This year marks a huge milestone in the history of the Women's Freedom Center, as it does for many of the first grassroots feminist organizations working to end domestic and sexual violence, and turning 40 this year around the country. What could simply be celebrated if it were an individual birthday or business anniversary is more of a commemoration for a social change organization: Clearly if we made a wish, we'd rather not need to exist, and we surely don't want to turn 80.

But that said, we do want to pay tribute to the resilience and courage of all our foremothers and allies who've challenged the status quo and worked for gender justice since 1974. Together, we've come a long way since those early years of inspired activism, when even publicly naming the problem was a revolutionary act. To say nothing of sustaining the broader protest for decades: debunking myths, braving powerful backlash, and reminding that as long as women are less safe than men, we are less free.

Those first conversational roots actually trace back to the Women's Community Center in the late ‘60s; from there, local women began a more focused Rape Crisis Center in the early ‘70s, in response to the number of sexual assaults being reported in our area. They were still educating themselves on this issue when it quickly became clear that most calls were in fact from women who had been beaten by male partners. Instinctively, some of these early activists took women into their own homes for safety as they worked to find funds for a shelter -- another still radical idea. But they were beginning to realize the true scope of oppression, the covert war in women's daily lives. And they knew that to reduce the fear and sheer historic force of all that violence, some kind of haven was needed -- one place at last where both women's incredible strengths and their suffering could be freely acknowledged. As the poet Adrienne Rich said, "There must be those among whom we can sit and weep, and still be counted as warriors."

And so began our collective and necessary struggle, from homes into the streets, from vigils into the news, a slow but steadily growing march sounding around the country, and right here in Brattleboro, from Women's Crisis Center to Women's Freedom Center: what strengthens us even today is that spirit, a 40-year relay of feminist voices disturbing the peace of mind of the patriarchy.

We opened our shelter in 1982, and across America there are now 1924 other shelters doing similar work. Which brings us to the one constant over time, and across every demographic around the world, which is that women are not, and were never to blame for this crisis. Domestic and sexual violence aren't caused by victims but by perpetrators, and by social norms that let them off the hook. It's a problem not in our genes, but our society. And yet each of us can be part of the solution and help free the world of sexism and violence against women; each of us can resist media-hyped spin around gender, and oppose all forms of prejudice and privilege, which go hand in hand.

So while they've been 40 years we'd rather have spent otherwise, as long as there's violence against women, we're not going anywhere -- we'll keep speaking out. In fact we'll soon be welcoming two more advocates to this work in our new, soon-to-open Springfield office, as we expand to serve communities in southern Windsor as well as Windham Counties.

And as you begin filling your new calendars, be sure to save the date -- Friday, March 7 -- so you don't miss our Film Festival Opening Gala. Because we'd like to thank all our foremothers and friends in spectacular fashion, we're devoting this 40th Year's Opening Night Gala to lavish spectacles of fashion. We invite you to think big, bold, and bohemian: Dig out some old platforms, or let out your inner divas, whether from the ‘40s, the ‘70s, or whatever theme and era you choose. We've come this far doing serious work, and that deserves a great party.

The Women's Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham County working to end domestic and sexual violence. Follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/womensfreedomcenter and at www.womensfreedomcenter.net. You can reach an advocate on our 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954.