National Post

Monday, November 23, 1998

Sheltered from reality
For too long, says an authority on violence against women, society has ignored the fact that women can be violent, too

Donna Laframboise
National Post


Dave Chan, National Post / Erin Pizzey, the founder of women's shelters, is now a critic of the institutions.

Erin Pizzey has a kind, round face and wears her white hair in a bun, but an ordinary grandmother she is not. Indeed, she has the distinction of being the person who founded the world's first battered women's shelter in England in 1971, and who, in 1974, wrote the first book on marital violence, Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear.

On a recent visit to Canada, Pizzey told audiences in three provinces that the shelter movement has been "hijacked" by anti-male feminists who, rather than being part of the solution, are helping to perpetuate abusive families.

Pizzey says her years of experience have taught her that there are two kinds of battered women. "One of them I call innocent victims of their partners' violence," she says in her soft British accent. "They were genuine victims who were coming in, bringing their children. They needed refuge, they needed help, they needed legal advice."

While the public is well acquainted with this picture of the battered wife, Pizzey says many other abused women don't belong in this category. She describes them as " violence prone" people who, in addition to being battered by their partners, behave violently themselves -- toward their husbands as well as their children. Some of them lack effective verbal communication skills. Others are addicted to the adrenaline rush that can be a by-product of tumultuous relationships. Virtually all were raised in profoundly dysfunctional families themselves, and have never learned any other way to behave.

Pizzey says that when the first battered woman she ever encountered showed her extensive bruising from her neck to her waist, she felt a "split second of absolute outrage that this could be going on" and that no one -- from social workers to police officers -- apparently cared enough to do anything about it. Pizzey took the woman home and tucked her into the top bunk in her son's bedroom. When her husband inquired whether the woman's spouse knew where she was hiding out, Pizzey responded, "Of course not, she's not going to tell him, not in the state she's in."

The woman, however, had been in contact with her husband, who soon appeared at the front door. Pizzey learned much later that this turbulent marriage prevailed for decades, until the unhappy couple eventually died within a few months of each other. "Those two couldn't live without each other, they couldn't live with each other, but what they did do was destroy their five children," says Pizzey. "They were both deeply responsible" for that damage.

Of the first 100 battered women she gave refuge to, "62 were as violent or even more violent than the men they'd left." But nearly 30 years later, society is still unwilling to acknowledge that violent women exist and is therefore still not offering them any help. "I have pleaded for the cause of violent women," says Pizzey.

Today, virtually all battered women's shelters -- including the one Pizzey founded -- are operated by feminists whose analysis automatically stereotypes men as aggressors and women as victims. On both sides of the Atlantic, employment ads for women's shelters routinely require that applicants subscribe to a feminist understanding of domestic violence.

As a result, the large number of women served by these shelters who require assistance themselves to interrupt destructive patterns are actually having their behaviour reinforced when shelter workers assure them they are not to blame.

Pizzey says this sends a terrible message to children trapped in violent families. Kids learn that "this is what women do, this is what women are. My mother can batter me, hit me, beat me, shame me, humiliate me, and society ignores what she does. But my father has only got to lose his cool" and he's stigmatized, criminally charged and "loses his family" in divorce proceedings.

"There are many, many women who take off a shoe and just throw it at a child," says Pizzey. "We had to teach these women to take responsibility for their behaviour. Screaming, ranting, yelling at people is part of their normal everyday conversation. No one's ever told them they were violent."

Although she says "the worst beatings I ever saw were women beating each other up," in lesbian relationships, she stresses that female violence is often more indirect than male violence. "When you're working with violent women," she says, "one of the things you notice is that they will provoke until the man lashes out. 'Look, he hit me.' And I'd say, 'Okay, I'm not interested in the bomb. Where's the hand that threw the bomb?' "

Instead of stressing personal responsibility on the part of women who are themselves behaving inappropriately, Pizzey says today's women's shelters are fortifying a childish mantra: "He did it. He made me do it. It's not my fault."

Pizzey is offended by the fact that shelters promote the view that all men are suspect. "Give me an answer why men can't work in shelters," she demands, pointing out that the first money her shelter ever received was spent to employ a man to work with the children. "Many of them had never known a kind, gentle man."

In sharp contrast to current policies, Pizzey's shelter met with every willing man whose wife had fled there. Rather than keeping the shelter's location secret, a sign loudly announced its presence in the community. In her view, the surveillance cameras and bulletproof windows of contemporary women's shelters amount to "expensive paranoia."

She says facilities that once taught people more humane ways of relating to one another have been turned into bunkers where an us-versus-them mentality festers. This has happened, she says, partly because battered women's shelters receive millions in funding each year.

"I knew that once we were getting any form of recognition, but above all, any funding, we would be in serious trouble," she says. "Because the feminist movement was hungry for funding. And it didn't take long for them to invade a very small conference that we had and to vote themselves into the national [shelter] movement. And they began by saying: 'All women are victims of men's violence.' "

Pizzey says she hesitated, for many years, to publicly criticize what was going on in shelters because she feared these very necessary facilities would lose public support and be closed down. Today she thinks the average person is sophisticated enough to understand that it's not the concept of the shelters she's critical of, but the feminist philosophy that currently permeates them.

"What we need to do is reclaim the shelter movement," she says. "It was hijacked 30 years ago. It was used for false purposes."

Copyright Southam Inc.