Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Reflecting on change: Violence Against Women research and activism since 1970s

Reflecting on change: VAW research and activism since 1970s
We saw a tiny, tiny piece in the newspaper, very tiny, which was about this new issue, problem that people didn’t know anything about. It was seen as absolutely brand new called violence against wives. We saw this little tiny thing. We thought, that’s it. And that’s us. So here we are. So we were very naive, and we simply went off to– we spoke to Scottish Women’s Aid– that was Edinburgh and Glasgow– and there were no refuges. Just groups, consciousness raising groups that were starting in people’s homes. And so we talked to them and said, here we are.
We’re social science researchers, sociologists, and we would like to be able to do research in this area if, you know, that women agree, you agree. We went to the Scottish Office very naively and said, can we have a little bit of money to do a pilot study when the first refuges open? So they said, yes. They gave us a small amount of money. I think it was something like 400 pounds. And so when the first refuges opened, we went in and asked the women if we could interview them. And we began to conduct our interviews there. At the same time, we went to the police.
So we went to the police in Edinburgh and the police in Glasgow to say, can we look at your records? Of all the violence reports, of those, 25% were what was called then wife assault. And just as now, there were a minuscule number of assaults on men by their partners. So that was also to be, I guess, very much an issue in the US to some extent. But you know, is it equivalent? Is it symmetrical? And we’ve always argued, and the evidence continues to show, that no. It’s asymmetrical. It’s woman who experience domestic violence. So right from the beginning, both– there was this political issue that was contested. In the beginning, the media were– first we know nothing about it.
Then this is an interesting issue because we know nothing about it. And then we now begin to have more and more and more knowledge about it, and then it becomes boring to the media. Well, we know about that. Let’s go study something else. Then something happens, and they come back to it. So I mean, it is this sort of ebb and flow of this. And of course, also in terms of whether legislation is passed, things evolve in slightly unpredictable ways. But there are these moments that something happens or someone becomes more concerned or there is, umm And in various nations across the world, it would be the same way.
And so to say, is there– I mean, there were– legislation was passed. The parliamentary select committee in 1974 took hearings around all Britain. So people came, the police, Women’s Aid, social workers, health care people to say, we need– this is a problem, number one. This is what it looks like. Number two, we need to do something about it. Number three, and they pass legislation. And there have been subsequent pieces of legislation as they try to make it better, to expand what the police do or what funding you give to women’s aid or these sorts of things. People will say, oh, well, women are as violent as men. No, they are not.
The evidence is absolutely clear and has been forever that they’re not. But this question continues to be raised. So you have to change social attitudes as well as changing the individuals. And then the change is around police officers, social workers, health care people. So the concept of change is a very big and all-embracing one from the widest social down to the individual and the institutional. And it is the ordinary man, the usual man, not the extraordinary insane man who would behave badly where ordinary men wouldn’t do this. And so that is very challenging, that concept that this happens in the world of the people next door.
This doesn’t happen to these people who look different, who act differently, who are different than us. This is us. You know, there’s a long history of men’s rights to use violence and coercion against their partner, and that changed really only gradually. Only gradually. With marriage, the man’s sexual access to the woman, it was not the other way around. It was a total one-way street. And he not only had access to her, he had unlimited access to her. So she had no rights to say no. None. You know, and that was another huge battle even in the concept. Just first the concept. Then change the idea, then change the legislation. Then change the implementation of the legislation.
So again, we get back to this concept of change and how, you know, what you have to change first, then second, then third, then farther. And then, of course, you have to do with the backlash and the moves backward that you have to then go forward from again. So it’s kind of a circular thing, you know? It’s not just a straightforward move forward. But I think too over the years, Women’s Aid and society have, on the one hand, recognised this and begun to do something about it. But on the other hand, it’s shown again and again how complex it is. So Women’s Aid did refuge, and that’s what they got resources for.
Then they said, well, where are women going to go after this? Can they be safe? And so secondary housing became an issue. Women’s Aid began to deal with children. How do we deal with children in the refuge? How do we deal with the children as they move on into another life? How do we deal with the fact that some women want to go home, go back to their partners? And of course, that’s why men’s programmes and interventions by the state are so important relative to men. And that’s what’s happened here, and it’s happened in most places throughout the world, and certainly in Europe.
I mean, I think education to the extent that we say, is this a part of the long tradition of the views we had about men and women, husbands and wives, partners and these sorts of things? Well, those notions exist, you know, everywhere in every part of life, in the family, in the media, in education. They’re everywhere. You know, so it’s not as though you say, here’s an arena where we don’t need to know about this or it’s not relevant there. And it does seem to me that it’s fundamentally a part of education, wider education of the entire population, which happens largely through the popular media among other things.
But wouldn’t it be much better if we could start this early on and we don’t have to get to the point where we’re worrying about men who are being violent and women who are being victimised? But we don’t get there, because the boys and girls have already been, in a sense, thinking differently about relationships with each other. The research and our own research in homicide in Great Britain and homicide in US, for example, would show that it’s about possessiveness, it’s about jealousy, and it’s about separation. So we need to work on those sorts of emotions, those ways of thinking. Dangerous moments. Dangerous moments. Breaking up is hard to do. You know, and it is. So, OK.
Let’s teach about breaking up. But that’s part of it so that these moments, these things that happen don’t become dangerous, you know? And again, this is– if you were educating people in the beginning that they didn’t own other people, had no absolute right to control them, you know, these basic, fundamental notions, then when bad things happen to you, breaking up or something that you don’t want to have happen, do you respond by being violent? So I think, again, education is fundamental.

In this interview, Rebecca and Russell Dobash reflect on their involvement in VAW research in the 1970s and on how society’s understanding of VAW has changed since the 1970s.

This article is from the free online

Understanding Violence Against Women: Myths and Realities

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now