Over the course of the last two years, the Speaking Out: Recalling Women’s Aid in Scotland project collected oral history interviews with 62 people involved in the 40-plus years of Women’s Aid in Scotland. Service users, workers, volunteers, academics, and politicians shared their experiences of the movement, from establishing and accessing the earliest shelters in Edinburgh and Glasgow to witnessing this year’s launch of landmark legislation recognising emotional and psychological domestic abuse.

In the current climate of funding cuts, political upheaval, and misogynistic trolls, there are certainly enough challenges to keep the movement busy. So why did we spend the last two years looking back?

It can be difficult to gain perspective on how far we’ve come when new challenges constantly loom on the horizon. Taking a moment to recognise the movement’s progress is re-energising, and goes some way in countering the burnout effect of bad news.

In a small but meaningful example, you may have seen that Lochaber and Skye Police recently tweeted an open ‘letter’ to an unnamed woman on Skye experiencing domestic abuse (they later stated that it was for all women, everywhere). They identified a range of abusive behaviours she might be experiencing, and outlined the support available to her:

While a series of tweets from the police might not exactly signal the end of the patriarchy, what this does capture is the radical change in attitudes made possible by the Women’s Aid movement. For many of the women interviewed by the project, a world in which the police use public platforms to call out domestic abuse and offer support to survivors was unimaginable when they began their work. Just 30 years ago, in the same area of Scotland (and across the rest of the country), pioneers of the movement were told ‘that sort of thing doesn’t happen here’:

“We were doing a radio programme on Radio Scotland [in the early 1980s] in Inverness and a couple of volunteers went up to speak and this minister phoning up saying, ‘A Skye man would never abuse a woman.  Never lift his hands to a woman’.  I think he really believed it, you know?  He believed what he was saying so I think attitudes made it hard for us, or harder for us.”   – Marilyn Ross, former Ross-shire Women’s Aid worker.

The women in the movement refused to accept complacency from those who were in positions of public protection, naming domestic abuse as a pervasive, public issue, rather than a private one. They offered a truly radical education:

“I think one of the strangest things that I’ve ever seen was a room full of big old fashioned coppers reduced to tears by the testimony of a survivor … a small petite little woman who got up and spoke in front of this room full of cops about what it was like for her and what she went through. And what it was like when they came out and what they could have done differently. These great big six foot five guys with tears in their eyes…” – Liz Fotheringham, former Inverness Women’s Aid worker and founding member of Lochaber Women’s Aid.

These stories all happened on and around Skye, but they’re indicative of a country-wide culture change. It is because of the tireless work of women in Women’s Aid to educate and inform the police, the media, and the public that today, Lochaber and Skye Police receive international positive press coverage and support for their open letter, and many women feel able to publically share their own experiences of abuse in response.

The past informs the present – understanding our history allows us to face our future with resilience and a sense of community. By all accounts, we still have a long way to go. Violence against women has new platforms, perpetrators still hold positions of power, and austerity continues to restrict the space that workers have to provide the best possible service.

However, the stories collected by the project are ones of challenges being overcome, time and time again, due to the resilience, solidarity, and creative thinking of the women in this movement. These qualities continue to be central to the work the Women’s Aid network do today to end domestic abuse and its root cause – gender inequality.

We hope the Speaking Out project has been successful in drawing together evidence of the power the movement has to transform individual lives and entire communities. The work of the last 40 years achieved more than many thought possible. No matter how far we have to go, Women’s Aid has brought us significantly closer than we were to a safer, fairer, and better world for women in Scotland.

“That contrast between 1982 [joining the movement as an admin worker] and around about 2007 [becoming CEO of Scottish Women’s Aid], unbelievable. To have the overview to see that is quite something. You know, I feel in some ways quite privileged because I know that younger workers or workers who are involved more recently sometimes go, we’re never getting anywhere. And I’m thinking, ‘we are’. We are, we really are. And we’ll go on getting places.” – Lily Greenan, former CEO of Scottish Women’s Aid.

Blog by Susie Dalton, Heritage Engagement Officer at Scottish Women’s Aid.

Although the project is coming to an end, a number of resources continue to be available to local groups and the public. The project exhibition, covering the history of the movement and featuring oral history interviews collected by the project, is available to borrow from Scottish Women’s Aid – get in touch for more details. Our documentary film, learning resource, and snippets from the oral history interviews (featured in this post) are all available on the project website, and the publication will launch on the website on the 15th December. We’ve also developed an archive toolkit to assist local groups in collecting their own history – get in touch if you’d like to know more.

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