Defying Limits

03/01/2023 01:58 AM By Lisa Anderson
Dr. Judy Wilson
Dr. Judy Wilson
Story by Taylor Strickland • Photo by Joshua Jacobs

Defying Limits

Women’s Rights Activist Changes Minds

A long-time fan of Pat Conroy novels, Dr. Judy Wilson of the Ocala Sexual Assault Center has always held certain preconceptions about the Deep South. “When I thought of the South, I thought of aristocrats looking out from their mansions at the passersby in their carriages. The women sipped mint juleps and greeted the people below, all smiles, only to gossip about them as soon as they passed by.”

Unfortunately for Judy, her estimation was not entirely wrong. Rural communities, such as Ocala, could be quite unwelcoming to outsiders in the 1970s, especially if said outsider was also a pantsuit—and miniskirt-wearing women’s rights activist.

Third Time's the Charm

“I wouldn’t marry you before, and I’m not going to now,” was the response Judy gave late-husband Jim Shook on his second proposal attempt. Though her family background was full of Midwestern farmers and teachers, Judy was reluctant to leave the comfort of her tropical city home in Singer Island for the rural farming community of Ocala.

Not a man to be deterred, Jim eventually upped the ante. “About seven months after his last proposal, he promised that if I moved to Ocala and married him, he would put me through my PhD.” Judy finally said yes.

As a bonus, Jim also assisted in opening the first of five shelters in the surrounding area. “He bought the second shelter building for the agency and worked as our lawyer,” Judy recalls fondly. “It was a match made in heaven.” They were married in 1972.

Back in the city, Judy had robust resources at her disposal. Rural Ocala had no such accommodations, and Judy found herself as one of only three mental health professionals in Marion County. “And none of them wanted to deal with violent criminals,” Judy laughs. “They kept sending them all to me!”

Nevertheless, Judy was unfazed. She felt qualified to face the challenges Ocala presented head-on.

Problem Solver

Judy considers herself a born problem-solver and safety regulator. “I like knowing resources,” she explains. “I go into a hote,l and I want to know where the exits and entrances are, the restrooms, and even the restaurants.”

While civic resources were stretched thin all over Ocala in those days, Judy identified the most apparent lack after she became an advocate for rape victims admitted to the local hospitals. “I’ll never forget the time my assistant and I were at the hospital, a nurse came into the waiting room and asked, ‘Which one of you is a rape victim?’ It was then I realized the need for a rape crisis center in Ocala.”

The Good Ol' Boys Club

When Judy first moved to Ocala, she was the only person who regularly attended the County Commission sessions. She had to forgo her fashionable pantsuits, as a sign posted outside of the courthouse informed her that she must wear a skirt or dress to be allowed entry. Judy was eventually approached by an official.

“Young lady,” he said. “Can we help you?”

“Yes, sir,” Judy replied. “I’m new. I’m here to watch my government at work.

“He didn’t believe me,” says Judy. “He called my husband to ask what I really wanted. Jim just laughed and told him I was sincere.” This was Judy’s first real encounter with that bastion of Southern paternalism, commonly referred to as the “good ol’ boys club.” To overcome hostility and secure funding for the crisis center, Judy had to develop a new strategy.

“I made friends with their wives and kissed their babies,” Judy says conspiratorially. “That was the only way.”

Unfortunately, politicking was not a guaranteed path to acceptance. Though sexual assault was a popular social justice issue in the 70s and 80s, activist efforts did not receive unanimous support. Detractors were relentless. “One day we came home to find our cats hanging from a clothesline; another time, someone threatened to burn our house down; and once, a pig’s head was left on our front porch with a note attached that said the next time it would be in our bed, Godfather-style.

“My greatest personal success in Ocala was when people stopped trying to kill me,” Judy says, only half joking. “My greatest professional success was altering the local perception that a husband could do anything he wanted to his wife.”

One Out of Four

Judy worries about the center’s future. Sexual assault is not a major concern these days, and Judy blames it on the rise of social media. “Regular exposure to violence creates different attitudes toward human life. It becomes blasé.”

When asked about the day-to-day operations of the center, Judy points to a row of pamphlets along the side wall. “Strength, Shelter, and Support to Weather the Storm” is the motto printed on the pamphlets. “I came up with it in the 80s,” claims Judy. “What kinds of things do you do for your family? That’s what we do for our clients at the center.”

Judy would like for Ocala to better understand the center’s purpose. “One out of four women experiences domestic violence. One of six experiences sexual assault. Our purpose is not to split up families but to make them safe and help women cope.”

Judy has dedicated her life to supporting those in need, and she is far from finished: She would love to go back to school for a second PhD in forensic psychology.
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