Liz Kelly has worked in the field of violence against women and children for over 40 years. She founded the Women’s Centre and Rape Crisis Centre in Norwich in the 1970s, is currently Professor of Sexualised Violence at London Metropolitan University, as well as co-chair of the End Violence Against Women Coalition.
At RadFems Resist, Liz will reflect on her decades of work in the women’s refuge movement, in a talk entitled: “From Activism to Service Provision – reflecting on the Women’s Refuge Movement”. In the short interview below, she shares her thoughts on radical feminism in the academy, the role of refuges, porn culture and more.
As a radical feminist who has located herself both within grassroots activism and academic feminism, would you still say both are necessary? Is the academy still, in your view, a site for radical feminist struggle?
All sites are places for radical feminist engagement, some are more complicated and demanding than others. The academy was never a comfortable and welcoming space for radical feminism/feminists, we were always a minority voice and rarely were there more than two/three of us in any particular institution at any one time. What has changed in my time is the extent that there are connections between teachers and students, spaces where radical feminist ideas could be a spark to rethinking and activism within classes. This is linked, in part, to the demise/decline in women’s/feminist studies.
What does it mean for women's liberation if the women’s refuge movement is now a 'service provider' and women in the refuge are 'service users’, instead of sisters in the struggle?
I don’t frame the issues in this way – few women when they arrive at a refuge see themselves as a ‘sister in struggle’. The question is whether women’s organisations offer the possibility for women seeking support to join a struggle against men’s violence and for women’s liberation. Some women’s organisations still do this, some have never done it. In my presentation I want to ask a set of questions about what has been lost and what has been gained in the changes since the 1970s.
Do you think violence against women and girls is increasing in our increasingly “pornified" culture?
This question turns on what we define as violence. If you see pornography as violence against women, as a conducive context for violence, as a form of symbolic violence (all slightly different ways radical feminists analyse porn), then there is more violence by definition. If you want to argue that the pornification of culture leads to more domestic violence and sexual assault that is more difficult to assess, at least through the vehicle of prevalence studies. I think we should ask a different question: is porn changing the forms and contexts of men’s violence?
How important is the welfare state to women's liberation?
The welfare state has been critical to women’s financial independence from men and/or families, the possibility of living outside patriarchal family structures is most available to women where there are strong welfare states. It is one pillar of women’s liberation, but there are many more needed.
How do we dismantle gender?
This is such a huge question, and I so wish there was a simple answer, like ‘with a feminist Allen (Ellen) Key’. I fear that there is nothing I can say other than that all of us, in all the spaces we inhabit, resist: we be women in as diverse and challenging ways as possible and refuse to ignore or excuse sexism, racism and violence whenever we encounter it.
What lessons if any should we learn from past radical feminist organising?
That women only spaces are vital to our selves and our movement, spaces in which we discover and restore connections with other women. That we remember we are a movement, in movement: shape shifting as we learn more about the roots of women’s oppression and where we might glimpse what liberation looks and feels like.