We’re delighted to have Sarah Browne blog for us this month. Sarah Browne has been a member of Women’s History Scotland for many years, and won the essay prize in 2008 and completed her PhD on the women’s liberation movement in Scotland in 2009 at the University of Dundee. Sarah now blogs for us in her new role as Heritage Project Co-ordinator for Speaking Out, a project which seeks to produce a history of Scottish Women’s Aid in its 40th year.
Recognising and Recording the Contribution of Women’s Aid in Scotland
As well as ‘but weren’t they all just bra-burners?’, ‘What about Men’s Aid?’ was the question I was most frequently asked during the time when I was conducting PhD research into the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM). I’ve lost count of the number of times it was asked by taxi drivers, people in pubs, relatives, and friends and strangers who I chatted to during the three years of my PhD. Depending on who was asking this question and the way they asked it, it more often than not raised my heckles. This wasn’t just because I was completing a women’s history project to contribute towards redressing the balance in historical accounts which tended to favour the stories of men. It was because this question failed to recognise the hard work and determination of the women who created a Women’s Aid network in Scotland. Women’s Aid didn’t just happen. It wasn’t gifted to women by politicians or some kind benefactor. It wasn’t as simple as just asking ‘what about Women’s Aid?’ and then expecting it to happen. It was hard fought for and involved women putting in huge amounts of energy and effort alongside paid employment, contributing to other political campaigns, and undertaking caring roles for partners, children and relatives. Those women who contributed to this story deserve to be recognised and celebrated and that is why it is so exciting that the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded Scottish Women’s Aid, in partnership with Glasgow Women’s Library, Women’s History Scotland and the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Gender History, funding for a two year project to document the history of Women’s Aid in Scotland.
Women’s Aid emerged in Scotland in the early 1970s. Women had been meeting and campaigning as part of the WLM in Scotland, which had emerged in the late 1960s. This movement was a direct challenge to many of the stereotypes, laws and practices which prevented women from living full lives. Campaigning for equal pay, free and available childcare, free and safe abortion, and financial and legal independence amongst many other issues, the WLM was hugely important in politicising a number of women and encouraging them to find practical solutions to some of the issues facing women. Women’s Aid was one such practical solution. In the early 1970s women in Edinburgh and Glasgow formed groups which began researching the practicalities and possibilities of establishing refuges in both cities in order to provide support to women who were living with or leaving violent situations. Inspired by the first refuge in the UK at Chiswick, these women realised that this provided an important model and that women in Scotland needed something similar. By 1977 there were 15 refuges in Scotland and in 1976 Scottish Women’s Aid was set up to help to co-ordinate this emerging network and to provide research, training and support to groups.[i]
Refuges were unfortunately much needed. During the 1970s the prevalence of domestic violence became apparent. Indeed, one of the most important roles of Women’s Aid in Scotland was conducting research which highlighted the incidence of domestic violence. More often than not viewed by many in wider society as a private matter between husband and wife, this research was crucial in demonstrating to politicians, the police, and the general public how prevalent domestic violence actually was. The statistics were eye-watering. Two pioneering researchers based then at Stirling University – Rebecca and Russell Dobash – undertook important work looking at ‘battered wives’ and through interviewing women and looking at police records, they concluded that at the end of the 1970s 25% of all violent crimes involved husbands being violent towards their wives.[ii]
So in addition to organising refuges and the many tasks that were associated with that, Women’s Aid set about providing training and undertaking important educational work to help challenge and change views of those on the frontline – the police, the legal system, the medical profession – as well as the wider public. This led to changes in the way domestic violence was understood and talked about. Even at the level of language, Women’s Aid was central to changing the conceptualisation of this issue, so terminology moved on from ‘battered wives’ to ‘battered women’, and then concepts of domestic violence and domestic abuse were introduced; helping people to realise that domestic abuse was a whole system of degradation, control and fear often expressed in psychological, and not just physical, ways. It is testament to the hard work and courage of all those women involved in the Women’s Aid network that perceptions have shifted. Jennifer Kerr, who was involved with Dundee Women’s Aid, said that our understanding of domestic abuse now includes recognition that:
There are individuals and patterns used by individuals to abuse, that men abuse the power that they have over women. That men abuse the power that they have over children – and that this is wrong and that it is right to get out of those situations. That’s a huge, huge change.[iii]
They did all of this often in the face of opposition from neighbours living next door to refuges, socially conservative politicians who thought Women’s Aid was interfering in relationships, media which often trivialised the issue, and a legal system which could be slow to change. This project hopes to recognise the hard work of the women from the Women’s Aid network but also to draw our attention to the importance of Women’s Aid in transforming our understanding of many aspects of gender relations in Scotland.
So when asked ‘What about Men’s Aid?’, my response usually went something like this: ‘if you want a Men’s Aid, then get together with your friends and comrades and set it up’. That’s what groups of women did in the 1970s and thank goodness they did.
The Project – Speaking Out: Recalling Women’s Aid in Scotland
This project will collect oral history interviews and archival material and make this available on a website. There will also be a touring exhibition and local events so people around Scotland can engage with the themes of the project. If you or someone you know has a connection with Women’s Aid in Scotland at some point during its history and would like to be interviewed then please get in touch with Sarah Browne, project co-ordinator – firstname.lastname@example.org
Likewise if you would like to volunteer for the project then please contact Sarah. We are currently looking for volunteers to conduct oral history interviews, help out with an exhibition or assist with some film-making. Full training will be given and all reasonable expenses will be reimbursed. We are looking for women to volunteer from around Scotland.
It is so important that women’s voices, memories and lives are recorded as all too often they are written out of history. As Elspeth King said:
There is a clear message for all women who were or are involved in the movement: take your historical papers, correspondence, minute books, cuttings and relevant information and deposit them in a Scottish library or archive before it’s too late. Take your T-shirts, your badges, jewellery and posters to your local museum and demand that they be preserved for posterity. Do not be written out of history.[iv]
We look forward to hearing from you!
Twitter – @SpeakingOut_SWA
[i] K. Arnot, ‘Leaving the Pain Behind: Women’s Aid in Scotland’, S. Henderson and A. Mackay (eds) Grit and Diamonds: Women in Scotland Making History 1980-1990 (Edinburgh, 1990), p. 80.
[ii] This research was discussed in J. Cunningham, ‘The Battered Wives Who Need Law On Their Side’, The Glasgow Herald, 16th February 1979, p. 7
[iii] Transcript of interview with Jennifer Kerr, 1 May 2007, p. 16 as quoted in S. Browne, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Scotland (Manchester, 2014), p. 156.
[iv] E.King ‘Review of J.D. Young’s Women and Popular Struggles’ in S. Henderson and A. Mackay (eds), Grit and Diamonds: Women in Scotland Making History 1980-1990’ (Edinburgh, 1990), p. ix.