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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.

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