The house at 584 Grand Av. in St. Paul was not quite ready for guests in the fall of 1974.

But the doorbell and phone constantly rang. On the other end, pleas for a place to stay from women in crisis. Beaten. Abused. Terrified.

There was only one thing for the small band of women activists to do: open the doors.

Sharon Rice Vaughan was among the first to welcome those beleaguered guests. Together with her friends, she created Women’s Advocates — the nation’s first shelter for battered women and children.

In a meeting to determine who would work that first overnight shift, the women drew straws.

“I was hoping and hoping I wouldn’t be the one, because I did not want to stay in that big old house all by myself at night,” recalled Lois Severson, one of the pioneers. But Vaughan badly wanted to do it, and she got her wish.

Vaughan opened the door to more than a safe place to stay for a night. She and her fellow advocates developed a program of powerful self-change for thousands of women fleeing abusive relationships.

The original house still stands, connected to two more. Nearly 1,000 women and children arrive each year, greeted with warm meals, a safe bed, and counseling.

“She was essential and the primary reason that there was that first shelter,” said Pat Murphy, one of the organizers.

“She was so committed — so deeply committed to ending the oppression of women,” recalled longtime friend Susan Ryan, one of the founders.

That passion must have overridden any concern about taking on that first night alone in the house, Ryan mused.

“It had the element of danger,” she said.

“It took a lot of chutzpah,” Severson added. “She was fearless.”

Allie Shah