In 1974 Dr. Natalie Stephens founded Rape Victim Advocates (Resilience) with the support of ten medical and nursing students. Events and Special Projects Manager, Jennifer Zale, sat down with Dr. Stephens’ daughter, Martha Turner, to talk about Resilience’s early years, the evolution of attitudes and support for survivors, and who her mother was as a person.

Interview with Martha Turner

JZ: Thank you for sitting down with me today to talk about your mom and her legacy, and the establishment of Resilience (Rape Victim Advocates or RVA).

MT: It (Resilience) was one of her proudest accomplishments. She supported the students (original volunteers), helped launch the organization, and supported it afterwards. But obviously the hard work of keeping it going for this long has been the efforts of many people.

JZ: I have several questions for you. Do you remember when RVA was founded?

MT: I was 15 when RVA was launched. I remember my mom talking about it. It was a big topic of conversation around the dinner table. Around that same time, the book Against Your Will was published. I’m sure it’s very dated now, but it was a very heavily read book and it really focused on rape and women being victimized, bringing these topics into a broader discussion. I can remember my mom and I led a discussion of the book at our church so it was it was a topic that was being talked about in our house. I link these two events in my memory, the book and her talking about RVA and the struggles to get things going.

JZ: I see you were old enough to have some memories.

MT: Yes, my school had a program where during the last month of your senior year you could do what was called a May Project. I handled the phones at RVA and got trained to do so. It was only for a month but I can remember my parents driving me to the northside to be on the phones at night. That’s my only memory, but I did get involved a bit before going to college.

JZ: Did you have an office on the northside? Was it just one office?

MT: That’s my memory. The office was a big room with a lot of windows. I think it was on the northside. It wasn’t downtown.

JZ: Do you happen to remember if survivors would go there?

MT: No. My memory at that time is that all in-person interactions happened either in the hospital or in court buildings. That was the support provided. I don’t think anybody came to the office. Phone calls were handled there and probably training. But I don’t think survivors came for any counseling or anything like that.

JZ: Do you happen to know which hospitals the original ten volunteers served?

MT: Well, I know they started just with Northwestern because that’s where my mother was affiliated and that’s where the students were. And then they slowly added on. I think for quite a while, a couple years, it was maybe five. It was limited initially and then expanded much more. I have nothing against social workers because I’m a social worker by training, but one of the biggest issues and resistance initially was the head social worker at Northwestern. The thought was we can’t have untrained people or lay people providing support. The social workers weren’t doing this kind of work with rape victims but they didn’t want others doing it in their hospitals. I think some of that was legitimate concern about quality of care and some of it was territorial. I remember hearing about the territorial tussle. It was a big deal to finally be able to do it. I don’t know if the social work department was out maneuvered or they agreed to it finally, but eventually the advocates were allowed to be at Northwestern.

JZ: The original ten volunteers were all med students. Were they all from Northwestern?

MT: I believe so.  All women medical students.

JZ: Northwestern is still one of our biggest partner hospitals today.

MT: And that’s where my mother and her patients were. She also taught a course at Northwestern Medical School. I think she taught a course on responding to rape victims, but I’m not exactly sure. As an OB-GYN she was an attending at Northwestern hospital, served on the Medical School Admissions Committee for the medical school for a while, and taught this course. I don’t remember whether that was how these students knew her. I think it may have been through that course. I honestly don’t know, but I think the original idea came from the students and it was more her politically taking hold of it and using her position as an attending physician to try to push things through.

JZ: This was 1974. Do you know if there was a tipping point for your mom and the students that made it clear that they had to create an organization like Resilience?

MT: Not that I remember. I think it was something that was built from a number of occurrences. I remember hearing that if someone came into the emergency room and was put into, say, room five, there would be things like “rape in room five” yelled down the hall. Those are the kinds of stories that I remember hearing.  A very inhumane way to treat rape victims.

JZ: It’s so different today. Survivors immediately get a private room and there are many rules and regulations.

MT: The other thing I know is my mom was involved in getting rape kits into the hospital. That wasn’t a standard procedure.

JZ: I can’t even imagine what that process was like because even in the past several years there have been so many issues with the backlog. I can’t imagine how hard it was to get the kits into the hospital, let alone test them.

MT: I’m not guaranteeing what happened to the rape kits but having them available and used was something she worked on. My other memory is that she met at one point with the chief of police in Chicago. I don’t remember who he was, but he made some just off the cuff horrific comments like “you know half of them are asking for it,” and commented on how they (survivors) dress and things like that. I’m not saying there aren’t cops out there who don’t think that way now, but no chief of police would ever utter those words now I hope, particularly not in Chicago. I mean, maybe it’s still true, but I’m hoping we’ve moved the needle somewhat even if there’s a long way to go.

JZ: Resilience partners with the police and we’ve done trainings to help them to better understand the neurobiology of trauma and that there’s more than one so-called “normal” reaction. It is still a work in progress.

MT: I’m sure it is. I’m not saying that it doesn’t still occur, but it was hard to even start the conversations because she didn’t feel like they were even open to it. They had these very archaic, anti-victim views.

JZ: We’ve been talking about stories around the establishment of Resilience that you remember from age 15, but do you have a memory or story that really stands out from around that time, the 70s, that relates to Resilience, or something your mom shared with you or you experienced as a volunteer?

MT: The resistance that she felt from the hospital, particularly social work and the story about the police.

This is not about the 70s, but my mom, not to brag on her behalf, but she did some amazing things, being a woman doctor at that time. She had done a number of things where I felt she had a lot to be proud of. Later in life, she moved from assisted-living into a nursing home where she spent her last few years. When she was moving into one room and we were really downsizing everything, she requested her vase from RVA be placed where she could see it. I’ll show it to you. After 20 years she wanted that in her room even though she had very little space. It was really important to her. I’m going to grab it.

JZ: I’d love to see it.

Vase gifted to Dr. Stephens to RVA

MT: It’s a vase. It says Dr. Natalie Stephens. RVA. With Appreciation. She wanted this gift from RVA with her and once she passed away, I, of course, kept it.

JZ: That is really special. Thank you so much for sharing. As her daughter, could you tell me a little bit about what was your mom like as a person?

MT: She was someone who very much stated her opinion. That was my role model and my norm. She was not someone who was deferential. She spoke up. She was very much used to being someone who had to sort of fight for her place. Frankly, all the female doctors I knew growing up who were her colleagues and friends were all tough as nails. I think it was by necessity and they just sort of had to hold their own. She was very compassionate and very concerned about her patients. She was in a solo practice and there was a rare Thanksgiving when she didn’t work. She wasn’t a big cook but she did cook Thanksgiving dinner. Often times she’d take the turkey out and then the phone would ring and she would go off and deliver a baby. I grew up where all throughout the night phone calls would come in and she’d leave and come back hours later. Her career and her connection with her patients were extremely important to her and we always knew that. I felt she was a great mom but she was also a great doctor. The work she did was important so if she couldn’t come to something at school etc. that’s just the way it was. It was just part of my world that she might not be able to do that and, of course, that’s in an era when most of my friends’ moms were at home, like many middle-class women at that period. She was the odd one out. Being a doctor was something that she wanted to do that was so much a part of her. It’s just how she breathed. My dad was pretty impressive and unusual in that he was fully supportive of her career. He understood that she needed to be able to go deliver a baby when she needed to and he was the primary care giver when needed.

JZ: What is your favorite thing about your mom?

MT: She was her own woman and that was powerful. It was powerful to be in that presence. When I spoke out about something, whether was in a classroom or in my community or whatever, I always felt like it was important to speak up. I follow what I believe. I never had a feeling like, oh well, I should be quiet and let the guys or the man in the room speak first. My mother made it clear that you do what you need to do and that’s the important thing.

JZ: Until 1986 Resilience was run entirely by volunteers. We still rely heavily on volunteers today, but we also have around 45 staff members.

MT: If I could bring her right back now she would just be overjoyed, thrilled and amazed that there are that many staff.

JZ: I’m just wondering if you have any information about how Resilience operated with your mom and the ten volunteers?

MT:  I know my mom did not go out. I don’t remember her ever going out to the hospital so I think that was all done by the medical students. I have a vague memory that people took different nights. I don’t know how they kept up with all their other things at the same time, but they traded off nights.

JZ: I know they were working out of Northwestern. Do you know if they were working out of any other hospitals?

MT: Initially, no. They were probably at Northwestern only for a couple years and then slowly added on. This was due to coverage, And I don’t think there was an idea that it would grow beyond Northwestern when it started. It was trying to impact Northwestern which all of the students and my mother were connected with.

JZ: Could you explain the national and/or local culture at the time pertaining to rape culture, the treatment of survivors and also options for survivors to receive help and support?

MT: First of all, it (a survivor) was always a woman. It wasn’t in the mindset to even think it could be anyone else, including children. I remember visiting RVA a number of years ago and learned about the program you have for children. But back then it was very much the mindset that it only happened to women. There was also the idea that you’re walking down an alley at night and you’re jumped. But, of course, sexual assault happens in relationships and in all sorts of settings. But back then there was a very narrow definition of rape and then even with that narrow definition, there was often this idea that, somehow, she brought it on herself with the way she dressed and the way she interacted. It was as if you had to go through all of these checklists of a zillion things and then maybe we can say it’s horrible that this happened. That it was truly rape. I realize the organization’s name was changed (from Rape Victim Advocates to Resilience) I assume in part because rape is too narrowly defined in a way. There’s now a broader understanding that these things happen to men and women and children. But back then it was very limitedly defined. And people worried so much about a woman lying and I know that’s still out there. It’s so bizarre to think about because the stakes are high now and they were so high then. It would be ludicrous to put yourself in that situation where you had to defend yourself. Where you had to relive the trauma.

JZ: Would you say that early on it was automatically assumed that a survivor would be a woman, particularly a young woman?

MT: Yes. And there was an assumption that rape was about sex. And that attitude feeds into “she did something alluring.” I think that was one of one of the main themes. It was always about how he’s over sexed or she’s luring him on. So, the idea that this was violence was sort of not there. It was there, but it wasn’t acknowledged.

JZ: Would you say the people getting help early on were pretty much all adult women?

MT:  Yes, I believe so. Obviously, I know even now it’s difficult for men to come forward as victims. Back then it wasn’t even in the worldview. Obviously, it existed but it wasn’t discussed or acknowledged at all.

JZ: How did Resilience get connected to the survivors it served in the early days?

MT: I really don’t remember, but I think initially it was the hospital calling them. I’m almost positive it started where if there was a rape victim, using the terms of the time, the hospital called a number and an advocate would come. It started where it was very focused on the hospital and then I think it expanded to people going to court with survivors.

JZ: I’m wondering if Resilience offered any follow-up services? You mentioned something about the courts.

MT: I do remember there were only two things back then. I think they started with the hospital and then added the court support. I was shocked when I visited (RVA) about 10 years ago and they were telling me about all these different services and advanced education programs to educate kids. None of that (previously existed). It was very much responding at the moment and then I think the addition later of the courts, but I don’t remember anything other than that.

JZ: Yes, today we offer trauma therapy, group therapy, support groups, art therapy, dance therapy etc.

MT: That is amazing. There was none of that, and frankly, I think that might’ve been too much for that group at that time. I think you really had to have more training and a support network for those services.

JZ: What do you think your mom and the original ten volunteers found most difficult about serving survivor in the 70s?

MT: I think probably just that so much of the system was against the survivor. That everywhere she turned it was just stacked against her. Obviously, they were advocating and supporting, but just the reality that they were always going through the gauntlet of trauma after the trauma.

JZ: We still see this today and people wonder why women in high profile sexual assault cases waited years or decades to come forward. It seems like a ridiculous question to even ask.

MT: We haven’t gone far enough.  The idea that you have to have one reaction. You have to have it at a certain time. There’s no question about it, the stakes are still incredibly high

JZ: Can you talk about how your mom’s work influenced you and possibly your choice of profession?

MT: I ended up working with international students and advocating for them. I think one piece that I took from her was that when you’re in a position of power, but also in the right place at the right time, you can advocate. You should advocate for people who don’t know the system and have less power. When I was working with international students I was always trying to explain this to others in the university environment. Look, you know, it seems automatic to you or knowledgeable to an American, but this is not the case for an international student. This is what they have to figure out. We can’t make the assumption that they understand the system. If somebody did certain things it would impact their immigration status, and there would be a much harsher penalty than for an American. So, I think advocating and speaking up. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I do think I learned that from her. Also, not being afraid to voice my opinion. I’m not implying that she was obnoxious although she could be really forceful. But, yes, speaking up and advocating.

JZ: Is there anyone throughout the years at Resilience who really stands out to you and had a positive impact on your experience?

MT: There was an Executive Director, Sharmili (Majmudar).  When my mother passed away I reached out to RVA and ended up speaking with her and wanting to figure out how we could honor my mother. That’s when the yearly award was named after her. Sharmili came to my mother’s memorial service, and tried to connect and learn more about our family. We still keep in touch and exchange holiday cards. I guess I really appreciated that. Be it the naming of the annual award for her or the gift of the vase, the organization has been good to my mother‘s memory. I know that she’d be beaming. She’d be so happy about that.

JZ: What kind of advice do you think your mom, or if you don’t want to answer for your mom, what advice would you give to a brand-new medical advocate, just trained by Resilience, who is about to take their first call?

MT: Small things really count. Being with someone and really letting them know you care matters. Sometimes you might think “I didn’t do much.”  And sometimes you get lucky and you might hear the impact you’ve had. A lot of times you don’t get that feedback but you really have to remember that acts of kindness and support are huge. You don’t always have to do big things. You can do a lot of little things and really make an impact. When you’re going in for the first time you may wonder if you are up to it, but your being at the door and willing to walk in is actually important. Obviously, we all want the advocates to be gaining skills and knowledge, but the reality is that showing up is really the first and most important thing.

JZ: Are you satisfied with the ways that services and attitudes towards survivors have changed over the years?

MT: Not satisfied, but this is showing my age in the sense that I think the longer you live the more you look back and think, well, it was worse before. Not always. Sometimes it gets worse, but I am very encouraged that knowledge about sexual assault and the attitudes have improved. Even though we have a long way to go, I think there has been movement and it’s organizations like RVA/Resilience that have really have had a huge impact.

JZ: What do you think we as a society in 2024 could improve the most on in this area?

MT: Believing the victim. Basics. It’s nothing new, but having faith when someone tells you about that kind of traumatic event. It takes a lot of courage and it should be respected.

JZ: How do you think your mom would feel if she could come back today and see the progress that has been made?

MT: I think my mother was a realist. She would read some of the news and say, my gosh, not enough has changed. But another part of her would be like, oh, it is great that certain things have changed, and evolved. . . But she would be really angry that more hasn’t changed.

JZ: What are you personally proudest of when it comes to your mom’s legacy?

MT: RVA is definitely one of them. Also, the fact that she was one of so few women in her graduating class. Once she graduated from medical school, she applied to 100 residencies and got one. Another story that she used to tell was when she was in high school in the physics class there was a complaint that the good-looking girls were distracting the boys and some of those good-looking girls, including the daughter of the chairman of the Board of Education, were removed from the class. My mother wasn’t removed and her line was always, “That’s when I knew I wasn’t good-looking.” But then she said, “If I hadn’t had that class I couldn’t have proceeded in college and stayed on track to medical school.” It was incredibly important to her to become a doctor. When I look back and hear those stories I’m amazed that she persevered the way she did.

JZ: The concern that girls were distracting the boys in class was an issue to some extent even when I was growing up in the 90s. And you still hear stories today in the news and elsewhere about girls and young women being accused of distracting boys and men from their studies due to appearance and wardrobe choices.

MT: That’s true. It’s not totally gone.

JZ: What would you like to see Resilience achieve in the near or far future? What would be your dream for Resilience?

MT: This sounds simplistic. My dream is that the organization celebrates its 100th anniversary. It’s amazing that the organization has grown, prospered and expanded their services in so many ways. There’s a staff, and it’s a sizeable staff. But I know that any nonprofit often has a hard road to travel. My wish is that there will be many more celebrations. Because, unfortunately, the issue of sexual assault is not going to disappear completely.

JZ: What is your most compelling reason why someone should support Resilience either as a volunteer or a donor?

MT: I think that when we all can feel safe against sexual assault, it allows people to go forth in the world and contribute to their full potential. When there is this fear of sexual assault that people experience in daily life and encounters, it’s like you have to hold a part of yourself back. So, for the good of society and individuals we should work towards a world where this just doesn’t happen.

Portrait of Dr. Stephens by a survivor.

Dr. Stephens with husband Lawrence Turner in the 1970s, around the time of RVA’s establishment

Proclamation from Rahm Emmanuel about RVA and Dr. Stephens (2012)


Martha Turner