Sarah Browne, Heritage Project Coordinator for Scottish Women’s Aid, spoke at the University of Edinburgh’s Gender History Seminar on the 25th of January on Women’s Aid Scotland’s Speaking Out Project.
The room was a little busier than usual for this Edinburgh University Gender History seminar, and there were certainly plenty of questions flowing at the end. There was a great variety of subjects represented by audience members, as well a stronger than normal non-academic presence! With the current Domestic Abuse bill making its way through Holyrood, it was excellent to see people taking an interest in the recent history of domestic abuse activism.
Sarah began by giving us a short history of the foundation of Scottish Women’s Aid, and how it came to be a refuge for abused women that provide much needed advice and support. Growing out of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 70s, and following the example set by Erin Pizzey in Chiswick, Edinburgh women, followed shortly after by Glaswegian women, began campaigning for funds to open a refuge for ‘battered wives’. At the time the idea of protecting women from abusive husbands was seen as an unwelcome interference into the private institution of marriage. Sarah gave some memorable examples from newspaper clippings in which councillors claimed that some women probably deserved the beating and that the state shouldn’t be involved in marriage, the women could perhaps go to a neighbour, but not the state. (It might surprise some of you to know that the first view point there was from a woman). Despite this opposition, Women’s Aid groups sprouted up across Scotland, and were organised under the umbrella of Women’s Aid Scotland. While each group was (and still is) autonomous, they were able to share ideas and successes with each other through their affiliation with Women’s Aid Scotland: from successful survivor’s stories to lobbying techniques. Today there are 36 local groups affiliated to the Scottish Women’s Aid body. (Find your local Women’s Aid here)
Now, turning to the project itself: Speaking Out. Scottish Women’s Aid, the Glasgow Women’s Library, and Glasgow University came together to create this project, which has secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. They’re interested in people who have, in any way, been involved with Scottish Women’s Aid since its formation in the 1970s. While the (wo)manpower is being focused on collecting as many oral histories as possible, the team are also keen to source material objects for their archive. While paperwork is of course important, the team are open to a lot more. So far they’ve received t-shirts, mugs and even earrings. The array of objects will be available to the public at the Glasgow Women’s Library from 2018. With regards to the oral histories, Sarah has put together an all-female volunteer group of over 50 people. Not only has the experience been a learning curve for the volunteers who have had to get to grips with recording equipment, best practices for creating oral histories, and creating exhibitions, but the overwhelming majority of the volunteers knew very little about Women’s Aid before they offered their time. Something that resonated with me especially because of my research, was that the female volunteers had to receive specific training on domestic abuse. They had to be prepared for the stories they would encounter while collecting these histories. I study domestic abuse in Victorian Glasgow, and doing so has been eye-opening. My day to day research introduces me to the multitude of ways in which couples could conceive of to hurt one another: from locking wives up in outhouses, to incarcerating them in asylums; from withholding medical treatment for small pox, to beating a partner within an inch of their life with pokers or other objects.
Alongside the archive of oral and material histories, Speaking Out are creating a film project, and a book. The aim has been to transform more than the history of Scottish Women’s Aid. They are aiming to alter understandings of domestic abuse and abuse against women more generally. Sarah went on to reveal to us some of the initial findings of the project, focusing on themes including the contribution of Scottish Women’s Aid to feminist politics. But you’ll have to wait for the book for those, because I couldn’t do them justice in a blog post. However, I’ll leave you with this to think about… The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. (Interestingly it will make Scotland the first country to outlaw psychological domestic abuse, just at the same time Russia has legalised physical domestic abuse). During the debates many MSPs spoke on the subject and there was cross-party support for the bill. There is now a willingness – in Scotland at least – to engage with the debate on domestic abuse. Gone are the days when domestic abuse was part of the private relationship between a man and his wife, not for the state to interfere with. This is not an accident, Scottish Women’s Aid have done this.
-Ashley Dee Paton