women Who Made it Happen.

“I was a volunteer at the centre,” she noted as the origins of her research. “I was surprised to learn that how little was known about its history ... and that is when I started asking questions about previous volunteers.

“I decided when I started my master’s that it would be a good project: to interview women around St. John’s who were involved at the beginning of the centre and put together a history.”

Her research concentrates on the origins of the centre, then known as the St. John’s Rape Crisis Centre, in 1977, to 1990, when it changed its name. Established by women volunteers, over its history it evolved such services as a 24-hour crisis line to assist the victims of sexual assault. Besides the crisis line, it continues to actively inform the public of the seriousness of the problem of sexual assault through written materials and presentations to schools and other organizations.

However, selecting this topic presented some methodological problems. First, there was a difficulty with sources. “There were few documents and no history (about the centre),” Ms. Hartery mentioned. “Women who were around in 1977 had a lot of this information in their heads, but it had never been recorded.”

This meant that she had to rely on techniques for gathering oral history. Memorial has considerable strengths in this area because of its Department of Folklore. “My main research method was interviewing,” Ms. Hartery said. “We tend to consider documents as being more credible than people’s memories. People think that relying on memories will not produce ‘factual’ histories.”

She pointed out that, “people will remember what is relevant to them, and sometimes you will end up with conflicting information. I’m basically relying on people telling me a story.”

Because of this, Ms. Hartery dedicated part of her research to describing the memories of former volunteers. “Instead of me asking questions (during the interview) that would indicate to the participant what I thought was important, my questions were open-ended so that people would tell me what meant the most to them,” she commented.

“I think that a strength of Lynn’s work has been the time she has spent interviewing,” said Dr. Diane Tye of the Department of Folklore, one of Ms. Hartery’s supervisors. “She has spoken to women who were involved and recorded their memories, and that is a very important record.”

The second major challenge she faced was in traditional approaches to the writing of history. “For a lot of people, history is the story of great wars and great men,” Ms. Hartery said. “Sometimes women fit into that category, but that is not the kind of history that my research is trying to produce.”

Following the lead of thinkers like Joan Wallach Scott and Gerda Lerner, Ms. Hartery terms her work a “her” story, as opposed to the male-dominated “his”stories mentioned above. “Traditionally, women have come together and provided services that have not been provided by government,” Ms. Hartery argued, “but they are not given credit for the work they do, a lot of which is volunteering. These contributions should be documented as part of our history.”

Dr. Linda Kealey, Ms. Hartery’s supervisor from the Department of History, concurred. “This is a branch of local research in which almost nothing has been done,” she told the Gazette. “It fills an important gap in the history of the women’s movement; showing what women actually have done in the volunteer sector.”

“I want to make a part of mainstream history the ordinary women who do extraordinary things, like volunteer their time to help victims of sexual assault,” Ms. Hartery said. “Groups rely on history to tell them who they are; it underlines a common bond. The women who are and were volunteers at the centre will share this history, this common bond.”

The 24-hour Sexual Assault Crisis Line is available at 726-1411 or 1-800-186-2743.

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