Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection

Fall from grace

This hero of the destitute was airbrushed from history for challenging the oppressive-patriarchy narrative

Artillery Row

Fifty years ago Erin Pizzey answered the call of the sprouting global Women’s Liberation Movement.

Inspired by the notion of “women coming together for a greater good”, the young London mother sent in her membership fee. Full of anticipation, Pizzey attended her first group meeting only to see her hopes crushed: “There were posters of women waving guns on the walls and posters of Mao,” she recalled. “Communism was not what I expected or wished for, so I was upset from the start.”

Disillusioned, Pizzey went on to turn her bitter disappointment into a historic force for good. Through hard work, uncanny resourcefulness and guts, she opened the legendary Chiswick Women’s Aid. A first of its kind, the refuge was a safe haven for women and children fleeing domestic violence, who had nowhere else to turn.

“The need was immense,” Pizzey told The Critic. “Women were coming from all over the country, we were the only refuge so you can imagine how overcrowded we were. We started with a small two up two down and later had a big house with nine rooms housing 60 or 70 mothers and children. It was tough and every borough we approached for help said no.” In desperation, Pizzey turned to squatting: “We would find empty houses done up by the Council, and we would go in at night.”

Fellow feminists resented her ways

The police couldn’t do anything because squatting wasn’t illegal at the time, and “no borough would want to suddenly have to rehouse say, fifteen mothers and children — we even squatted in a Richmond hotel that had 47 suites — it was like an epidemic and wherever we went, we were filled as soon as we opened. We had women sleeping against the walls with their heads between their knees and children like sardines on mattresses on the floor; we cooked for everyone using food donated by local businesses and just tried to keep spirits high.”

Erin Pizzey became the destitute’s hero, but fellow feminists resented her ways.

“My personal experience of an abusive childhood and my work with the women taught me that domestic violence is not a gender issue,” explained Pizzey. “I learned that both men and women are abusive, but this did not agree with women’s groups who were pushing the oppressive-patriarchy narrative.

“I did a study of the first hundred women that came into the refuge,” Pizzey recalled. “My conclusion was that 62 were as violent, even more violent than the men they left. I wrote the book Prone to Violence about my therapeutic work with violent women and their children, where I spoke of women as perpetrators of violence. That book changed everything. The people involved with the refuge said to me, ‘You can’t write a book about women being violent or else you won’t get any funds’ to which I replied, ‘That’s not the point — the point is the children.’”

The discord culminated at a 1974 church meeting where Pizzey was ousted by the movement she had founded.

“We held a conference in our little church hall, asking other groups to come and join us so that we could share what we’ve all been learning. In came group after group after group of highly organised feminists, who converted themselves into the National Federation of Women’s Aid and took over refuges everywhere. At the church meeting I realised that we were going to be erased,” said Pizzey with marked sadness. “I was cancelled and to this day, fifty years later, I am still airbrushed from their history books.”

The pain of rejection might be eased by the deep gratitude of the many women and grown-up children who contact Pizzey with thanks for the safety and the security they felt at the refuge. “But still, it is hard to feel like a hero when all your work has been destroyed and discredited.”

I asked Pizzey why feminists are not marking, let alone celebrating the momentous Refuge anniversary, and why, apart from The One Show, hardly any mainstream outlet took it up.

She committed the ultimate sin — she empathised with men

“The feminists did celebrate in the House of Lords with a huge number of attendees and star studded names,” replied Pizzey. “They celebrated because in 1974 they invaded the little conference and voted themselves into The Women’s Aid Federation. They were welcomed with open arms at the time by the Department of Health and Social Security, partly because most of them were feminists anyway.”

Pizzey was excluded because she rejected what she views as “the false consensus of men as the batterers and women always being on the receiving end”. She was cancelled because she asserted that “domestic abuse is not a gendered issue and that both women and men are abusive”. Pizzey was “airbrushed away” as she calls it, because she committed the ultimate sin in the feminist book — she empathised with men.

“Your cancellation brings to mind Warren Farrell, Bettina Arndt and Jordan Peterson who were castigated for highlighting men’s issues,” I told Pizzey.

“You are right,” she replied, pointing out that Farrell was the darling of the American NOW (National Organisation of Women) until he began to talk about men’s roles.

“To these groups man is the enemy and the patriarchal oppressor,” added Pizzey, “and here lies the difference — they hinge domestic violence on ‘the patriarchy’ where I see it as a human issue; they avoid mixing with men where I made it a point to always have kind, ‘normal’ men at the refuges, as positive male role models for the children.”

Equity feminism was in fact a Trojan horse

Pizzey points to “this poisonous ‘patriarchy’” narrative starting in 1969 when the Women’s Liberation Movement came to England. “It was hugely fashionable to call yourself a feminist, after all, we were all told that this is equity feminism and of course we agreed with it; men agreed with equal rights for women too but what they didn’t know was that this was in fact a Trojan horse — from that point on, it was ‘man is the enemy’ which led to the breakup of the family.

“These feminists wanted a movement where women could hear each other’s voices, but like so many good intentions, it was taken over and became a weapon against men and fathers — when people look back historically, they’ll see the last 50 years as the Dark Ages.”

Therapy is key to breaking the cycle of abuse: “You can talk to a woman who has been born into a war between her parents, and has become violent, and tell her ‘look, these are strategies you learned as a child to survive in a very dangerous environment, but there are other ways of dealing with stress and frustration other than going straight from stress to rage’. That’s the work I did in the refuge but unfortunately, it was hijacked by the feminists, who at that point were looking for a just cause and funding — the refuge idea fell into their lap.”

Fifty years on, the issues that led to Pizzey’s cancellation still remain. The former feminist now urges men and women to heal the rift between them, which feminists created. Calling for generational abuse to be fully recognised, Pizzey stresses the need for therapy to help women break the abuse cycle — “but the ‘patriarchy’ narrative will not let this happen”. The feminist movement and Erin Pizzey remain a world apart.

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