Last year I wrote a piece for Socialist Resistance. I talked about my work for a feminist women’s charity working with women who have experienced men’s violence in the context of some of my thoughts about feminism and social class.
I have asked Socialist Resistance to take the piece down following their behaviour towards another feminist, Glosswitch. You can read about what happened – and the piece that she was asked to write – here.
As a working-class woman, my sex-class is as important to me as my socio-economic class. Women’s oppression is biologically based and reinforced by socially constructed gender. Though not the same, there are similarities to the way that access or lack of access to material resources is reinforced and reproduced by the different life chances and opportunities afforded to a person on the basis of social class.
I will not turn my back on my sister.
The piece I wrote for Socialist Resistance, which was written in the format of an interview, appears below for anyone who is interested in the challenges of balancing feminist activism and work in the women’s sector.
SR: You run the blog Counting Dead Women. Fatal male violence is perhaps the most easily measurable indicator of violence against women. What is the extent of the problem as revealed by official data and your knowledge of the subject?
KIS: I started counting dead women at the beginning of 2012 when 8 women in the UK were killed by men in the first three days of the year. I was frustrated that connections weren’t being made and the systemic nature of male violence against women was being ignored. Once I started counting, I found it difficult to stop, partly because through doing the counting, I feel like I’m learning so much that just isn’t there in the official statistics. Plus, I think the way official statistics are presented takes away the humanity of the women and it’s too easy not to be horrified by what is happening to women at the hands of men. I’m not sure that fatal male violence is the most easily measurable indicator, mainly because, as your question suggests, official data hides the extent of the problem, and I know how much time I have to spend trying to keep a record of women killed by men in the absence of official statistics.
Currently available Home Office statistics tell us a lot about the relationship between a murder victim and their killer. We can see the sex of the victim and whether they were killed by partner/ex, their child, parent, other relative, acquaintance or a stranger but the sex of the killer within or across these categories isn’t revealed. For example, official statistics tell us that on average in the 11-year period between 2001 and 2012, 11 women a year were killed by their child. Through Counting Dead Women, I’ve found that in 2012, 16 women were killed by their son, in 2013 it was 13 women and by the end of September it’s 9 women. So most –almost all – women killed by their child are killed by their son, and this has been completely hidden by the official statistics.
There’s also the issue of whom to count, for example, what about men who aren’t found guilty of murder, but manslaughter? (Murder’s a bad enough word for disguising the sexist nature of fatal male violence against women but the word manslaughter wipes women right out of the picture). On top of that there are cases where the man is found guilty of neither murder nor manslaughter, including a woman killed last year who was found hanging naked above her bloodstained bed with more than 30 injuries and the man who the court deemed innocent of killing her, found by police sleeping below her. I’ve grappled with the issue of defining fatal male violence against women since I started recording women killed. At the moment, I’ve settled for women, aged 14 years and over, women killed by men in the UK and UK women killed overseas. Regardless of the relationship between the woman and the man who killed her; regardless of how he killed her and who else he killed at the same time; regardless of the verdict reached when the case gets to court in our patriarchally constructed justice system created by men and continually delivering anything but justice to women; regardless of what is known and not known of his motive.
SR: The organisation you work for, Nia, was formerly called the Hackney Women’s Aid (HWA). On the site it says it’s “committed to working within a feminist ethos”. How does that make it different to other groups doing similar work?
KIS: Sadly, even us calling ourselves feminist makes us different, it’s increasingly rare that women’s groups do that. But of course it’s more than that.
It means that our work names male violence and that services are provided in a framework which recognises that there are inequalities between women and men in society, and that male violence against women and girls is both a cause and a consequence of inequality. That we don’t see male violence against women as reducible to individual acts perpetrated by individual men, but as a key instrument of men’s domination of women, supported and normalised by patriarchal institutions, attitudes and social norms and values.
Having a feminist approach means that we believe women when they tell us about what has happened to them and we do not blame women for what has happened to them.
It means that when we talk about empowerment, we’re not talking about women feeling good if they make certain ‘choices but that we recognise that power imbalances exist between individuals and groups and sex, race, class and other forms of structural inequality limit choice and life chances, and ‘choices’ are made within a context of power imbalances. We see our role as to help women and children understand the options available to them and to support them in making choices within the limits of those options and to advocate on behalf of the women and children that we work with as individuals and collectively.
Delivering feminist informed services means recognising that women and girls have specific needs that are not met by services not informed by feminism, that women, girls and children who have experienced male violence have a diverse range of needs, that we provide services that are sensitive and responsive to women’s individual and collective needs, as opposed to a ‘one size fits all’ approach
It means that we don’t just deliver services but try to raise awareness of male violence and power imbalances and campaign for change.
SR: Organisations like the HWA emerged with the rise of a mass feminist movement and many of them vanished. Others have been “professionalised”. This makes them more accountable to local and national government and, perhaps, less obliged to be answerable to the women who use the services. Is this a tension in the work that you do?
KIS: Absolutely. I’ve been working in the sector for 24 years, and I’ve seen domestic and sexual violence become much more mainstreamed, but as that’s happened, the feminist perspective that was central to the movement has become diluted.
I’m angry that in the 1990s more secure funding was offered to independent organisations running specialist services that had been developed by survivors and activists; funding that came with a contract for services from their local council. But since around 2005, these contracts have been put out to tender by the local authorities that provided the funding and too often sold off to the lowest bidder able to meet a service specification. We’ve lost too many specialist women’s organisations and it is continuing. It’s harder and harder for independent women-led organisations to survive, and the fight to survive takes away energy that we should be spending on supporting women, girls and children and campaigning for change.
I wouldn’t say ‘professional’ and ‘feminist’ have to be mutually exclusive – and that’s a balance we try to maintain all the time – but nia is currently funded by around 20 different funding streams, each with its own set of targets, outputs and outcomes, usually but not always set by the funder. We have to meet those targets or we lose funding, and if we drop out of the picture and the work goes to an organisation that isn’t built upon a feminist understanding of male violence against women, then that’s a massively retrograde step for women, in my opinion.
It’s a constant struggle – and incidentally one of the reasons that my blog and Counting Dead Women are so important to me. Most of my working hours are spent on ensuring the viability of nia and the quality of our services. It’s only in my own time that I get the chance to think and write about male violence against women.
SR: The government is determined to pare services to the bone. How is this affecting services like yours and the women who use them?
KIS: I’ll give you an example of something that happened with a refuge: In 2010 a contract was advertised at a maximum value of £419,000 per year to provide 33 bed spaces in 5 refuges, the local women’s group had been providing refuge for over 30-years. When the contract was awarded, it went to a large organisation that wasn’t a specialist women’s organisation, they had bid for the contract at £338,462.
The local area did not lose refuge spaces but in order to meet the lower contract value, the new organisation managed to circumvent employment protection laws and made all the existing staff team redundant, offering them new contracts at lower rates, more hours per week and less annual leave. Most accepted. Since then, as staff left and new ones were recruited, salaries were offered at lower rates. With this sort of contracting the central focus becomes not ‘What could we do for women and children with this money?’ but ‘How could we deliver the specification outlined in this contract – and nothing more – for the least possible cost?’
I have heard from former colleagues working for such organisations that they have been pressurised to offer jobs to applicants that they do not believe have sufficient skills, experiences and aptitude.
With the loss of that contract, the viability of the area’s specialist women-led charity was threatened. Charity central management and administrative charges are frequently the subject of scrutiny, with the assumption that a charity with lower central costs offers better value. But it isn’t that simple. In order to operate legally and safely, there is a point at which further cuts to core costs cannot be made. The higher the organisation’s turnover, the more there is available for central services, and the more opportunity there is to introduce economies of scale. In this example above, the charity has survived – only just – up to now, but across the country many have closed, including specialist BME women’s services.
Quality services protect but quality costs. Nia holds three separate quality marks: Rape Crisis Service Standards for East London Rape Crisis, and both the Advice Quality Standard and CAADA Leading Lights for our Independent Domestic Violence Advocacy service. Attainment of all three service standards requires provision and proof of quality of service, of management, of policies and of governance. It is more expensive to provide better quality services and even more expensive to demonstrate that you do.
How does this affect women? I regularly hear of women being turned away from refuges because they’re deemed to have support needs that are too high, or because they don’t speak English. One refuge turned a woman away saying she had an alcohol problem because she said she drank two glasses of wine a night. Women are provided services by fewer staff and by staff who are less skilled and have less experience. And the gap between us and them, staff and ‘service users’ changes fundamentally. Women’s services used to be primarily run by women who knew that we were no different from the women using them, many staff ourselves survivors of male violence. I see that less and less now, and think women ‘service users’ – women who have experienced male violence and are responding in a completely rational and natural way – have become pathologised.
SR: The idea of women only political spaces is one that has always been contested. Why isit an important idea to defend?
KIS: Men dominate, they take up disproportionate space, whether we’re talking politics or public transport. Men define and steer parameters of discussion and women are socialised to listen and allow this.
I think with male presence, it’s all too easy to lose what feminism is – the struggle for women’s liberation from male oppression – and for it to become about equality and before you know it, the discourse becomes one of men’s suffering. Men get too defensive when women discuss male power, male violence, male entitlement, male privilege; frankly, we’d get nowhere because we’d take up all our time responding to men who manage to make the issue about them all the time. Get a bunch of men together talking about male violence and see how quickly the subject of male victims comes up, or take a bet to see whether ‘male victims’ or ‘not all men ‘comes up first.
It’s good to experience being a woman away from the male gaze, away from men’s agenda, I don’t think it’s possible to stand back and truly understand how women are affected by men with them around. Even outside of politics, women only spaces are rare and precious, something that too many women never even experience, even for that reason alone they’re valuable.
SR: You wrote that ” feminism isn’t about equality, it’s about women’s liberation from men’s oppression”, quickly adding that you’ve no idea what a society without patriarchy would look like. How does that translate into action and change?
KIS: I think it makes it clear that sweating over the small stuff isn’t going to get us very far. That doesn’t mean small localised actions aren’t important but that we need to frame them within a broad structural framework. For example, when women are killed by men, there are frequently references to police failure. But all the tinkering with police procedures in the world won’t end male violence, not in a society where women are objectified and commodified, where socially constructed gender is a vehicle for women’s subordination, where the law was created by rich white men and serves rich white men’s interests. It means I’ve got low expectations for genuine large-scale change within my lifetime and I can see that could lead to despondency, but I hope that my actions as a feminist take us a small step closer to such a society.
SR: You are from a working class background. Has that influenced your feminism?
KIS: I’m not only working-class, I grew up in the North in a mill town in the ‘80s, when the decline of manufacturing, like the decline of mining in other parts of the North and Midlands, meant that the day-to-day lives of ordinary people went through a massive change in a generation. I genuinely couldn’t see how my life could have more in common with what I called ‘posh girls’, than the lads who lived in my street that I hung out with. I was social class conscious before I was sex-class conscious. So the first thing my class influenced was me thinking that the premise of feminism was daft.
And then I started to learn about how sex class and social class combined to create a particular set of circumstances for working-class women that were not the same as those for working-class men and to understand how things that I accepted as inevitable were anything but. Although I was too young to have been a risk as a victim, growing up in Yorkshire in the 70s and 80s meant growing up knowing that we weren’t safe because of ‘the ripper’ (Of course we didn’t know he was Peter Sutcliffe before he was caught). There was male violence against women in my family, friends’ families and friends’ relationships, like many young women I had direct experiences of male sexual violence, but without a feminist analysis I had no concept of this as part of a continuum of male violence that functions to control and restrict all women. I was surrounded by male violence but unable to see it.
That the Equality Act 2010 covers age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity but not class and not poverty, should be scandalous. It’s a bit like us not being able to analyse and challenge male violence, if we can’t name it. There can’t be a strategy to address life chances that are reduced by class and poverty if we don’t recognise them as fundamental causes as well as consequences of inequality and disadvantage. And it’s not just about a reduction in social mobility, because to have social mobility you need ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. I honestly think that class has become one of the least well understood inequalities. I’ve had people who don’t understand class politics tell me that I’ve ‘lost my working class credentials’ because I’m a CEO. That’s what happens when politics gets reduced to identity politics, ie non-politics. Being working class too often means having lower aspirations, settling for less and certainly being judged as less. I still see the surprise register when I speak in meetings full of people that haven’t met me before and a Northern working-class accent comes out.
As my life experience has broadened, it’s helped me understand the need for feminism to take account of multiple inequalities, like race, disability, heteronormativity; and to understand that if we don’t stop and think, we end up making assumptions that exclude and ignore and won’t change the lives of women who are not always in the forefront.