The women who set up the first women’s refuges in the UK in the 1970s changed the world. They saved the lives of many women. And the projects and political actions they began have grown into an international movement which campaigns for justice and supports all survivors and victims of domestic violence. These brave women didn’t know they were changing the world, but they did know they wanted to challenge domestic violence as feminists and to provide strong support to women experiencing abuse. Because help and support was drastically needed.
I did leave a few times with the children. I got us all out. But it was so frowned on … You couldn’t leave your husband. It wasn’t done. I would have been horribly ashamed if anyone found out. And if I left, how would I support them? And there was never anywhere to go to … I didn’t have the money for a rented flat – I didn’t have any money at all of my own … just what I sneaked from the housekeeping he gave me, without him noticing. What could I do? After a few hours – or once we spent a night in a cheap hotel – we always went back.
These are the words of Edna*, who was speaking to me with great sadness in 1994 about her experiences of trying to leave home because of long-term and extreme domestic violence in the 1950s and 1960s. The interview was carried out towards the very end of Edna’s life, when she was aged about 80. She died shortly afterwards.
It had been shatteringly difficult for her to decide to speak. She had never talked about it before. But she did so in the hope it might help younger women suffering through similar abuse. Edna told me:
The way the violence ruined my life. It undermined my whole personality. I’m bitter that my life was gone and wasted, I lost it. It’s over now. It was wrecked. I lost my one life. I am old now and I am so profoundly saddened.
Of course, many survivors of domestic abuse these days speak in somewhat similar terms about how hard it is to leave their homes to escape violence. But the situation is unrecognisable now compared to how it was then. In the UK of the 1950s and 1960s, women facing abuse in their own homes were trapped. There were almost no domestic violence services, no specialist laws, no counselling and few housing options. There were no refuges at all. And people didn’t talk openly about it (just as Edna had not).
So there was virtually nothing to help women experiencing violence, little public recognition that such violence happened and almost no assistance from the police who, if called to a “domestic”, tended to regard a man’s home as most certainly his castle.
Then, the women’s movement against violence burst onto the scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Finally, things began to change.
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It’s important to say at this point that this article – and indeed a lot of present service provision and research by myself and others – focuses on women from all backgrounds and heritages. But domestic violence can be experienced by men, including gay and transgender men, and by non-binary people.
All victims and survivors deserve support and assistance. However, men form the huge majority of perpetrators. And official statistics tell us that women form by far the largest percentage of those abused (and may include lesbians and transgender women).
At a time when society has seen domestic violence surge due to coronavirus lockdowns, it is more important than ever to understand the history of the movement – to combat domestic violence and to raise awareness.
I have been deeply involved in the history of this movement for close to 50 years – since its inception. And I have spent much of my life as an activist and academic researching this period. My new book tracks this momentous period and is dedicated to all activists, victims and survivors of domestic violence around the world. It was written in memory of Ingrid Escamilla Vargas, whose horrific murder led to the huge “Zapatos rojos” (red shoes) demonstration in Mexico City in 2020.
My aim was to record the dynamic history of this struggle and I was fortunate to be able to speak with many of the activists who played key roles and whose crucial contributions help make the book the beginnings of a collective memory. It records a time of great verve and innovation which, sadly, may be beginning to fade from view.
The early movement
Going back to the beginning, the activists of the domestic violence movement in the UK and in many other (by no means solely western) countries in the early 1970s built a women’s movement full of passion and zeal. The first refuge – possibly in the world – was set up in Chiswick, London, by Erin Pizzey in 1971. Many other refuges were then established one after the other, more often than not by groups of extremely dedicated women, working with almost no money and little help.
These new groups proliferated rapidly. Scotland quickly had seven independent groups – the first in Edinburgh was set up in 1973, followed by Glasgow in 1974. More than 40 refuges came into being across the UK just in 1974 alone, with new ones being set up all the time. As well as providing safe and secure accommodation for women and children escaping violence in the home, the new groups campaigned about and publicised the issue of domestic abuse for the first time. And as soon as a refuge was up and running, abused women and children appeared at the door.
These developments also began happening in other parts of the world too in culturally specific ways. It can be claimed that the new women’s movements in the UK and internationally confronted – in concrete and undeniable ways – men’s rights and power within the family. At the time, the male-headed nuclear family could be viewed as the heart and bedrock of how personal, family and sexual relations were organised in society. And then suddenly, women were taking action to leave husbands who they had probably promised to “obey”. They were trying to get themselves out of violent marriages and partnerships, often without warning.
This act of defiance alone was extraordinary at the time. But these women went further. They began living together in groups with other women in safe houses (also run by women) at secret locations. It was quite a remarkable and entirely unpredicted development, stunning in its daring. The fabric of personal and sexual relations between men and women in marriage was suddenly being challenged.
The new domestic violence projects were innovative and experimented with new ways of working. This included organising as collectives – non-hierarchical structures where everyone is involved in decision making and work together, as equals, in egalitarian ways. Collective working is a hard and brave way to organise any project, let alone one dealing with something as distressing as domestic abuse, because working with others, equally, without a defined “boss” is a complex endeavour.
But the new refuges and women’s campaigns set up from the mid-1970s were all committed collectives. The women worked out novel ways of making decisions by consensus and of working collaboratively. This was usually understood, not as meaning that everyone did the same work, but rather that individuals might do specialist jobs. For example, working with women using the service, or working specifically with children, or perhaps conducting finance work. The point was that all jobs were of equal value and paid equally. Collective working continued to be widely practised until the early 2000s.
One way that collectivity was encouraged at this time was to try to break down power differences between the women providing the services and those using them. For example, the women living in the refuges were often regarded as members of the collective. In 1974, the National Women’s Aid Federation was set up to coordinate the many new refuges and quickly divided into four separate Women’s Aids federations, representing each country in the UK.
All decisions were made collectively across these federations and women who lived, or had lived, in refuges were able to be involved in decision making at both local and national levels, if they wanted. These were brave and pioneering moves forward to flatten hierarchies and share power.
The women who I spoke to who had lived in these refuges greatly appreciated the way they tried to make things more equal. Annie, for example, had experienced domestic violence in the 1980s. When she learned about what Edna had been through – and how profoundly it contrasted with her own situation in terms of the total lack of support Edna had experienced – she was pained and almost tearful. She was deeply moved by how improved her personal experiences had been 30 years later.
Annie talked about how different it would have been for her if, instead of being able to leave home and go to a refuge, she had ended up in some kind of homelessness hostel – or on her own with her child in a cheap, alienating bedsit.
‘A precious stepping-stone’
Instead, women like Annie and their children could get help from Women’s Aid and other domestic abuse projects. By the 1980s, most refuge groups were funded (even if insecurely) and well established at confidential locations, working as collectives and consulting domestic violence survivors about all aspects of their work. Annie first sought help from Welsh Women’s Aid and, due to the nature of the abuse she had experienced, was referred to a distant refuge.
She was offered a safe roof over her and her daughter’s heads, deep and sustaining emotional help, a chance to take a decision-making role in the house and assistance to get rehoused after some months. She spoke about how transformative it was, after years of confidence-shattering isolation and coercive abuse, to be in a situation where she was regarded with respect and could participate in the running of the project, along with the paid workers.
She was also able to meet women who had been in the same situation as her, to talk about the violence they had experienced and to offer each other support. Now in her 60s, Annie said that she doubts she would still be here without the committed help of the refuge and described how she made deep friendships. “It was a precious stepping stone – precious and priceless,” she added. It turned her life around in every way.
This offering of grounded, skillful support remains the case to a large extent today in Women’s Aid member groups and other feminist-connected domestic violence services. Even though some of the earlier polices like collective working are rarely practised these days, the “refuge way of doing things” is an important contribution to egalitarian social care. It showed – and, to a large extent, still shows – how to provide women’s services in an equal and empowering way and how to involve violence survivors in the process.
Another woman, Narina, who now has a successful career working with survivors of sexual violence, was able to transform her life, thanks to her time in a refuge as a young child, 30 years ago. She told me:
When my family and I first got help, what I felt as a child was that I met this kind lady who I sensed in my gut was safe. I was about nine or ten years old, and the kind lady was at the women’s refuge that my mother had taken me to. I knew the moment we stepped in the door that we were safe, no more walking on eggshells, no more shouting, screaming, banging, bruises, lies, then sorry, and the cycle starting again. That’s what the refuge meant to young me: safety and escape.
Narina went on to say that the refuges “saved” her and that the world is a safer place for many people because of them. She added: “They pass the torch on to women everywhere (including myself) to carry on the work. And they continue to inspire new generations to carry it on. Those refuge workers didn’t just work on violence against women, they sat right alongside the women and really listened and then influenced change.”
Annie agreed strongly with Narina’s insights in terms of her own and her daughter’s refuge experience. She explained how it was unbelievable to her that suddenly she was being taken seriously and listened to, after all those years of the exact opposite. Like Narina’s mother, she was regarded as a collective member. Both were in a position where they could be involved in the project, while there and after they left, if they wished.
The power-sharing policies enabled Annie to build her confidence and skills, to know that she was worth something and to make friends – 30 years later, those strong friendships are still in place, full of warmth, memories and mutual commitment.
Annie said she was helped to grow strong by other women in the refuge and by the workers. Having someone to talk to about her abuse who understood gave her a new autonomy. Being treated as an equal by the workers enabled her to develop a successful life and to feel and be respected and worthwhile. She later worked as a volunteer worker at the collective’s office for some years, and her work included interviewing applicants for jobs as new refuge workers.
Racism and discrimination
Women from black and minority ethnic communities also started forming autonomous feminist groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as part of the independent black women’s movement. They often did so as a result of dissatisfaction with the wider women’s movement and of feeling they did not fit into it.
Social theorists and activists like bell hooks, Angela Davis and Patricia Hill Collins developed theoretical and practical understandings of these failures. The Brixton Black Women’s Group was set up in 1973 as a direct response, and was the first feminist black women’s centre in the UK.
While some mainly white groups working on domestic abuse did make serious attempts to take on issues of racism, others were seemingly oblivious and failed to deal adequately with the racist oppression that black women faced. By the 1980s and 1990s, the challenges faced by the black women’s movement led to the establishment of specialist projects on domestic violence for black, minority ethnic and refugee (BMER) women, as well as campaigns taking on diversity and difference.
Key organisations set up to deal with violence against BMER women included Southall Black Sisters, established in 1979, Asian Women’s Resource Centre (in Brent, London), the network of refuges for South Asian women across the UK and key developments in Scotland and Wales (for example, Shakti Women’s Aid in Edinburgh and Bawso in Cardiff).
Projects for Latin American, Jewish, Chinese, African and Middle Eastern women followed, together with groups that supported lesbian and disabled women facing violence. These all worked alongside the general projects (which remained open to all) and lent their voices to movements and protests against violence against women all around the world, such as the huge demonstrations which have been taking place in Mexico sparked by the murder, noted earlier, of Ingrid Escamilla Vargas.
As time went on, the domestic abuse sector and the wider provisions for what is now termed violence against women and girls (or VAWG) broadened with the setting up of inter-agency projects, criminal justice initiatives, training, awareness-raising and strategy development. These were steered by organisations, along with Women’s Aid, like Ava, Standing Together, SafeLives, Solace Women’s Aid and Refuge which provides the most refuge services in the UK within a single organisation.
These organisations work alongside the Women’s Aid Federations, which are nearly 50 years old now, and still guided by their feminist principles, informed by the views and input of domestic violence survivors through survivors forums and survivor-led consultations. Between them, the four federations oversee many hundred domestic violence services.
The work has widened to take on harmful practices like so-called “honour”-based violence, forced and early marriage, trafficking and female genital mutilation. In almost all cases, attention to these issues has been pioneered by dedicated black, minority ethnic and refugee projects.
The way the sector as a whole has developed to widen its support network is extremely encouraging. But it is not all good news. Some of the latest developments include local councils in the UK developing extremely demanding commissioning frameworks that enable access to finance. This means that domestic abuse services have to compete relentlessly with each other to get funding – and smaller grassroots projects are likely to be disadvantaged.
One example was the London Black Women’s Project losing out in funding applications to a larger organisation in 2019 and facing closure after 32 years of providing dedicated services in Newham in east London. After a powerful and inspiring campaign, the project has currently been reprieved.
Despite occasional successes, commissioning practices for funding over the last 15 years have often resulted in women’s domestic violence services being forced to move away, to some extent, from the passionate campaigning zeal of old – in order to meet the demands, time-consuming constraints and managerial conditions of these frameworks and those of other funders and regulatory bodies – and to fight against subsequent cutbacks.
Since the 2010s, austerity policies have resulted in closures and cuts in many domestic violence projects. Women’s Aid says funding has become fragile, with projects for women and children from BMER communities disproportionately affected by the cuts.
Nevertheless, compared to what went before, the sector remains substantial. We have indeed come further than many people might think.
The commitment and zeal of the old days remains for many. Perhaps, the work has lost some of its organic, holistic approach. But, as one senior manager from Women’s Aid in England told me, Women’s Aid and others are still driven by the passionate values of feminism and the women’s movements of the world, and by the views of survivors. “Sometimes”, she said, with a warm smile, “the magical moments are still there”.
Looking back, it is clear that these were radical times. The attempts made in the early domestic violence movements to do things differently were inspiring and pioneering. But they are in danger of being forgotten now. It is perhaps worth returning to the ideas around collectives and empowering services as we think of new ways to face old challenges.
As this article was completed, I met once more with Annie. She talked again of the refuge as a “helpful and healing” place of sanctuary, safety and renewal amid the chaos.
It was a step for freedom, to achieve a life away from fear and for me from violence and control. It wasn’t as successful for everyone but it was for most of us. And the network is still going strong, even though there have been cuts.
As we talked, we both remembered a woman, Paula, from the late 1980s who was sitting one day with everyone in the refuge kitchen. She looked around slowly at the scruffy condition of the house and said, somewhat ironically: “Well, this place is a shit-house isn’t it?” Before adding: “A shit-house with a heart of gold”.
*All names in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of those involved.
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