Ellen Berliner & Anne Steytler
Women's Center & Shelter Co-Founders
It is with heartfelt gratitude that we remember Ellen Berliner and Anne Steytler, co-founders of Women's Center & Shelter, who both passed away during the past year. In the Winter 2010 issue of Rosewood, you may have read our obituary of Anne Steytler. Just a few months after, Ellen also passed away. Please join us in remembering these courageous and generous women, and their gifts both to the Pittsburgh community and to the social justice movement nationwide.
Ellen's daughters, Christine and Lauren, spoke with a Women's Center staff member about Ellen's life, achievements and growing up with Ellen as their mother. Below you can read Ellen's story, Anne's obituary from the Winter 2010 Rosewood, and Anne's written history of Women's Center & Shelter.
Pictured Left: Anne Steytler and Ellen Berliner at Women's Center South
Remembering Ellen Berliner (June 10, 1920 - March 4, 2011)
Something as big and important as Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh can be started by two people sitting and thinking about a problem and what they can do about it. If you have a passion about making a change in the world, you can have great power.
In this world there are always underdogs, and you should help even the playing field. Today’s helpee may be tomorrow’s helper.
These are some of the unspoken messages that Ellen Berliner gave to her daughters, Christine and Lauren, and that they want to share with others.
Christine and Lauren explained that, as children, there were always guests in their house. Whether they were foreign dignitaries through the Pittsburgh Council of International Visitors or women and their children fleeing abusive husbands, they were treated the same.
Although Ellen and Anne founded Women’s Center & Shelter, Ellen’s passion was larger than the Women’s Rights Movement. She saw herself as a peace and social justice activist first. Women’s rights, and later the battered women’s movement, were simply offshoots of the larger social justice movement. Prior to founding Women’s Center & Shelter, Ellen started several other programs in response to social injustice.
One of these programs was the Presbyterian Church Exchange Program which ran from 1965-1966. A number of families from the church, including Ellen’s, attended church in the Hill District for one year. The same number of families from the Hill District church attended the Presbyterian church in the South Hills. This was one of Ellen’s efforts to bring people together and break down social barriers.
Ellen and fellow church members also created the Meeting Place at a store front in the North Hills. They created it as a place where community members could just stop by, relax, read and talk in company. Church donations allowed the Meeting Place to purchase used books, shelving and carpeting for a reading corner. Students would stop by after school to do their homework at the Meeting Place, making use of the mini library and study area. Community members took turns bringing in cookies, snacks and coffee for the guests. It became an early form of a community center. Guests also gathered together to address community problems when they arose, such as landlords not maintaining their property. When a need a rose, they would lock up the community center and go in a group to address the problem. The Meeting Place remained open until the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., when social tensions became too strong.
Ellen endeavored to create a sense of community wherever she was. Her daughters fondly recall the end of one elementary school year. Ellen began posting signs around the neighborhood announcing a Pancake Breakfast on her lawn. On the last day of school, she lugged her old picnic table and grill to the front yard along with a bucket of pancake batter. Students flocked into the yard and she made pancakes until they were full. To this day, years after Ellen moved out of the neighborhood, the pancake breakfast remains an annual tradition on the last day of school.
In many ways, opening the Women’s Center was a natural progression in Ellen’s efforts to foster community and gathering places. Ellen and Anne recognized that there was nowhere for women to just sit and be. Men had many places to relax and escape, but women didn’t. Ellen and Anne created one. Women would gather there to discuss issues affecting them and to empower themselves. Once the Women’s Center became popular, Ellen and Anne quickly realized that there was a crisis need of higher priority- many women were coming to the store front to escape from and talk about their abusive husbands.
Ellen and Anne began sheltering women and their children, first in their homes and later in the storefront. Responding to this need became the highest priority, so they decided to become a safe haven for victims of domestic violence. [You can read the complete early history of WC&S as told by Anne in 1982]. From the beginning, Ellen and Anne recognized confidentiality and training for their employees critically important. These priorities remain prominent at Women’s Center & Shelter today. Early on, WC&S encountered difficult situations that still happen. What do you do when the batterer is in a position of power and influence within the community?
Ellen and Anne demonstrated extraordinary courage and commitment to their community- acting on social injustices that were controversial or unspoken: segregation and domestic violence. Domestic violence was a grassroots issue that was not socially acceptable at the time. People became uncomfortable when domestic violence was brought up in conversation. Although they were going against the grain, Ellen and Anne raised money, raised awareness and founded one of the first domestic violence shelters in the United States! They have made an amazing contribution to our community and the nation.
Ellen saw a problem and thought, “What can I do to change this?” Instead of being overwhelmed by the size of a problem, she would immediately take whatever action she could to rectify it. Ellen also said, “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, especially when things are messy!”Her actions transformed and touched many lives in Pittsburgh.
All of us could benefit from this attitude. Too often, individuals feel that they could never have a large impact, and are paralyzed by inaction. Her story is a reminder of the power that we have to transform the world through individual action! WC&S began with Ellen and Anne sheltering women in their homes, and has grown into an facility with 36 beds (although the shelter has been over capacity since 2008, often housing 40 or more individuals). The hotline started as Ellen's home telephone. When Ellen was out of the house, her children and husband would take messages. Ellen would return the hotline calls later. Now the hotline is available 24-hours a day with its own phone number, and it serves more than 6,000 women a year! We are currently collaborating with the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime to join hotlines and further strengthen our services.
Think of what the world could become if we all simply took action to counter the problems we are passionate about!
Remembering Anne Steytler (January 10, 1921 - September 13, 2010)
Anne Steytler (pictured left with Shirl Regan, Executive Director), co-founder of Women’s Center & Shelter, passed away on September 13, 2010. She committed her life to serving society’s underdogs, and a large part of that commitment was in her work with WC&S.
In 1982, Anne wrote a WC&S history. She said that WC&S began “in the winter of 1973 as a twinkle in the eye of Ellen Berliner and me. We were having lunch with a long time friend of mine who was describing the women’s center she and three other women had founded and were supporting in Carbondale, Illinois. This was in the surge of the women’s movement, and the needs of women were being considered seriously.”
Her friend described the current need of women as a place they can “come and ‘be’ for as long as she needs.” Men had many places to relax and get away, but women had no place, so they created one.
Over the years, women began stopping by, for “a few minutes, for a half an hour, for half a day, all day.” Anne, Ellen and a few others began sheltering women in their homes as needed.
After a few years, they were horrified to discover that forty percent of the women who had come had been beaten. Anne said, “We were moving from the women’s movement into the battered women’s movement without even knowing that.” The number of battered women coming to their shelter increased steadily until the board decided in the early 1980’s to have a one year experiment and “provide shelter only for women who had been physically and psychologically battered.” At that location, a house in Brentwood, there were three beds, three couches, three sleeping bags and one crib. From these roots, WC&S has grown in size and capacity to 36 beds for women and their children.
Now WC&S serves over 6,000 women and their children a year, all because of the twinkle of an idea Anne and Ellen had, and their dedication and passion in making that dream a reality. WC&S is committed to staying at the forefront of the intimate partner violence movement, just as Anne was in co-founding the shelter in 1974.
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