By Kristi Fischer
Virginia Beavon Corbett Briggs burst onto the Long Beach feminist activist scene in the 1970’s. Active in local groups such as the National Organization of Women (NOW), YWCA and the Women’s Community Resources Center (WCRC), she received NOW’s Susan B. Anthony award in 1977.
These feminist groups began meeting to discuss the plight of who were then called “battered wives”, an issue making news across the country, including in Long Beach. (Today we use the terms domestic violence or intimate partner violence victims). The coalition collected newspaper stories from around the USA, and pasted them into scrapbooks. They discussed their personal stories, and debated how best to take action to prevent such violence and help the battered wives. As Virginia Corbett stated to the Press Telegram in 1977,
“As an abused wife, I remember how terrified I felt and how really helpless I was. On at least three occasions I was run out of my own home by my husband. Once it was the middle of the night and I had $20 to my name. Let me tell you that there’s no place an unemployed woman with four children can go with $20.”
After divorcing her psychologically abusive husband, she returned to college and earned her Ph.D. in psychology. As part of her internship, she worked at the Metropolitan State Hospital. Dr. Corbett estimated that half of the hospital’s female mental health patient population were there because they were married to abusive husbands. She recognized early on that mental and emotional abuse can be just as destructive as physical abuse. Dr. Corbett believed early intervention could make a huge difference in women’s lives, and that of their children. Based on her personal experience and that of her clients, she knew that she had to take action. Along with the support of NOW, YWCA and the WCRC, she decided to establish a refuge for abused women in Long Beach.
Dr. Corbett is best known for founding the WomenShelter in 1977, one of the first domestic violence agencies in Southern California. She provided the seed funding for the home that was used for the supportive housing facility, staffed by a dedicated group of women, many of whom were survivors of domestic violence themselves. The home provided a safe haven for women and their children. Women came to the safe house from all socioeconomic levels. WomenShelter established an “underground railroad” of safe house referrals. There were no offices or outreach center then. In fact, the staff worked from TV trays in the house’s living room, working the long-corded land line phones. As Dr. Corbett told the Press Telegram’s Linda Zink,
“WomenShelter is not just an escape, it’s a place where women can start putting their lives together and where they can find support for whatever course they choose to follow. If they’ve had it with their marriage and want out, we’ll give them whatever assistance they need to start a new life on their own. If they want to try and work things out with their husbands, we’ll provide that kind of help, too.”
Dr. Corbett’s legacy to make a positive difference lives on today. Forty-four years later, the WomenShelter of Long Beach (WSLB) is still going strong. It not only provides supportive housing, but also an innovative community-based counseling and resource center to provide easily accessible outreach services to victims of domestic violence in the community. The Domestic Violence Resource Center (DVRC) was the first such facility in the Greater Long Beach area. The DVRC is a place where survivors and victims can come and receive non-judgmental, compassionate services, and work on empowering themselves. The WSLB’s training sessions, presentations, youth and adult programs deliver critical education to those in our community. They provide the tools to identify the early warning signs of abuse, how to avoid toxic relationships and build healthy relationships based on mutual respect and trust. For more information, please see www.womenshelterlb.org. Dr. Corbett would be proud.
It is believed that Dr. Corbett left the Long Beach area many years ago. We do not know where she is today. If anyone knows of her whereabouts or any other information about her, please get in touch with us.
Julie Bartolotto, Project Director