Celebrating 20 Years of Impact: WomensLaw.org and the Email Hotline
September 1, 2020
A conversation with Elizabeth Martin, founder of WomensLaw.org, and Deborah J. Vagins, President and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV)
WomensLaw.org was founded in 2000 by Elizabeth Martin, with the help of a group of lawyers, teachers, advocates, and web designers who were interested in seeing the power of the internet help survivors of domestic violence. WomensLaw.org was launched to provide state-specific legal information and resources about domestic violence – free of charge for survivors. WomensLaw.org also added a confidential, secure Email Hotline to offer direct support to survivors, their advocates, and loved ones. In 2010, WomensLaw.org merged with the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) and has seen tremendous growth – today, more than 1.9 million unique users visit the website annually, and we provide desperately-needed information, referrals, and support to more than 5,000 individuals through the Email Hotline each year.
As we look back on twenty years of impact through WomensLaw.org, we’re also taking a moment to celebrate a shared vision of a safer, more equitable future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deborah J. Vagins (DJV): Elizabeth, it’s an honor to talk to you. As a fellow lawyer, I’m inspired by your decision to found WomensLaw.org twenty years ago. What inspired you to establish this incredible resource for survivors and their advocates and loved ones?
Elizabeth Martin (EM): I was volunteering in a domestic violence shelter, and I hadn’t known much about domestic violence. I was overwhelmed by what I learned. I worked in the local courthouse and it was very frustrating because I could see all these people trying to make their lives safer and more stable, and they were hitting so many obstacles. Financial obstacles, emotional obstacles, safety obstacles…it made me so frustrated that the legal system, which was supposed to help them, was getting in their way, and making it harder, simply because it was confusing. So I started working on a way to streamline the process for that courthouse in particular, so survivors knew where to go, what paperwork they needed, and what rights they had. There are so many barriers survivors face in getting safety and security, but access to legal information should not be one of them.
I had done research in law school about the women’s movement in Peru, and how the Xerox copy machine was a game-changer because it allowed the leaders to share and spread information through leafletting and flyers. Now it was the early dot-com days, and it was clear that the internet would be another game changer – and I thought, we can do this. We can break down these information barriers for survivors, in every state, and share with everyone who has access to the internet. We knew one day internet access would be nearly ubiquitous through home computers or personal devices, and we wanted to be there, with clear legal information, when that happened.
DJV: You saw the connection between emerging technology, a lack of information about survivors’ rights, and the bureaucratic nightmares facing survivors, and you brought them together to find a solution.
EM: Yes, I think that’s right! That is an interesting parallel because I faced a bureaucratic mess in trying to figure out how to get WomensLaw.org going. Finding funding and partners was hard. Most people didn’t see how the internet could be used to actually help people, yet. In 1999, most people, at least those who were not working in the tech industry, saw the internet mostly as a place for commerce and news, not a place for personal connections or social services. It seems like everyone in my generation had a big dot-com idea, but folks were not all that interested in my big dot-org idea! Also, so many people told me it would be too hard to collect and “translate” the statutes into plain-language, and keep them updated, for all the states and territories since they each have their own specific laws. But I thought, “It won’t be that hard.” I was wrong. It was hard! Nothing was digitized back then. We re-typed whole statutes into html to build out pages. We called every state coalition and dug around to find local programs across the country. We eventually had a partner in every state who reviewed our work, at least annually for their state. It was wild. But I had incredible board members who volunteered countless hours, one amazing co-worker, Iselin Gambert, and eventually the tech-oriented Blue Ridge Foundation that championed our cause until we were stable. We all knew it would work. So we plowed ahead and made it happen, even though it was, indeed, a way bigger job than any of us expected.
DJV: While this isn’t the environment in which we had planned on celebrating the 20th anniversary of WomensLaw.org, it has made clear how important our work is – day in and day out – to move us closer to a future free from all forms of violence. What challenges did you face then, as a founder and an organization? Are there any parallels to challenges today?
EM: People definitely understand the power of the internet to connect and help people now! I also think there is a lot more understanding about domestic violence now than there was twenty years ago. Yet I do think it is still a challenge for people to really care about it. People don’t want to talk about domestic violence, they don’t want to hear about it. That makes it hard to raise money – yet, survivors need services like the WomensLaw Email Hotline, especially now, during the pandemic while people have been stuck at home with their abusers in high-stress scenarios. The ability to communicate digitally and privately is critical.
DJV: As you said, domestic violence is a topic people don’t necessarily want to talk about, but I think COVID-19 has awakened the public consciousness and people now understand what it could mean to be stuck with an abuser, perhaps more than they did before.
EM: Yes, I think that’s right. I think COVID-19 has made people more empathetic. Even for people who have been stuck at home with people they generally get along with, it’s still been so stressful. So I think there is more empathy for people facing harder circumstances, and if more people care, I hope that means we can make more progress on addressing domestic violence.
DJV: I remember you once told me you were amazed at how many victims wrote in via email asking for legal information, which generated the idea for the WomensLaw Email Hotline. Today, the WomensLaw Email Hotline is in such high-demand that we sometimes have to close it fifty percent of the time just to keep up, which is heartbreaking. Why do you think this is the case? What would a future look like when WomensLaw.org can meet that need?
EM: Yes, closing the hotline is heartbreaking. We’ve never been able to keep it open 100% of the time, because it has been in such high demand since the beginning. It all started when we put an email address buried in our “Contact Us” page. We didn’t realize survivors would use it to reach out, but they did, and – of course – we responded even though our team was so small at the time (we were 2 part-timers). But we quickly realized how important this was. So we decided, to put our email address right on the homepage and call it an Email Hotline. Use skyrocketed. We then worked with developers and the Safety Net team at NNEDV to create a safer, more confidential system for survivors to reach out than a simple email address. So, survivors really started the hotline. And we had to catch up.
Whenever the Email Hotline re-opened, questions would come pouring in because people want to reach out this way. And I know that is only magnified now, with the pandemic.
And now that you are making the WomensLaw Email Hotline accessible via text messaging – so that survivors can reach out and get help any time of the day or night – that’s the dream!
DJV: WomensLaw.org and the Email Hotline have incredible reach – serving approximately 5,000 survivors each year via the Email Hotline and reaching more than 2 million people annually through the website – but we know this work is so much more than these statistics. What makes you most proud about where WomensLaw is today?
EM: I feel very proud of WomensLaw.org and the Email Hotline. I felt sure that it would be useful for survivors, but I knew there would be challenges in getting it out into the world. I thought if we could get it to the point where domestic violence advocates were using it, as part of the services they provide, if local programs and coalitions used it, if it became part of the fabric of services that are provided to survivors, then I would know the idea would really last, that it was a confirmation that this service was – and is – needed. Now it seems deeply embedded in these services, so not only are survivors using it themselves, but advocates, lawyers, and friends – they are all using it to help other people, too. And I’m really proud of that. To see how the Spanish services have flourished as well, since Denisse Wolfenzon got that started back in I think 2004, and the progress that has been made under the leadership of Stacey Sarver and NNEDV since I left, is incredible. It’s gone in such an important direction and continued to help so many people and I’m really pleased with that. And I love the vlogs and the Online Information Clinics!
DJV: You knew in 2000 that survivors needed free legal information, which gave rise to WomensLaw. In the last few years, we saw the breakthrough of TIME’s UP and the #MeToo movement, which has helped focus attention on the need for pro bono assistance to survivors of workplace sexual harassment. Do you think the public is finally understanding the importance of providing legal help to survivors? How can we build on this awareness to create additional legal support to survivors of domestic violence?
EM: TIME’sUp and the #MeToo movement have been transformative. It’s been incredible to witness. People understand workplace harassment and abuse so much more now. Yet I don’t think it’s filtered into an understanding of the harassment and abuse experienced in the home as much. Any progress, of course, moves the ball forward, but it would nice to be able to see our society take that understanding of power and control and apply it to intimate relationships. We still like to draw a big line between public life and home life, and so it’s still a challenge to openly talk about these dynamics.
And everyone needs legal assistance. The content on WomensLaw.org is written for survivors, but it’s also an important resource for lawyers. WomensLaw is in a great position to support lawyers who have never taken on a domestic violence case before. Especially with the vlogs! We need more lawyers willing to take on these cases, and to draw the connection between workplace injustices and the similar dynamics that can happen in the home.
DJV: That’s so true. The importance of making that connection between the breakthrough moment on sexual harassment in the workplace and then bringing that understanding into the world of domestic violence — since it is all about the dynamics of power and control – is our vision and future challenge.
This year – 2020 — has presented challenges beyond anything we anticipated, and we know that survivors will face unique and serious impacts as a result of this pandemic for years to come. As we look ahead to the challenges and uncertainties of the future, what do you hope to see for WomensLaw.org and the Email Hotline?
EM: I hope we can reach a future where the Email Hotline is open all the time. Twenty years ago, WomensLaw was at the front end of technology, but it changes so quickly, so it’s a real challenge to keep up because survivors, themselves, are on the leading edge of technology use. People want to connect digitally and it’s important that services like WomensLaw, which have built-in safety features, that think through the potential dangers of technology and address them, are there to meet those needs.
I hope WomensLaw can continue to be on the leading edge of technology, because while there are always risks, the number of people we can reach, connect with, and help with emerging technology, is incredible. So, hotline open 24/7, available in multiple languages, by chat, messaging, or email, but with a back-end that protects safety and privacy – that’s what I hope for WomensLaw in 2020. Plus, more vlogs!
DJV: What advice do you have for other folks who want to get involved to support projects like WomensLaw?
EM: Do it! Don’t be afraid of the obstacles. They will be there, and you’ll meet them as they come. It may be hard, but it’s the most fulfilling work to be involved with organizations like NNEDV and WomensLaw, or your local shelter. I started this work by volunteering in a shelter with a good friend, Elizabeth Davis. (Later, she helped get WomensLaw up and running!) So grab a friend and volunteer! If you can’t volunteer, raising money is good, too. There are so many creative ways to fundraise these days. And every little bit helps.
DJV: Twenty years ago, you turned your hope and optimism into an organization that has helped thousands of survivors and made a difference. Can you offer us all some closing advice on how to find hope and courage in these times?
EM: Vote! The world is kind of crushing right now in so many ways – and I feel crushed along with everybody else. But when you stop and think about it, people are getting more involved and wild cultural shifts are happening with respect to the way people think about women’s rights and anti-racism, and so much more. I have a couple of teenaged kids at home and when I see them and their friends – and how engaged they are – it gives me a lot of optimism, a lot of hope, and a lot of motivation. I love when they get their tired old parents like me re-engaged! I think it is going to pay off. Especially if everyone gets out and votes!
DJV: What are you working on now?
EM: I’m involved in a lot of local and state-based work. So many laws that impact our daily lives are made on those levels, and we need leaders who are empathetic and aware of the issues that face us today, including centering the needs of survivors.
I’ve also been working on immigration advocacy, I’ve been working specifically with one family, which is different than the broader advocacy work I’ve been used to doing. The family has become a second family to me, really, and it has been interesting to go through this journey with them. I’m hoping to continue that work and turn it into something broader. For the last ten years, I’ve also worked with my filmmaker husband, Marshall Curry, and it’s been super fun and a departure from anything else I’ve ever done, to be part of some beautiful films, including one that won an Oscar this year! I’m taking a break on that work for now, as I dig in to state advocacy and immigration work, which are a little closer to my heart. And, in my spare time, I write rhyming poetry about science and women scientists!
DJV: Elizabeth, thank you so much! Every time I talk to you I feel more inspired, which I need at this time too. I’m so grateful for everything you’ve done and for the legacy that you’ve handed us. We will be good stewards of it. We will grow it and we will work to make sure that we protect more survivors and think creatively and expansively about what we can do in the future.
EM: Thank you! I am so encouraged and inspired by you and your energy, and the WomensLaw/NNEDV team. I’m looking forward to thinking about ways I can continue to help, because it is so exciting to see the organization moving ahead and innovating.
DJV: There are so many ways for you and anyone learning about NNEDV and domestic violence to be engaged in this movement – and we’re so grateful for your work and the community you’ve helped us build.
The WomensLaw Email Hotline is the only national online hotline that provides plain-language, state-specific legal information and support in English and Spanish. You can help WomensLaw.org continue to serve survivors of domestic violence by making a donation today to support our work:
You can also become a sustaining member of NNEDV and help us work towards a future where gender-based violence no longer exists: