The movement against domestic violence: celebrating our history

A Safe blog by Gill Hague, Professor Emerita of Violence Against Women Studies

Women’s Aid and the services in the present domestic violence sector arose originally out of pioneering women’s activism, fighting for social change. The direct connection from today back to the movement against violence against women of the 1970s is one which is sometimes now forgotten. Some present-day domestic violence workers know little of the redoubtable feminist heritage on which their work was founded.

A new book published on May 26th 2021 records the history of the women’s liberation movement and the movement against domestic violence specifically, in this and other countries. The book features input from Women’s Aid and charts the struggle to take on domestic violence, and to set up refuges, reflecting on their early concerns, passions and politics. Now refuges are commonplace, even though facing cutbacks and fragile funding, but back at the beginning they were entirely new to everyone. No-one had seen anything like them before.

The book is called History and Memories of the Domestic Violence Movement: We’ve come further than you think. It records the dynamic history we all made while many of the older activists from the early days are still here. Charting the movements against domestic abuse and for the liberation of women, the book is non-academic and contains anecdotes, some memoir, testimonies from survivors and interviews. It is illustrated with a few poems.

Ideally, this would have been a collectively written account. However, that has not been forthcoming as yet. Meanwhile, this book was coordinated and written by myself, but so many activists from the early years and later were willing to contribute that it has become at least the beginning of a collective effort to record our history.

 

The great mobilisation of women

It was the women’s liberation movement from about 1970 that led the way. The book celebrates everything that the activists made and continue to make, 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)

 

Full of zeal and passion, the movement quickly took up the cause of men’s violence, moving forward with verve, campaigning for change and beginning the setting up of refuges. A coordinating network was established, initially in 1974, as the National Women’s Aid Federation. This later split into the four federations, one for each of the UK countries.

The federations coordinated the nascent network of projects which were beginning to appear all over the UK, most of them established after endless, dedicated work by collectives of women, working unpaid. Since then, Women’s Aid and the domestic violence movement 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. 

 

The first brave initiatives started out on an unknown path

Looking back, the original refuges of the domestic violence movement were quite revolutionary. And women trying to get away from domestic violence immediately arrived at these previously-unknown and brand-new projects. Immediately. 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. 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, at its beginning.

 

Radical early politics

The radical early politics of refuges are revisited in the book so that we can perhaps learn from them today. Refuges always tried to do things differently. 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. 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 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.

 

Challenges as time went on

The book discussed the later challenges mounted by Black and minoritised women who recognised that the developing movement was 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, the network of projects provided by and for South Asian women across the UK countries, and pioneering developments in Scotland and Wales. However, many Black and minoritised women’s projects still face discrimination today and have been disproportionately affected by the cutbacks and lack of funding since 2010, as recorded by Imkaan, Women’s Aid and others.

 

Changing the world

The book starts in the early days but then records developments to date within Women’s Aid, charting its 50-year history. It also reflects on the now wide-ranging domestic violence and abuse sector in the UK, including attention to organisations like Refuge, SaveLives, Ava, Solace and inter-agency initiatives and consortiums. It charts the rape crisis and sexual violence movement, and the campaigns and service development around ‘honour’-based violence, FGM and forced marriage. And it records the struggles, in later years, around funding and the development of competitive commissioning frameworks.

The book 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. The book also addresses legal frameworks, activist campaigning, policy and strategy development, and the evolution of activist-oriented feminist research.

 

Conclusion

The emphasis throughout the book is on what the activists did, our triumphs, victories, inadequacies and defeats – but mainly on the fact that, even though domestic abuse by men continues to occur almost universally, the transformations have been massive since the early days.  The movements against domestic abuse have changed the world in terms of support, campaigns, services, policies and awareness, 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 male violence.

 

The cover and dedication of the book

 The book is dedicated to survivors of violence and to the inspiring activists all over the world who have fought for so long, many of whom the author has had the honour of working with. The cover features a ‘zapatos rojos’ protest held in Mexico City, on International Women’s Day, 2020. Each shoe, coloured red for blood, represents a woman killed. This huge demonstration 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.

Gill Hague, Professor Emerita of Violence Against Women Studies

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.”

Publication and event details

The book is published by Policy Press on May 26th.  It can be ordered at: History and Memories of the Domestic Violence Movement: We’ve Come Further Than You Think with 20% discount from Policy Press.

Events planned, some through Women’s Aid (England), include a presentation at National Conference.  There are podcasts from Filia and Policy Press, blogs from Filia and others, articles, zooms and conference presentations, nationally and internationally.  A zoom event on collective working held by the Women’s Resource Centre features the book on June 10th.  Two face-to-face (and zoom) events are planned as celebrations of the violence against women movement, featuring the book with contributions from Gill.  One is planned in Bristol on September 30th, featuring Rebecca and Russell Dobash, Nicola Harwin (previous long-term CEO of Women’s Aid (England), Ravi Thiara, Marianne Hester and others.  The second, organised by CWASU, is planned in London on October 1st, featuring Pragna Patel, Sarbjit Ganger Liz Kelly and others.

References

Dobash, R. E. and Dobash, R. (1992) Women, Violence and Social Change, London: Routledge.

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