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Ellen Pence: Rock Star of the Battered Women’s Movement 1948-2012

At the third conference of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in St Louis, Missouri in1986, I encountered some of the rock stars of domestic violence work. Ellen Pence (Power & Control Wheel), Susan Schechter (Women & Male Violence), Ann Jones (Women Who Kill), Esta Soler (Family Violence Prevention Fund), Barbara Hart (Attorney PA Coalition against Domestic Violence), Diana E. H. Russell (Rape in Marriage). They were determined to change the way society thinks about battered women and how it responds to violence in the home. We are losing our heroes. Susan Schechter passed away in 2004 and now in 2012 Ellen Pence has left us.

In the 1960s, Ellen Pence was an activist in the housing, antiwar, civil rights and feminist movements. In 1975, Ellen became active in the battered women’s movement, a place she called home for most of her life. In the late 70s, she worked for the State of Minnesota advocating for funding for battered women’s shelters. In 1980, she and a small group of activists organized the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, MN commonly known as the “Duluth Model”.

The Duluth Model was an extraordinary social change undertaking that rightfully gained national and international accolades for fundamentally changing the way community institutions responded to gender-based crimes. Think back to a short generation ago. Prior to 1980, arrests for domestic assaults rarely took place, cases were unlikely to be prosecuted, and there were few consequences for violent offenders. While Ellen supported the safety shelters provided, she knew they were just band aids.

In her inimitable style, Ellen passionately and consistently asked why the state wasn’t assuming responsibility for ensuring that battered women were safe from violent boyfriends and husbands. She called out judges, prosecutors, law enforcement agencies, probation officers, and politicians to account for their failure to act while women in their community were being physically and sexually abused.

Change never comes easy. The institutions Ellen demanded change from were deeply entrenched. The administrators of these institutions believed there was little addition they could do, because domestic assault cases were unlike other criminal behavior. They argued that the personal nature of an intimate relationship made it difficult to intervene, unless the injuries were egregious. They claimed that domestic assault victims were different—these women were uncooperative and they recant. These same detractors added that battered women frequently provoked their abusive partner in what they called “domestic disputes.”

Privately Ellen would rage at the injustice. She had held the shaking body of a woman with her face split open at the hands of a jealous boyfriend. She gave support to a woman who was repeatedly raped by her drunken husband. She comforted little children who saw their father strangle their mother into unconsciousness. Ellen absorbed these women’s life experiences and told their stories to a community. She was relentless—she was convinced that life didn’t have to be like this for so many women, if only the state intervened.

Ellen Pence had an uncanny ability to bring resistant people along. With her deep understanding of the roots of gender-based violence, her self-deprecating humor, sharp wit and patience, Ellen and her colleagues Coral McDonnell, Shirley Oberg and Michael Paymar transformed the way one community responded to domestic assault cases. Through meeting after meeting, lunch after lunch, disagreement after disagreement, Ellen and key players in the criminal and civil justice system agreed to come under the umbrella of the Duluth Model. Policies would be developed and written collectively, procedures would be implemented, training would be comprehensive, administrators would hold staff accountable and advocates from the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project would ensure that safety of women was centralized.

The Duluth model is designed to:

Focus interventions on stopping an offender’s use of violence, not fixing the relationship.
Use the power of the state through arrest and prosecution to place controls on an offender’s behavior.
Monitor an offender’s compliance with conditions of probation, protections orders and court-mandated counseling.
Provide victims of abuse emergency housing, protections orders, information and advocacy to increase safety and autonomy.
Monitor the community response by tracking cases to ensure intervening agencies conform to agreed-upon policies.
Resolve problems by examining and documenting the manner in which practitioners are responding to cases that appear to be in conflict with policies and administrative procedures.
Work through problems in interagency meetings coordinated by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project
Work to shield children from violence by determining visitation conditions and linking the safety of children to the safety of their mother.

The most remarkable thing about the Duluth Model is that it works. It makes safety for women and their children, gives some men the incentive to change their behavior, and identifies others who pose a continuing threat to women, law enforcement, and the community.

Ellen was influenced by Paolo Friere, the late Brazilian educator. Freire worked with impoverished and illiterate people in South America and developed an education model that relies on dialogue and critical thinking rather than traditional learning. With her colleagues in Duluth, Ellen developed two curricula: In Our Best Interest for advocates working with oppressed and abused women, and Creating a Process of Change for Men Who Batter for practitioners working with court mandated offenders.

While Ellen believed in using the criminal justice system to hold offenders accountable, she also sought a more humane approach than imprisonment that often disproportionately affected men of color. She objected to traditional counseling approaches for offenders and victims. She argued that the power imbalance between a man who batters and his victim not only made such counseling unsafe but also suggested that the women were to blame the violence. It was during the development of these curricula that the Power and Control Wheel was developed—translated into 40 languages, it is now used internationally to illustrate the dynamics of battering.

Ellen took time out to attend the University of Toronto and earn her PhD. It was there that she was greatly influenced by the Canadian sociologist Dorothy Smith. Smith’s sociology teaches how to create an analytical map of institutional activities that makes transparent the ways workers are organized and coordinated to think about and act on the cases they manage. Ellen was convinced that law enforcement, the criminal and civil justice system, and human service providers either enhanced or diminished victim safety by their intervention. She believed that when victim safety was compromised it was typically not the fault of an individual worker, but of systemic problems that could be fixed.

Based on Smith’s analytical methodologies, Ellen developed what she called the Safety and Accountability Audit–a means to chart the way workers respond in any organization. The audit is a tool to help groups and programs assess the theories about domestic abuse, administrative practices, rules, procedures and policies that guide their response to instances of domestic violence.

Ellen then moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, with her partner Amanda. She founded Praxis International in 1998, providing training nationally, primarily in rural areas using the components of the Safety and Accountability Audit to help communities do a better job in handling domestic assault cases. In 2007, Ellen and her colleagues in partnership with the City of St. Paul began to write a comprehensive plan integrating the knowledge gleaned from thirty years of research and demonstration projects and practice that they called the Blueprint for Safety. Ellen called the Blueprint “The Duluth Model on steroids.”

The Blueprint for Safety is anchored in six principles essential in any intervention that maximizes safety for victims and holds offenders accountable.


The six principles are:

  1. Adherence to an interagency approach 

  2. Attention to the context and severity of the abuse; recognition that domestic abuse is a patterned crime requiring continued engagement with victims and offenders assurance of swift and certain consequences for continued abuse;)

  3. Use of the power of the criminal justice system to send messages of help and accountability 

  4. Care in acting to reduce unintended consequences and disparity of impact on victims and offenders.

  5. A key focus of the Blueprint for Safety is the risk of death that victims of domestic violence face. In St. Paul, best practice policies of each intervening agency address the ongoing danger a woman faces in relationship with the batterer and when she attempts to leave him.

The Nashville Police Department too, like many other police departments across the country, learned from Ellen and the Duluth Model to make women’s safety a priority. Mark Wynn, a Nashville police officer who rose to national prominence for his work on domestic violence, points out that law enforcement has also used the Power and Control Wheel as “a Rosetta stone to deconstruct the crime” of domestic violence and figure out the devious mind of the batterer, a type Wynn calls “one of the most manipulative criminal personalities in our history.” Acknowledging Ellen’s foundational work, Wynn says, “The greatest gifts you can give a comrade in arms are the gift of knowledge to survive and the gift to keep another alive. For that we thank you Ellen Pence.”

Ellen knew that our culture produces men who batter and men who rape and that ultimately the culture much change. To that end, she also worked with the U.S. Marines and over the years with Native American Tribes and many international women’s groups. She was working with Michael Paymar on a documentary “With Impunity” at the time of her death.

She loved her work and with all her spirit believed in the capacity of people and institutions to change. She lived an extraordinary life and touched people around the world.

These photographs document the life and times of my beloved friend Ellen Pence, her friends, family, and her beloved life partner, Amanda McCormick.

Ellen Pence provided expert insight on the importance of listening to and working with the children of battered women. Minneapolis 2007

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