Virginia “Ginny” NiCarthy helped establish the nation’s first rape-crisis center and wrote “Getting Free,” a seminal book that’s helped hundreds of thousands of women across the globe leave abusive relationships.
A therapist, activist and adventurer, she mentored dozens of women working to end domestic violence, traveled to international hot spots to see conditions for herself, and ultimately chose to die on her own terms before dementia could steal her curious, creative mind.
“She always impressed people with her fearlessness and courage,” said Ms. NiCarthy’s daughter, Seattle artist Iskra Johnson. “She was a pistol — irreverent and witty and smart and hilarious … She was a very complicated, intelligent woman. She had a very rich life.”
An author of several books, Ms. NiCarthy learned Spanish in Guatemala, studied art in Mexico, and traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia as a witness for peace.
For two months before her death on Sept. 23, Ms. NiCarthy’s family and friends traveled from all over the country to say their goodbyes before she decided to stop eating and drinking. She was 92.
Decades before Washington’s Death with Dignity Act was approved by voters in 2008, Ms. NiCarthy and a group of friends made a pact to help each other die with agency and dignity intact, Johnson said. But none of her friends were still alive to help her.
Ms. NiCarthy, who was physically healthy despite the slow onset of dementia over the past three years, wasn’t eligible for medical intervention to end her life because the law allows aid only for terminally ill adults with at most six months to live.
“It was a focus for her politically,” said Johnson, who with her brother, Nathan Crow, supported their mother’s decision and were with her in her final weeks.
Born in San Francisco on April 30, 1927, Ms. NiCarthy, the youngest of five children, grew up in Redwood City, California. Her father, Paul A. McCarthy, was a lawyer and served as Redwood City’s mayor, and her mother, Alice (Byrne) McCarthy, was a switchboard operator turned homemaker.
Raised a Catholic, Ms. NiCarthy lost faith in the church and turned to politics and social-justice activism as a way to help others and find meaning and purpose in her life, Johnson said.
She moved to Seattle in her 20s and in 1953, met her first husband, Robert S. Johnson, and gave birth to their daughter a year later. They were an intellectual, politically engaged couple who became part of Seattle’s bohemian scene centered around the Cirque and Repertory playhouses. During local hearings of the Committee on Un-American Activities, the couple — who were never members of the Communist Party — hid friends in their basement to help them avoid subpoenas compelling their testimony, their daughter said.
“You didn’t have to be a Communist to sympathize with people being persecuted by (Sen. Joseph) McCarthy,” said Johnson, who came across her mother’s handwritten notes documenting the hearings.
The couple divorced after 2½ years of marriage. A couple of years later, Ms. NiCarthy wed William Crow and had two sons, Matthew and Nathan; that marriage ended in divorce 20 years later. In the mid-1960s, Ms. NiCarthy earned her teaching certificate and taught at schools in Seattle’s Central District, including Meany Middle School. She returned to college a second time, earning her master’s in social work from the University of Washington in 1974. Her therapy practice included counseling battered women.
Sometime in the 1970s, she changed her surname from McCarthy — which in Irish means “son of Carthy” — to NiCarthy, which means “daughter of Carthy.” The change came “when she realized how deep her feminist sentiment went,” Johnson said.
In 1972, Ms. NiCarthy helped found Seattle Rape Relief, the first rape crisis-center in the U.S., where volunteers staffed a 24-hour hotline for victims of sexual assault (the agency closed in 1999). She was jailed for two months in 1976 after she was arrested while protesting the Trident Submarine Base on the Kitsap Peninsula. It wasn’t the only time she was arrested for civil disobedience: In 2013, at age 86, she was arrested in Bellevue protesting the country’s immigration policies, according to a friend who was arrested with her.
After being rejected by 50 publishers, Ms. NiCarthy took her manuscript for “Getting Free: A Handbook for Women in Abusive Relationships” to Seal Press, a small, women-owned Seattle publishing house. The book, published in 1982, was reviewed by The New York Times and quickly recognized as groundbreaking. It has been translated into several languages and was updated and reissued in 2004.
“We called her book ‘The Bible,’ and it was used by every domestic-violence program across the country. It was definitely the first self-help book written for survivors of domestic violence,” said Merril Cousin, who was working at a shelter in Maine when the book came out and later became executive director of the Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence, a King County agency that gives out an annual advocacy award named for Ms. NiCarthy.
After moving to Seattle in 1989, Cousin joined a collective that started a support group for abused lesbians, and Ms. NiCarthy was asked to advise the group, now known as the NW Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse.
“I’ll admit to being a little star-struck at the time,” Cousin recalled. “She was always educating me on social-justice issues and to her, it was all part of the same struggle.”
Ms. NiCarthy was a feminist and civil-rights activist who protested against the War on Drugs and the Iraq War, advocated for criminal-justice and immigration reform, and volunteered on committees and boards across the city, Cousin said.
One of them was Chaya, now API Chaya, which supports Southeast Asian survivors of domestic violence.
“The thing with Ginny was she understood human nature, so she understood it to be imperfect, amazing, destructive and joyful,” said Aaliyah Gupta, a former executive director of Chaya who was introduced to Ms. NiCarthy in 2001 by Pramila Jayapal, now Democratic congresswoman from Seattle. “She didn’t sit in a box and she saw all the nuances. Any kind of injustice would get her riled up.”
Ms. NiCarthy’s family is thinking about planning a memorial service for her in February, her daughter said. In addition to her children, Ms. NiCarthy is survived by a granddaughter.
“She was far more focused on people and saying goodbye while she was still alive,” Johnson said. “My guess is she would say, ‘In lieu of flowers, donate to a good cause.'”