Ann Brickson talks quietly and reassuringly to the woman seated across from her. The woman has tears in her eyes, a young child on her lap, and a large bruise on her cheek.
Slowly, Brickson gets the women to tell her story about how she's been beaten once too often by her husband, how she has no money and no place to go.
In another part of the office a volunteer is on the phone following up a rape victim's crisis-call the night before. She already has spoken to the victim advocate, summoned to help the woman through the barrage of medical, legal and family questions. Now she's trying to determine other services the woman will need.
It's a typical day, says Carol Becker, executive director of the Alexandria Commission on the Status of Women. Becker, following a city council's ordinance, has put together a multi-service organization for women, offering such things as crisis and emergency counseling, employment information and workshops on non-traditional jobs.
"Although much of our work is crisis-oriented, we have a lot of drop-ins who just want to talk about where they are in context with other women," says Becker. "They want to look at their lives, examine their roles and careers. Sometimes they want to change them, and sometimes after talking with us, they're quite satisfied with themselves.
"There's no specific age of the woman who comes to us. We counsel clients from 18 to 60."
Most area counties and cities sponsor and fund commissions for women. Alexandria, Montgomery County and Prince George's offer a wide range of free referral and walk-in services. The District of Columbia, Arlington, Falls Church and Fairfax, are advisory and/or advocacy organizations which identify specific needs of area women.
Montgomery County's "A Woman's Place," a commission-run activities and resources center, offers women short-term counseling on a variety of subjects, from adjusting to a separation or divorce, to assertiveness training, to just plain coping with today's changing life styles.
Executive director Quincalee Brown, who administers the seminars, also has set up more specialized programs dealing with such things as physical disabilities, new motherhood, stress management, homemaker skills, mid-life crises and widowhood.
The Montgomery County commission also runs a career-readiness center, New Phase, which sponsors workshops, seminars and counseling for women re-entering the job market.
Although the Prince George's commission does not deal directly with emergency-crisis situations (except in the case of battered wives), it does refer women to organizations equipped to handle specific problems. Executive director Susan Helfrich has established committees concerned with child care, Title IX education, employment, and assessment of specific needs of county women.
Helfrich's organization works closely with New Alternatives, a county-run employment agency, and the privately-run battered women's shelter (helped in the beginning by a $2,000 commission donation).
The District of Columbia commission operates mainly as an advisory agency authorized to conduct studies, review progress, and develop and recommend programs and legislation dealing with women. The commission recently published a directory of organizations and individuals concerned with women's rights and maintains a roster of D.C. residents who wish to be appointed to government committees.
The Falls Church commission functions primarily as an informational service, disseminating news about laws and programs affecting women through the city's newsletter, Focus.
Fairfax County, in addition to its informational and referral commission, also has a re-entry women's employment service ($25, for those who can afford the charge). Scholarships are also available for the courses, designed to help women determine employment skills, assess the current job market, and sharpen resume writing and job-interview techniques.
Arlington County's Committee on the Status of Women serves strictly in an advisory capacity. It does, however, conduct meetings on topics such as credit and domestic assault.
Regardless of whether the organizations are walk-in oriented or not, they all operate in advisory capacities to city and county councils and managers, and they are all concerned with legislation affecting women. Most have court-monitoring programs to identify laws discriminating against women.
Many of the walk-in services deal with the same general areas -- employment, sexual assault, and wife abuse -- although each approaches it differently.
The Alexandria commission does a great deal of outreach work in the community. They show, for example, a slide-film about employment: at church meetings, laundromats, beauty salons. "Anywhere," says director Becker, "women congregate."
The Montgomery County commission -- which sees as many as 500 women a month -- has the largest staff: 30 women helping either as peer counselors or as volunteers.
In addition to regular staffs, most of the organizations have volunteer commissioners appointed by city or county executives. The commissioners serve from two to four years, meet at least once a month, and cut across all lines of political, ethnic, economic, religious and social strata. What they all have in common is a strong desire to help women.
It's 6 p.m. at the Alexandria commission, and everyone but director Becker and a staff coordinator has gone home.
The phone rings, Becker answers and reaches for a pencil. "No, we're still here. How can we help you?"