It wasn’t long ago that the United States did not have centers for women in crisis. In 1971, feminist Roxcy Bolton declared that the creation of crisis centers was long overdue. She shed light upon this issue amidst rising rates of crimes against women and outcries from women throughout the state of Florida. The creation of a treatment center for victims of sexual assault would not come easily or quickly. However, when it was established, it was the first of its kind in the nation and it set a precedent for those that followed.
Bolton was a pioneer of the feminist movement within Florida and nationwide, and “firsts” were something she excelled at. She founded the first National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter in the state of Florida. She initiated a neighborhood crime watch in the city of Coral Gables, where she resided throughout most of her activism. The watch was the first of its kind in Florida, and through it Bolton empowered community members to watch after each other to prevent violent crime. She also founded Women in Distress in 1972, the first women’s rescue shelter in Florida. Women in Distress provided housing, rescue services and assistance to women in situations of personal crisis. It should be unsurprising then that two of Bolton’s many passions were women’s health and community safety. Her dedication to these initiatives is evident throughout the Roxcy O’Neal Bolton Papers, collection M94-1 at the State Archives.
Bolton’s drive for women’s health and safety pushed her to petition for change in sexual assault treatment and legislation. Bolton saw problems with how these issues were handled in Dade County. Victims, from Bolton’s perspective, were being treated inadequately by law enforcement. She also noted a stigma that followed victims throughout their everyday life. The stigma was apparent in the way victims were spoken about or to, as well as within the literature surrounding assault prevention. These factors, Bolton argued, were discouraging women from coming forward for help and from pursuing prosecution.
In a 1973 letter from Bolton to Sheriff and Director of Public Safety of Miami E. Wilson Purdy, Bolton declared that police officers must re-evaluate their approach toward sexual assault, arguing that 50% of allegations were disqualified, which discouraged victims from coming forward. Bolton pushed for allegations to be more critically examined before they were disqualified.
Resources for prevention or for victims of sexual assault were hard to find. Pamphlets on how to prevent sexual assault offered common-sense tips: “Lock your house and car doors” and “Avoid walking alone.” Though sound advice for anyone, this would not aid in true prevention or help victims. It was pamphlets such as these that inspired Bolton to act. Women, she argued, “are tired of hearing that the way to prevent rape is to keep their car doors locked….” In her letter to Sheriff Purdy, Bolton wrote: “the issue is the same as if you, Sheriff Purdy, were beaten in your home by an intruder because you forgot to lock the door—you wouldn’t be grilled as to why you didn’t lock your door.”
Frustrated with the state of help available for victims, Roxcy organized the Protest March Against Crimes of Rape held on October 4, 1971.
Bolton led protesters in making demands to Chief Garmire of the Miami Police Department (MPD). The first demand Bolton and her marchers made was that the MPD promptly devise and implement ways to provide necessary protection for women against sexual assault. Bolton also called for more foot and scooter patrols on Miami streets, sodium lights to create a safer environment, more police call-in boxes and a hotline number to report all serious crime. If a crime related to sexual assault, it had to immediately be switched to a female officer, and female officers must also be present at any interrogations of victims. And finally, Bolton’s last demand: the police department must immediately investigate and rapidly process complaints.
Some of these demands did end up being implemented. But it was not enough for Bolton. In her letter to Sheriff Purdy written on October 10, 1973, Bolton said she was proposing the establishment of a treatment center at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Police were instructed to take victims directly to the center, rather than questioning the victims. Bolton felt that silence among victims jeopardized their physical and emotional wellbeing, and a center dedicated to their specific needs would help encourage them to come forward and seek help.
In January 1974, Bolton’s dream came to fruition. Open 24 hours a day, the Miami Rape Treatment Center offered their services for those who needed help. Within six months, the center had given aid to over 300 victims ages eight through 74. The center was run entirely by professionals under medical director Dr. Dorothy Hicks at its time of opening. And not all personnel were women; it was said by staff that “by isolating the victims from males, you are giving the message that all males are bad.”
Patients who came to the center received the entire spectrum of care. They were given a physical examination by a gynecologist, a psychiatric counselling session, necessary lab work and a police interview. All of these services were provided in one location, something that was not available before, providing stability and ease of access for patients. The center was in a separate location from the rest of the hospital services, allowing for truly specialized care—a request made by Bolton and the Women’s Task Force. The center was innovative in its approach to care and rehabilitation and inspired the creation of other centers like it throughout the country.
It was a while in the making, but with Bolton’s determination, the center was created and is still open in Miami. After numerous letters from citizens pushing the issue, the center was renamed the Roxcy Bolton Rape Treatment Center in 1993. Long after her Protest March Against Crimes of Rape, Bolton’s legacy as an advocate for victims continues on in the center for which she fought.