Chiswick Women’s Aid was one of the first refuges for women and children fleeing domestic violence to be established in the world. Thirty-five years ago, “wife battering” was seen as a private matter, a hidden and largely ignored problem. A woman and her children living with a violent and abusive man could expect no protection from the law and little help from welfare services. When Chiswick Women’s Aid was set up, in England in 1972, most women living with a violent man had a stark choice: stay with him, or become homeless and see their children taken into care.
The organization had its origins, like many of the other women’s aid services across the United Kingdom, in a group of women meeting in a women’s center to discuss and take action on issues affecting women. As women arrived fleeing violent men, Chiswick, like women’s centers elsewhere, became a refuge, and by the end of 1972, a building had been secured in Chiswick just for that purpose. The women’s aid refuge movement was born.
A key figure in the development of the movement was Erin Pizzey, a charismatic figure in the Chiswick Women’s Aid group with connections to the media. The publicity created by Pizzey over the next few years helped propel the issue of battered women into the spotlight. By the end of 1972, women’s aid refuges were opening across the United Kingdom, in short-life houses on peppercorn rents from local councils, or in empty houses squatted by determined activists and survivors.
Chiswick Women’s Aid itself took over the Palm Court Hotel in Richmond in 1975 as a massive publicity campaign to highlight the fact that refuge houses were full to overflowing with desperate women and children, not least because a key principle at that time was that women’s aid refuges always had an open door. Fifty women and children squatted the hotel, led by Anne Ashby, another key figure in Chiswick Women’s Aid.
By 1974, there were over 35 refuges in England alone, which then came together to form the National Women’s Aid Federation, to campaign for better protection under the law, for public awareness and education, and for funding for vital services. The National Women’s Aid Federation (later the Women’s Aid Federation of England) became the main coordinating body and national voice for the movement. Later the underlying ethos of Chiswick Women’s Aid changed and it became Chiswick Family Rescue. In the early 1980s, Erin Pizzey left the organization, and after 1983 the management changed again, reverting to a feminist analysis of domestic abuse. In 1992 Chiswick Family Rescue again changed its name to Refuge.
- Dobash, R. E., & Dobash, R. (1992). Women, violence and social change. London: Routledge.
- Hague, G., & Malos, E. (2005). Domestic violence: Action for change (3rd ed.). Cheltenham, UK: New Clarion Press. Pizzey, E. (1974). Scream quietly or the neighbors will hear. Harmondsworth, UK: Pelican.
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