Last month Dianne Levy, a lifelong feminist and peace activist, died at her home in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. I met Dianne in the early 2000s when I was a student at a small college in Jefferson County, Tennessee, and I’m forever grateful that I did. As a young woman at a conservative campus that was militant in its enforcement of gender conformity and heteronormativity, I needed the likes of Dianne in my life.
Tired of daily doses of sexism, a group of female students—with the help and support of female professors—began organizing our own version of a consciousness-raising group. It was through that group that we found our way to Dianne, who was the director of SafeSpace, a domestic violence shelter. We invited her to speak at one of our meetings.
Dianne was a powerful, no-nonsense, brilliant woman, and she was militant in making her case that gender oppression was real and destructive. I’m sure she arrived to the meeting in a whirlwind, her long hair streaming down her back, talking fast and with an accent unfamiliar to those of us who had never lived anywhere but Tennessee. She passed out worksheets that charted different kinds of violence, and she was blunt in her delivery. I had grown up hearing the whispers or seeing the signs of women who had been beaten up by husbands. I once had been physically threatened by a high school boyfriend. But until I met Dianne I never thought about those moments as systemic gender oppression, historically condoned by legislative bodies, law enforcement, churches, and within families. Diane taught me that only within my short life had spousal abuse even been recognized by the legal system, and much work was yet to be done.
I credit Dianne for shepherding me to my own feminist consciousness. In the weeks following our meeting, our group visited the SafeSpace office, and some of us went through alliance training. We also planned a “Take Back the Night” march and rally. Somebody vandalized our posters publicizing the march. The evening of the event our group was woefully small but energetic, knowing that the messages we conveyed were important. We stood on the campus lawn facing the road, carrying candles and chanting slogans. A group of male classmates drove by in an open jeep and taunted us, yelling “Beat your wives!” We were hurt and angry, but the jeers only reinforced why we were there.
About a decade later I was working on the oral history project, the “Long Women’s Movement in the American South.” I had forgotten Dianne’s name by that point, so I asked other interviewees if they could help me find the woman with the long hair who led the battered women’s movement in Tennessee. When I found her, Dianne invited me to her farmhouse in the mountains. She had retired, and she was making ends meet by working as a census taker and other side jobs. We sat at the sturdy kitchen table, brimming with the late summer harvest from Dianne’s garden. She shucked and cleaned corn while we talked. Dianne was a vivid storyteller. I was, once again, a rapt audience.
Dianne was born in London, England, in the 1940s. She was a toddler when she and her family, who were Jewish, immigrated to Brooklyn. A few years later, they moved to Kentucky, where she suddenly lived in a world structured by Jim Crow segregation, a world in sharp contrast to Brooklyn. In the 1960s, Dianne returned to London and joined the anti-war movement, networking with groups across Europe and publishing a leftist, underground newspaper. She and antiwar activists also began “liberating” empty buildings, picking locks and letting families inside to squat. That’s when she began to notice women who were fleeing abusive partners. By the early 1970s, she was back in the U.S. and made her way to the Mountain South, drawn to the back-to-the-land movement. Before long she bore witness to abuse in her new community and began sheltering women. Those informal relationships would expand into the battered women’s movement, of which Dianne was a trailblazer. She was the founding member of the domestic violence shelter SafeSpace, and she was the Tennessee representative to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She was also a founding member of the TN Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Southeast Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She lobbied to change statutes in TN, and she led trainings in communities and within the criminal justice system. She also worked with numerous organizations to expand women’s economic opportunities. Dianne received a litany of awards for her decades of public service.
Dianne’s story encompasses more than I can do justice to here. Below, I have edited Dianne’s story of her growing awareness of domestic violence in her Tennessee community. She painted a richly detailed and painful portrait of how she came to shelter women who had been beaten, raped, and threatened by their spouses, and who had no hope of justice in the legal system. She began with the story of Johnnie. (Please note that this story contains graphic descriptions of violence.)
Let me tell you this; this is an important story. I don’t know if you know Grassy Fork or that area. Back thirty or forty years ago it was really a remote section of the county and it was very rough roads. Nothing was paved back in there, which made me happy. I was happy to disappear into the woods. At the fork of the road I lived on there was a cement block building, which was maybe thirty feet long and sixteen feet wide. It had a back door and it had a front door and it had two front windows and that was it. There was nothing to it. I was coming out one day and I saw Johnnie’s truck parked there so I stopped and looked in and there she was, and I said, “What are you doing?” because she had a farm and four kids and she had a son-of-a-bitch for a husband, too. Oh, one day I was out at her place and Johnnie had all this stuff all over her arms, and I said, “Johnnie, have you got ringworm or did you run into some poison, or what’s going on with you?” She looked at me like I was really an idiot and she said, “Those are bruises.” It turns out that her husband was a drunk and he was the kind that used drink as an excuse and I mean he raped and pillaged and beat. I’m sure he raped all of his kids, not to mention Johnnie, and beat her and the kids to a bloody pulp time and time again.
I’d already found out about the bruising and when I stopped at that building that day and said, “What are you doing here?” she said, “That’s a steel door, got bars over both those windows, and he can’t burn this building.” And so she rented that little building probably for about thirty bucks a month. I don’t know if there was an outhouse there. There was an electric line and she had a refrigerator. She had a little counter not as big as this table and on the counter she had like two loaves of light bread and three onions and some bananas and some Beanie Weenies or something. That was her stock from the store. Sighs. Many a night Johnnie would run out of the house, grab the kids, and she’d lock herself in that building, many, many a night.
So, it was Christmas day 1975, probably 2:00 in the afternoon maybe, and I had a call. It was Gracie, one of her daughters, and I guess Gracie was nine. She said, “Mama says come quick.” So I jumped in my little VW bug, and she lived maybe five miles up the mountain from me. I got up there in time and there was a deputy up there. So Christmas Eve they’d finished the tree and got all the presents out and they were waiting for Paul to come home, and he never came home that night. The next morning they waited for him to come home all morning to open presents and he didn’t come home. They went ahead and opened presents, and they waited and waited on Christmas dinner for him to come home and he didn’t come home. They’d been up all night, so they eat Christmas dinner early, and she had fallen asleep. Johnnie had fallen asleep on the couch, and she woke up and he was standing over her with a knife at her throat saying, “You’re going to die, bitch.” Johnnie was a strong woman. She’d been fighting him for years, and he was drunk, and so they struggled and struggled and struggled. And Gracie went into the bedroom and got the pistol that Johnnie kept loaded under her pillow, because it wasn’t the first time this had happened. And Gracie threw the pistol across the room, tossed it across the room to Johnnie—I mean you can just imagine it. And Johnnie caught the pistol and it went off. I mean he’s after her with the knife. The bullet slices right through here and gets his—aorta? Is that what it is? And so he was bleeding to death. She called the law and called the ambulance. But he died.
I got up there in time. The ambulance had just left and the deputy was just waiting for me to get up there so I could keep the kids so they could haul her off, and they hauled her off to jail, Christmas day. Hauled her off to jail, charged her with manslaughter. I think they released her late that night because I think we had the kids back to her the next day. So she was charged with murder, and she was convicted of murder, even though it was clearly self-defense. They didn’t think anything about convicting her for murder, and then they let her go. And they laughed about it because Paul was a cop fighter and he’d had big fights with the cops for years. They hated him and he was always dangerous to them, too. They would make jokes about it: “Good going, Johnnie!” and stuff like that. Well she was devastated. I mean the more you suffer the more emotional attachment you have. They’d been abused for years horribly, but that doesn’t mean the emotional attachment isn’t there. It was horrible for her, convicted of murdering her husband who she hated and loved, and being joked about at the courthouse about, “Good going,” you know, “That’s great!” They’d pat her on the back; horrible.
I discovered in that time that there were no laws to protect family members. Basically a man could assault his family at will, rape, beat, terrorize, whatever he wanted to do. And the law and the preachers and everybody went, oh, well that’s his business. So I was astounded and very soon I started getting calls.
Somehow word had gotten out. [One day she got a call from a woman fleeing an abusive spouse.] I said, “Why’d you call me?” She said, “Somebody told me there was a woman helping battered women in Cosby.” I went, “Who is it? [Laughs] Who is that woman?”
So that began a real stream.
I became the representative from Tennessee to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. For me the organizing was every bit as important as providing safety. It was important to provide safety, don’t get me wrong. There was no way I was not hooked into safety for women and children. But it was clear to me that we had to change society.
The rest of the interview can be found here: http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/sohp/id/6664/rec/1
Visiting Scholar, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Assistant Professor, University of Mississippi