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Strengthening Her Sisters

A born crusader, Sandra Ramos has spent her adult life fighting to make sure battered women have the support and services they need.

En español | Sandra Ramos’s voicemail greeting tells callers that they’ve reached the telephone number of "the handmaiden of the Goddess." She’s unavailable, she explains, because most likely she’s in the midst of "making the world a better place."

Since 1970, Ramos, who is 67, has dedicated herself to fighting for the rights of battered women and their children. She founded the first known shelter for battered women in the United States in the 1970s and over the decades has been going up against public officials and the court system with unwavering zeal and, at times, theatrical flair. Today, she serves as the executive director of Strengthen Our Sisters, a nonprofit she founded in upper Passaic County, New Jersey, that runs seven licensed shelters, several halfway houses where abused women can stay for longer periods, and a child-care center. And she is one of the nation’s most well-known and tireless advocates on behalf of battered women.

"She’s an icon in the issue of anti-domestic violence activism," says Arlene Holpp Scala, chair of the Women’s Studies Department at William Paterson University, one of two New Jersey colleges where Ramos teaches courses on domestic violence. "She’s fought for financial support for programs for battered women. She goes up against the establishment, against people who don’t seem sympathetic to survivors of domestic violence. Her students here at the university are electrified by her knowledge and passion."

Despite the accolades and numerous national awards she has received, Ramos, who holds a master’s degree in applied urban anthropology from the City College of New York, remains pragmatic.

"This is a mission, a passion for me," Ramos says in her typical soft-spoken, yet purposeful tone. "I don’t call it work. I don’t say ‘I’m going to work now.’"

It is a passion that, quite literally, made its way to her in 1970. That is when a woman who was fleeing her abuser knocked on Ramos’s door seeking refuge. The woman, Ramos says, was the mother of children whom Ramos taught at a Sunday school run by a Unitarian church. Ramos took in the family, and word spread about her good deed. Eventually the number of battered women and their children living in her home grew to 22. Ramos, who at the time worked as a waitress at a Manhattan jazz club, said she was struck by the lack of resources for women fleeing their batterers.

People often wonder if her ardent commitment to helping battered women comes from personal experience with domestic violence. It doesn't totally, Ramos says.

"I have always had a strong feeling against injustice," she says. "When I was little I’d always say, ‘It’s not fair.’ My mother would say, ‘Life isn’t fair,’ but I’d answer, ‘Then we have to make it fair.’"

So when Ramos saw that there was no system to help battered women and children, she refused to accept the status quo and decided to be an agent for change. "People were coming to me because there was nowhere else to go," she says. "They needed myriad services, they needed support groups, job training, sisterhood." Without all those things to help them stand on their own two feet, she says, the women were more likely to go back to their batterers, on whom they were dependent.

Having their family home become a refuge for so many women and children required resilience, recalls Ramos’s daughter, Maria, who is now 47. "It was kind of chaotic," recalls Maria, the oldest of Ramos’s three children. "It was a small house; we didn’t have a lot of room. But she reaches out to people she sees suffering. She does everything in her power to help them."

That experience left its mark. Now an attorney in California, Maria Ramos has followed her mother’s cue, advocating for victims of domestic violence and speaking about the topic to police officers and other groups.

First Shelter Established
After defying the efforts of city officials and court orders to remove the women from her house, Sandra Ramos succeeded in getting the first shelter established in the late 1970s. Since then, thousands have found refuge in Ramos’s home or one of her shelters, which all together house some 180 women and children. Many of them are Latinas, and Ramos plans to start a weekly Spanish-language group counseling session. But Ramos—who was born Sandra Blumberg and kept the surname of her ex-husband, a Cuban immigrant—notes that the racial and ethnic makeup of the shelter residents constantly changes.

"Domestic violence crosses all race and class lines," she said on a recent Sunday, during a break from her daily two-hour swim at the mountain stream-fed Highlands Pool. "It’s an equal opportunity employer."

Ramos’s aversion to the status quo shapes her lifestyle as well as her activism. She makes frequent references to "the Goddess," explaining that she believes that "the creator" is feminine and that the term also refers to "the power of women’s energy.”

Ramos, who wears her bright-red hair long, favors 1950s and 1960s sartorial styles, lives in a pink-and-purple Quonset hut transplanted from a military base, and drives a 1986 fuchsia Volvo adorned with Art Deco hood ornaments symbolizing peace, women power, and protection of children. Once, mulling over what to don for a party, Ramos recalls, she looked at her curtain and decided to wear it to the bash. "I think women, as they get older, should get wilder," she says. "Do what you want to do."

"At the group meetings, I’ll ask people to tell me what they did in a 24-hour period. Then I ask them how many of those things did they really like—and usually it’s little or nothing at all. It’s sad."

Not surprisingly, the anti-bureaucrat takes a hands-on, grassroots approach to her shelters, which are funded through grants and donations. She’s a fixture in the shelters, serving meals to the women and children, and eating and schmoozing with them. She encourages the women to play a key role in the shelters; they cook their own meals and help organize activities.

"It’s a very cooperative environment," says attorney Linda Neilson, a former student of Ramos who provides pro bono legal counsel to women at the shelters. "The women work together for whatever they need. They’re very organized."

Ramos runs two weekly "empowering sessions" at the shelters—one focused on assertiveness training and the other a battered women's support group—and on Friday nights she sings in a gospel choir at one of the shelters. She sends advocates to court to offer women moral support when they are seeking restraining orders or fighting for custody of their children. She also helps women get legal advice but rarely goes to court herself because, says Ramos, "I’m constantly enraged by the injustice put forth by the judges."

"Sandy makes you feel like, OK, you’re going through this, but it’s going to get better," says Geraldine Wright, who was born in the Dominican Republic and sought refuge from her batterer at one of Ramos’s shelters. "One of the best things I did for myself and my children was come to the shelter. She helped me feel strong, which I usually wasn’t. She helped me get a job here at the shelter so that I could find a place and pay the rent."

Ramos meets with legislators and judges to discuss what she says is a court system that makes it too easy for batterers—who often are better able to afford expensive legal battles than their girlfriends or wives—to gain custody of children.

"I’ve never been a fan of the courts," says Ramos, adding that she’s heard judges express reluctance to issue restraining orders to women who didn’t seek them fast enough. "Many women are scared of their batterers. And batterers have learned that a way to get back at a woman who leaves them is to fight them for custody and get money from them for child support."

To combat the system, she pickets—for individual women when they have a court hearing or in annual demonstrations focused on a particular issue. For years, around Mother’s Day weekend, for instance, she has helped organize and participated in demonstrations outside courthouses in Passaic and Bergen counties, where several of her shelters are located. And in her characteristic belief that sometimes a bit of drama can make a point, demonstrators push empty strollers to symbolize the many battered women whom Ramos says unfairly lose custody.

Ramos says she has no plans to slow down. In demonstrations, speeches, classrooms, and meetings with legislators, she continues to push for better training about domestic violence for police and judges, better access to legal representation for battered women, and the creation of a civilian review board to look at cases in which a battered mother has lost custody of her children.

"Sandy’s legacy," Neilson says, "will be that she spent not just a portion but her entire adult life fighting to make sure battered women have the support and services they need."

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