Monday, October 17, 2011

Women's Transit Authority (WTA)

Women's Transit Authority van
Women's Transit Authority (WTA)

Location: 1274 South Park Street, Madison, Wisconsin, USA

Founded: 1973

Closed: January 20, 2006

As the noted feminist urban planner, Delores Hayden, has observed, "if most citizens, including politicians and police officers, believe that a woman's place is in the home to begin with, they will not be necessarily concerned about unsafe streets. Instead, they may blame the victim for being in urban public space. Good public transportation is a key factor in rape prevention."  

It was from this kind of feminist perspective that Women's Transit Authority (WTA) began in 1973 as a free nighttime rape prevention service for women. Essentially, women students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison were fed up over their lack of safe access to the library and other community facilities, especially after a series of violent sexual assaults in 1972. The solution they came up with simple: "Some of us have cars, so let's share those resources with other women who don't and give each other rides."

WTA was soon providing rides for 1,000 women a month in just its first year of operations. As Hayden explains,

They operated two cars, seven nights a week, on a fixed-route shuttle service plus a flexible service within a four-mile radius of the University of Wisconsin campus. Volunteers drove, the university, city, and county paid the costs of the vehicles.  

It's important to note, however, that WTA began as an all-volunteer effort--run by women for women. In the beginning, volunteers literally used their own cars. It took several months of operations before the University offered the group the use of cars, radios, gas, and insurance.  

The pioneering WTA program attracted national attention--it was mentioned in Time Magazine in April 1973--and went on to inspire similar initiatives at Washington State University  in 1977, the University of Michigan in 1979, and elsewhere.  

It was not until 1978, however, that the City of Madison provided WTA with funding. So it was a full five years into the program before WTA was able hire three part-time coordinators and rent space for a daytime office off-campus. At this point, WTA also expanded from a University-based service to a citywide service.

Through all these changes, WTA defined itself as an explicitly feminist enterprise. As the bylaws stated,

Women's Transit Authority is a feminist organization and holds the principle that women working together will increase the strength of women in the community. Women's Transit Authority provides an opportunity for women to increase their strength by providing women with safe, independent transportation to reduce physical and mental vulnerability to sexual assault, and by consciously and actively defining and organizing against the constant atmosphere that condones violence against women.

By the mid 1980s, these three part-time coordinators were working with approximately 130 to 150 volunteer dispatchers and drivers, and providing over 80 rides per night.

Of course, with the rise of the right-wing/men's rights backlash, it was nearly inevitable that men would attack (and attempt to destroy) the service as "discriminatory." What this really involved was a coopting of the language of liberalism to undermine a progressive pro-woman initiative. (And needless to say, when the attacks started flying, none of these men expressed any particular concern about the "discriminatory" public safety and mobility issues that women and children faced in moving through the streets of the community.) As Diane Kravetz reports,

In 1992, the University of Wisconsin-Madison cut off all funding for Women's Transit Authority because it provided rides only for women by women: "WTA flatly refuses to give men rides or to hire [sic] men as drivers or dispatchers. UW lawyers believe that the university, as a publicly financed institution, simply cannot support an organization that publicly discriminates against men" (Madison Newspapers, 5/8/1992). This was no small matter in that the university provided approximately 40% of its funding. Women's Transit Authority survived with funding from the city, employee payroll-deduction campaigns, fund-raising events, and private donations. Its ability to maintain a sufficient level of funding without the support of the university confirms the confidence that members expressed in the mid-1980s with respect to the strength of their organization.

Through the 1990s, the service managed to largely carry on as before. In fact, the mission continued to expand beyond a simple night-time free ride service. Again, according to Kravetz,

Women's Transit Authority continues as a volunteer program for women by women that offers free nighttime rape-prevention rides in Madison and Dane County. From 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. seven days of the week, its ride service prevents the sexual assault and harassment of women and children and increases their mobility.

Women's Transit Authority's daytime community assistance ride service provides free transportation to medical and mental health appointments; to food resources, including grocery stores, food pantries, and free meal sites; and to organizations such as battered women shelter and Salvation Army for emergency assistance. It provides transportation for the elderly to local senior centers, where they are provided with meals and opportunities to socialize with others. It provides rides for Spanish-speaking, Hmong, and Cambodian families to medical appointments, support groups, and other needed services. It provides rides to battered women and their children and runaway teens to safe havens. Women's Transit Authority also contracts with the Well Woman's Program to ensure that low-income women have access to routine medical care, including mammograms. As it stated in its brochure, "When folks are isolated by poverty, age, disability, neighborhood, or language barriers, a free ride is more than a free ride." Women continue to provide Women's Transit Authority nighttime rape prevention ride service. Male volunteers may drive for its daytime community assistance ride service.

Women's Transit Authority sponsors an annual Clothesline Project, which is an audiovisual display of T-shirts created by women who have suffered from and survived some form of violence or made by others to commemorate women who have been murdered. T-shirts and art supplies are made available for women wanting to add to the display. Its Clothesline Project is part of an annual nationwide T-shirt display that is organized to acknowledge the effects of sexual assault. Women's Transit Authority provides speakers to clubs, churches, and businesses and works with other organizations to end sexual assault, for example, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

But of course that wasn't the end of the siege.

In 1996, Roy U. Schenk filed suit with the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) claiming "that the Respondent, the Women's Transit Authority, discriminated against him on the basis of his sex by refusing to provide him with a ride for purposes of shopping." WTA denied the accusation. (Shopping? Seriously?)

Three men--Michael Goodman, Richard Rathman, and James Perry--filed suit in 2001 with the EOC claiming that WTA's circulars advertising "free transportation services for women and children" openly discriminated against men by "indicating that men are unwelcome and their presence unacceptable." As a result, they claimed, WTA "unlawfully communicates that men cannot access certain public facilities." (That their separate suits used identical language suggests a well-coordinated offensive strategy.) In 2003, however, the EOC ruled in favor of WTA: "The WTA announcements are not commercial speech. In promoting free transport services, they neither propose or contemplate commercial activity." In short, though the complainant(s) may find the announcements "unwelcoming," the first amendment free speech protections applied. The complaint was finally dismissed "for lack of jurisdiction" in early 2004.

Needless to say, the attacks took their toll.

By December 2005, it was announced that WTA owed $108,000 in back taxes they were unable to pay. It seems the IRS had ruled that WTA had better pay up on some $76,000 in back payroll taxes that had apparently been owed since 2003, in addition to "at least $32,000 in penalties and interest." WTA put out a plea for donations, hoping that some "generous angels" might help them out.

But in the next month, the "angels" were not quite as generous as WTA might have hoped, as only $7,000 in donations trickled in. As a result, it was announced that Women's Transit Authority was shutting down for good as of January 20, 2006.

At the time that the program ended after 33 years of business, Women's Transit Authority was providing over 20,000 rides a year and employed 12 persons. They owned four vans and three cars.  It was the largest free ride service in Dane County.

Did all the lawsuits and harrassment single-handedly destroy Women's Transit Authority? Perhaps not. But we can certainly assume that they diverted scarce resources that could have been used to support operational expenses. So in a sense, the men achieved their aim. A "floating" womyn's space was successfully targeted and eliminated, and as a result, the mobility/safety of women and their children in the public realm was greatly diminished.

Photo: WTA van

1 comment:

  1. So sorry to read this. I volunteered at WTA as a driver, dispatcher and board member from 1988-1990. Another reason why women can't have nice things, apparently.


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