History and Memories of The Domestic Violence Movement: We’ve come further than you think

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by Gill Hague

Bristol: Policy Press, 2021, 255 pages, paperback £19.99, hardback £65.76

An early member of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Gill Hague was already involved in consciousness-raising sessions by the early 1970s and, as women’s activism expanded, she threw herself into helping to set up refuges for women suffering domestic violence. This was pre-eminently practical work, but by the late 1980s she was campaigning for an academic base committed to serious feminist discussion and in 1990, with Ellen Matos, she established the Violence Against Women Studies Centre at the University of Bristol.

With her long feminist involvement, Hague’s aims for her book are extensive. She wants, for example, to look at the many different kinds of violence perpetrated against women both in the UK and globally. In particular, however, she wants to ‘showcase’ the issue of domestic violence that the new women’s centres of the 1970s brought to light and to describe the distinctive manner in which feminists responded to the issue. As a prerequisite to this, she considers that some account of the main political and ideological strains of 1970s feminist thinking is necessary. She is also keen to include the memories of some of the pioneers of 1970s feminism and the women they helped, while that is still possible. Finally and importantly, she wants to look at the special needs of women from ethnic minority groups suffering domestic violence.

Her account shows the considerable progress that feminists have made in bringing the issue of violence against women to the forefront of public attention, and subsequently in organising innovative approaches for addressing this violence. She recognises that there may still be a long way to go before we see a major diminution of violence against women but she feels the time has come for feminist achievements on this front to be recognised and celebrated.  There is, Hague believes, much to be positive about.

Her aims are wide-ranging and so the task she has set herself is an ambitious one for a relatively short book. Because of this, Hague has deliberately avoided an ‘academic’ approach, instead painting ‘a broad brush-stroke account’ with a ‘light and accessible’ style.

This approach means that she is forced to deal with a number of topics in a very cursory manner. 1970s feminism, as with many radical movements, embraced a wide array of different ideological currents, involving theories and values ranging from the ambitiously conceptual to the highly emotional. To complicate matters these currents were often intertwined. More than once, Hague is forced to reduce her discussion to little more than a list of books and authors readers may refer to for further description and analysis. Though providing a rich source of bibliographical references, this is unfortunate. 

Hague is right that public concern about domestic violence in Britain was initiated by feminists. And their demand that something be done about it not only had the effect of attracting large numbers of previously non-political women to feminism, it imbued them with a surge of energy and determination which, within a few years, had led to an extraordinary mushrooming of refuges. However, Hague also points out that when the Women’s Liberation Movement formulated its initial list of demands there was no mention of male violence against women. The demand for freedom from male aggression was, in fact, the Movement’s final demand and was only added at the Women’s Liberation Conference in 1977, by which time numerous refuges were already up and running.

Though the book seeks to capture and ‘memorialise’ for posterity an account of the refuge movement, given the space available it largely confines itself to the early movement. Initially this included a strong utopian element. This found expression in the establishment of collectives as the core operational principle in many early refuges, and Hague describes how the egalitarian values of the collective shaped the structure and daily running of many refuges. Though interviews were done with a number of women involved in founding refuges, Hague’s discussion draws most heavily on her own memories and feelings.

The political and moral excitement the early refuge movement sparked in her suffuses Hague’s account of how refuges were set up. She vividly describes the founders’ ‘endless’ enthusiasm and ‘white heat’ of ‘passion’ as they sought to ‘break down power differences’, ‘flatten hierarchies’ and eschew ‘sterile procedural ways of doing things’. But as refuges grew, expanded their services, began to employ workers and strove for financial stability, Hague watched the original collectives go into decline and increasingly hierarchical systems take over. She does hint that the way refuges were run was probably not viable in the long-term. She remembers, for example, how she and another refuge founder have ‘pondered’ whether ‘there was a certain over-idealism’ in early refuges. On another occasion, Hague wonders how far refuge residents really could have an equal say in running refuges. She also suggests that the thrill and lure of collective working frequently appealed more strongly to the founders of the refuges than to the women they sought to support. But if early refuge founders became submerged in the romance of the collective, the wish to establish respectful and supportive relationships between founders and refuge residents which collectives embraced was nonetheless a well overdue challenge to the condescension still pervasive in both welfare charities and the social services in the 1960s.  And there has undoubtedly been a discernable, if not complete, change of behaviour, on this front, which refuges played a significant part in producing. Achieving such relationships was, and continues to be, fraught with numerous difficulties requiring constant debate and imagination. But Hague is right. Refuges have much to celebrate.

A personal account as heavily permeated with nostalgia and regret as Hague’s is, can, however, only cover part of the story she set out to tell. A full assessment of the refuge movement’s historical legacy demands more interrogation of the social forces which determine the extent to which organisations, particularly those committed to ameliorating long-standing moral and social injustice, manage to survive while also maintaining and refining their original goals. Organisation theory is increasingly hived off into business management schools today.  This a loss as it continues to have a central role in political and social thinking.

Interview with the author. Transforming Society Podcast

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