Celebrating Women’s Aid and the violence against women movement: A new book remembers
Some of us in the Women’s Aid Federations across the UK’s countries can remember being part of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. Quite likely, those days transformed our lives. As many of us who are old enough can remember, the movement was full of passion, daily change, vibrancy, disagreements, arguments, transformative politics, leaps forward in feminist understandings and campaigns – and new ways of living.
It was the women’s liberation movement from about 1970 that led the way in taking on sexual and domestic violence, as in the famous quote:
“The great mobilisation of women began with a vision, supported by action. The vision was of a world transformed. ”
(Dobash, R. E. and Dobash, R., 1992)
Struggling against men’s violence was a key part of this vision and gave rise to the violence against women movement which, of course, continues today.
Full of passionate zeal, the movement quickly moved forward with verve, campaigns for change and the beginning of the setting up of refuges. A coordinating network was established, initially in 1974 and, at that time, was called the National Women’s Aid Federation. This quickly split into the four Federations we know today, one for each of the UK countries, with Welsh Women’s Aid set up in 1978.
Thus, Women’s Aid has been for nearly 50 years the umbrella body for refuge and domestic violence services. The four Women’s Aid Federations have taken the work forward tirelessly with strong feminist politics and commitments throughout, supporting and giving foundation to the broad-based domestic violence and abuse sector we have today, and to wider work on violence against women and girls.
Domestic abuse services have been often under attack in recent years, especially those for black and minority women, but they are there, none the less. Before the women’s movement started campaigning about them, there was virtually nothing: no services, no awareness, no counselling, no housing options, no help.
A new book remembers
A new book remembers and celebrates the movement we all made. The book is called History and Memories of the Domestic Violence Movement: We’ve come further than you think. It records in brief – and moderately informally – the dynamic history of our struggle, while many of us older activists are still here. Charting the movements against domestic abuse and for the liberation of women, the book contains anecdotes, some memoir, and both testimonies from survivors and interviews. It is illustrated with a few poems.
Of course, ideally, this would have been a collectively written account of our collective movement. But that is not yet forthcoming. As a starter maybe, I was commissioned to write the book. But it was informed by both older and younger women’s activists and by the domestic violence and abuse sector, in wide-ranging consultations which included participation by the Federations. I was privileged that Welsh Women’s Aid contributed. Because of so much input from other activists and practitioners, the book is at least a bit of a collective memory.
From the mid-1970s on, then, Welsh Women’s Aid and the other Federations coordinated the network of new projects which were appearing all over the UK’s countries, most of them established after endless, dedicated work by collectives of women, working unpaid. Since then, they have continued without pause to support and empower women and children experiencing violence, often transforming the lives of survivors, and attempting to both campaign for abused women and to develop culturally-specific, culturally-sensitive responses taking on equality and diversity issues.
An unknown path
Looking back, the original refuges of the domestic violence movement were quite revolutionary at the beginning. The provision of at least some refuges is quite commonplace now. But, then, no-one had seen anything like them before. Even so, women trying to get away from domestic violence immediately arrived at these previously-unknown and brand-new projects. They threw their fates to the winds to try to get help. These were acts of almost unimaginable courage at the time.
The new women’s initiatives confronted in clearly visible ways men’s rights and power within the family and society. Not only were women walking out of their marriages and relationships as soon as they found there was somewhere safe to go. They were then going to live with groups of other women at confidential locations. The very fabric of marriage and relations between men and women was being bravely challenged in a quite brazen way. The establishing of refuges was, and is, without doubt, something to celebrate. This short book is part of honouring the women involved and the pure audacity of it.
Radical early politics
The radical early politics of refuges are revisited in the book so that we can perhaps learn from them today. Refuge organisations always tried to do things differently, and still do. They mainly operated as collectives for twenty or thirty years, until the move to domestic violence organisations having CEOs developed around the 2000s. Being a collective is a brave and extremely challenging way to work, especially while dealing with something as traumatic as domestic abuse.
The women concerned worked out innovative ways of doing this, and one way was to try to break down power differences between the women providing the services and those using them. Some of these policies have been lost today, but they involved the women living in the refuge being members of the collective, and being involved in decision-making at both local and national levels in Women’s Aid. These were brave and pioneering moves forward to flatten hierarchies and share power. They transformed the lives of many (although of course not all) women and children coming to them.
Challenges from Black and minority women
The book discusses the later challenges mounted by Black and minoritised women who recognised that the developing movement was often not addressing the intersectional barriers they faced. As a result, the independent Black Women’s Movement developed services and social action, sometimes working within Women’s Aid and the wider movement, and sometimes separately. Leading the way were organisations like Southall Black Sisters, the London Black Women’s Project, the Asian Women’s Resource Centre, Brent, and the network of projects provided by and for South Asian women across the UK countries. Pioneering developments in Wales included, of course, BAWSO in Cardiff. The book covers the development of these specialist services for BMER women and children, when the initial general movement appeared to be slow to take on their needs. However, many Black and minoritised women’s projects still face discrimination today and have been disproportionately affected by the cutbacks and lack of funding from the Westminster Government since 2010.
Further issues covered
The book also covers the history of the domestic abuse struggle, up to the present-day, with the gradual moving away from the initial campaigning zeal to meet the demands of funders and commissioning frameworks, and to fight against backlashes and cutbacks. It reflects on the present emphasis on risk above all else, and the tendency towards ‘empire-building’ in some domestic violence and housing services. The coverage of the movements internationally includes looking at different attitudes to refuge provision in some parts of the Global South, and the development of trans-national feminist joint projects which attempt to avoid dominance from the West. Further, the book addresses legal frameworks, activist campaigning, policy and strategy development, and the evolution of activist-oriented feminist research.
In looking back over this redoubtable history, and especially to the early politics of Welsh Women’s Aid and the other Women’s Aid Federations from the 1970s/80s on, the book details something that was special. Those were radical times and the attempts made to ‘do things differently’ were inspiring and pioneering. They are in danger of being forgotten now. So, this book is part of remembering them in order, perhaps, to learn from them – practices like consciousness-raising, evolving and working in collectives, promoting survivors of domestic violence for jobs, senior positions and careers, and trying to break down power differences between women providing services and those using them. It is worth returning to these ideas.
Where can you get the book?
Published at the end of May 2021, the book is available from the Policy Press. It can be ordered at: History and Memories of the Domestic Violence Movement: We’ve Come Further Than You Think.
There are various events planned around the book, including speeches, conferences and Zoom events. Blogs, additional to this one, have been published by FiLia and Women’s Aid in England, and podcasts have been produced in the Transforming Society series and by FiLia (noted below). A Zoom event on collective working and movement-building was hosted in June by the Women’s Resource Centre in London, including inputs about the book and from campaigning organisations, Step Up Migrant Women and Women in Prison.
The book will feature at two events (which will hopefully be both face-to-face and streamed on Zoom). These events will celebrate the violence against women movement and everything that we worked for. On Sept 30th, there will be an event in Bristol featuring, probably, Rebecca and Russell Dobash, renowned researchers and activists on domestic violence and homicide, Nicola Harwin, previous pioneering CEO of Women’s Aid (England), Ravi Tiara, Marianne Hester and myself. On Oct 1st, there will be a celebratory event in London coordinated by Liz Kelly and CWASU. It will, probably, feature Pragna Patel from Southall Black Sisters, Sarbjit Ganger from Asian Women’s Resource Centre, Liz, myself, and others.
The book’s dedication
The book is dedicated to survivors of violence and to the inspiring activists all over the world who have fought on these issues for so long, many of whom I have had the honour of working with, in different countries. The cover features a red shoes (zapatos rojos) protest held in the Zocalo, Mexico City, in 2020. Each shoe, coloured red for blood, represents a femicide — a woman killed. This huge demonstration held on International Women’s Day last year was partially dedicated to Ingrid Escamilla Vargas. In February 2020, she was murdered, and mutilated in horrific ways too distressing to talk about, by her husband. The book is also dedicated to her memory.
Perhaps we can all take forward work challenging violence against women and girls in the name of Ingrid Escamilla Vargas.
In conclusion the emphasis throughout the book is on what Women’s Aid and the activists did, our triumphs, victories, inadequacies and defeats – but mainly on the fact that, even though abuse by men continues to occur almost universally, the transformations regarding domestic violence have been massive since the early days. Women’s Aid in the UK countries including Welsh Women’s Aid, and the movements against domestic abuse internationally, have changed the world in terms of support, campaigns, services, policies, awareness and the raising of survivors’ voices, despite cutbacks and backlashes. The landscape is unrecognisable to what went before in the 1950s/1960s. We have indeed come far in this huge and brave endeavour to take on domestic violence.
Professor Emerita of Violence Against Women Studies
Dobash, R. E. and Dobash, R. (1992) Women, Violence and Social Change, London: Routledge.
Commentators on the book include Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters, the ground-breaking Black women’s organisation established in 1979. She states, “Gill Hague’s marvellous book maps a critical period of feminist struggles in the UK, capturing their diversity, vision, passion, creativity and energy… If we are to defend the gains that have been made and build on them in future struggles for women’s liberation and wider social justice, we must know what came before us. A must-read.”