A new twist in a long road

I’m currently reading this book about the history of the women’s refuge movement. Its subtitle is “We’ve come further than you think”. As the author, Gill Hague, explains in this taster article, the first women’s refuges grew directly from the second-wave feminist movement, and they were nothing less than revolutionary:

“At the time, they were new to everyone and the struggles to get them established were conducted with ferocious dedication and against the odds.  But women trying to get away from domestic violence immediately arrived at these brand-new projects.  Immediately.  They had found out, somehow, that there were these other unknown women around – and that, almost out of the blue, these other women might offer assistance.  And so 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 a concrete and undeniable way – men’s rights and power within the family.  And the (male-headed) family was then the heart and bedrock of how personal, family and sexual relations were organised in society.  Women were taking unprecedented action to leave their husbands who they had probably, at the time, promised to ‘obey’. They were suddenly trying to get themselves and their children out of violent marriages and partnerships, often without warning.

Not only were they doing this – extraordinary at the time – but then they were doing something even more extraordinary. They were going to live together with groups of other women in safe houses run by women.  It was a quite remarkable – and entirely unpredicted -development, stunning in its fearlessness and daring.”

Gill Hague is, of course, correct, that the situation of women experiencing domestic abuse is vastly different now from that of those early refuge residents and volunteers. Her book traces the evolution of the refuge movement over the last five decades – from volunteer-run collectives to ‘professional’ service providers; from women working together to physically maintain and repair safe houses for themselves and each other, to organisations with dozens of staff, funded by government grants and contributing to policy development as experts.

Supping with the devil

As she takes the reader along that path, she often pauses to point out what has been lost as well as gained. Reflecting on the move towards funding and paid workers by the start of the 1980s, she notes that “Some feminists, like Ellen Malos, have spoken ironically of this as ‘supping with the devil’ … as radical and feminist ideas were put under pressure by the demands and restrictions imposed by funders, and by criminal justice and local authority bodies. But it seems the ‘supping’ had to be done as there had to be funding if the services were to expand and consolidate.”

Later on, it was pressure from funders again which forced a shift away from collective organising towards more formal organisational structures with CEOs, boards of trustees and the like. I have a lot of sympathy with Gill’s call to celebrate the courage and commitment of the refuge movement’s pioneers, as they created organisations that involved all workers, volunteers and residents on an equal footing. In a particularly powerful passage, she describes the impact this way of working had on the women she interviewed, who had been residents in those early, collectively run, safe houses:

“To many of them it had been transformative indeed, and they have never forgotten it. They were finally being taken seriously by others. They were listened to and could participate in decision-making. They were viewed as worthwhile members of something bigger, and their lives changed, often forever. Many previous workers felt the same. The radical politics and experiments in flattening hierarchies built a new and challenging way of working. … one previous resident … wanted it to be added, loud and clear, that the ‘over-idealistic’ argument was absolutely the opposite of her experience. To her, the equality visions of the movement had lifted her life forever after.”

He who pays the piper calls the tune

Looking at the current situation of women’s services in my local area through this historical lens, I am left feeling that we may have tipped over some kind of watershed in the last few years. What if all these cumulative encroachments and compromises have ultimately allowed those pioneering women’s accomplishments to be sold out from under us?

My local council, earlier this year, awarded a new five-year contract for women’s refuge provision to a big Housing Association, not to the women-led, grassroots charity which had built up the service from scratch, over the previous 25 years.

East Sussex County Council has also recently contracted a national Housing Association to provide refuge services.

These organisations do not share the history, principles and traditions of the women’s refuge movement. That has not stopped them from winning contracts, because the local authority funders awarding the contracts do not see those principles and traditions as important. This has been a very recent shift (at least, locally) – as recently as 2017, Brighton & Hove City Council had a comprehensive and integrated Violence against Women & Girls strategy, which recognised that:

“Violence against women and girls is a continuum: it is the basic common characteristic that underlies many different events in women and girls’ lives, involving many forms of intimate intrusion, coercion, abuse and assault, that pass into one another and cannot always be readily distinguished, but that as a continuum are used to control women and girls.” (p. 9)

The strategy was based on the expertise and analysis developed over decades by the feminist movement. This analysis was influential on a global scale, as noted in the same strategy document:

“Protection from violence against women is found in a number of International, UN and European agreements, which recognise that violence against women and girls is inextricably linked to women’s and girls’ subordinate status in society, and to an abuse of male power and privilege; and also recognise it is a function of gender inequality, and connected to the broader social, economic and cultural discrimination experienced by women.” (p. 5)

In the decade since that strategy document was drafted, this understanding seems to have been lost to our local council bureaucracies. You can scour the current draft Pan-Sussex Strategy for Domestic Abuse Accommodation and Support in vain, looking for any such clear statement of feminist principle.

Instead, we find much blander, gender-neutral statements, such as:

“Anyone can be a victim of domestic abuse, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, sexuality or background.”


“The Government’s definition of domestic violence is ‘any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.’”

Sex still matters

The trouble is, we haven’t come as far as our local councils seem to think. Outside the pages of their strategy documents, women are still dealing with systematic, brutal inequality. Women in abusive relationships are trapped in a series of age-old double-binds:

  • they are advised and expected to end the relationship, especially if they have children (with the well-understood implication that their children may be assessed as at risk if they don’t)
  • refuge provision is chronically underfunded and inadequate. According to the draft Pan-Sussex strategy, Sussex needs 171 refuge spaces for women and children, to meet the standard set by the Council of Europe. We currently have 90
  • exorbitant rents, the benefit cap and the two-child limit mean that many women remain financially dependent on their abusers
  • perpetrators are routinely using secretive family court processes and accusations of parental alienation to secure ongoing contact with children, binding women into lifelong contact with the men who abused them

None of these impacts is gender-neutral. But the draft strategy does not even consider sex as a factor in its list of protected characteristics.

When feminists created the first women’s refuges, their understanding of the continuum of male violence and their commitment to a meaningful process of empowerment for women led them to create spaces that were for women only. The reasons why this was important have not gone away.

But East Sussex County Council have now decided that all 47 of their previously single-sex women’s refuge places – now provided by Clarion Housing Association – will henceforth accept referrals for transwomen. This change is not subject to consultation, it is simply stated as a fait accompli in the draft Pan-Sussex strategy.

Although Brighton & Hove City Council officers assured members of the public in June this year that the city’s refuge would remain single-sex, the Equality Impact Assessment they conducted for the contract they eventually awarded to Stonewater Housing Association suggests that this may change in future, unless women speak up.

Women are rising

This weekend, the policy of our local rape crisis service, Survivors Network, to offer all its services on the basis of self-identification of gender has been criticised by many women, following an article in the Mail on Sunday. Funders and service providers who perhaps think women no longer care about feminist principles may have to revise their assessment of the situation. As we have known for a very long time, real change always comes from below.

If you live in Sussex (or even if you don’t), you can take part in the consultation on the draft strategy document until 19th December. I hope that many women who care about the legacy of those pioneering feminists will take the time to do this.