Students Staff

15 June 2018

Exhibition on the women’s refuge movement

Filed under: Latest news, People pages, What's on — Communications Office @ 2:02 pm
June Freeman

June Freeman

A fascinating new exhibition in Colchester tells the story of the women’s refuge movement in East Anglia and the tenacious grass-roots campaigners who pioneered these vital oases in the struggle for gender equality.

Interviewers recorded the memories of 35 women who fought against the dismissive attitudes of the 1970s and 1980s to lift the lid on domestic violence, helping to establish nine refuges, including those in Ipswich, Chelmsford,  Norwich, and Colchester, between 1974 and 1981.

The free exhibition, “You Can’t Beat a Woman”, runs from 18 to 30 June at The Minories in Colchester. It is accompanied by an illustrated booklet, a workshop and a free talk.

Thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, Dr June Freeman, an Essex alumna and founder member of Colchester Refuge, spent two years overseeing the oral history project which tells the history of the refuges in the founding women’s own words. June worked with Ravi Thiara, focusing on the campaign to change attitudes to domestic violence in white British and British Asian communities.

Author, researcher and lecturer June explained: “Many of the pioneers of the refuge movement are now in their 60s and 70s, with some in their 80s. If we were to capture the story of the early days of the refuge campaign from the point of view of the women who instigated and were involved in it, we needed to act immediately.”

June adds: “Refuges are now an accepted feature of the social landscape. The dismissive condescension of the 1970s belongs to a bygone age. But, with many refuges heavily dependent on central and local government funding, government policies threaten both the stability and culture of refuges, which were established as organisations run by women for women.”

The challenge for campaigners seeking to establish a refuge was to provide hard evidence of the need for it. Initially Essex’s Social Services department, the police and the local media were unconvinced. A turning point came when the Colchester refuge group liaised with local solicitors to establish how often violence was discussed in their dealings with matrimonial cases.

The group took their story to the press. A 1976 report was headlined “400 wives need refuge from violent husbands”. The article revealed that – in the past year – social workers had dealt with “At least 20 cases of severely beaten women. Two women had broken jaws, two had broken noses, one suffered brain damage, two suffered attempted strangulation and one had 38 stitches in her face.”

The Colchester group also gathered information about women murdered by a husband or partner, uncovering staggering evidence that the criminal justice system was failing to protect them.

In one case, a man tried for strangling his wife was cleared of murder after claiming she was always complaining and had shouted at him with a “vicious look on her face.” Sentencing him for manslaughter, the judge said he had never come across a case where anyone had endured so much provocation and gave him just three years’ probation.

As the campaigning women uncovered more horror stories, a groundswell of public opinion pressurised local councils to find properties they could rent. In the early days these were frequently run-down buildings where the women and their children endured squalid conditions. Campaigners helped to decorate them, appealing for furniture and utensils to try to establish safe, supportive and welcoming accommodation.

Black, Asian and ethnic minority women were a critical part of the struggle for women’s rights and they developed specialist women’s refuges to serve the different needs of their communities. Interviews focusing on British Asian experiences form part of the exhibition, which moves to a gallery in Bethnal Green Road, East London, in January.

‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ is open from 9am to 5pm from Monday 18 June to Saturday 30 June at The Minories, High Street, Colchester. Admission is free.

A workshop led by Mell Robinson entitled ‘A Woman’s Voice: 100 years of women’s empowerment’ takes place at Firstsite, Colchester from 10am to 4pm on Saturday 23 June. Places are limited and tickets cost £10.50 including lunch.

A free talk by Roxanne Ellis, entitled ‘The Making of the Femicide Census Quilt’ takes place at Firstsite on Monday 25 June from 2-3pm.

For more information, see: www.youcantbeatawoman.co.uk

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