Feminism’s Purity Wars

Why has Erin Pizzey, once a pioneer of the women’s movement, been written out of its history?

Activist Erin Pizzey stands in a room crowded with other women.
Erin Pizzey, an influential 1970s activist, has been airbrushed out of the history of the refuge movement. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis / Getty)

Erin Pizzey ought to be a feminist hero. In 1971, she founded the first women’s refuge in Britain, with no money and no official support beyond the use of a run-down public-housing block with four rooms, a galley kitchen, and a toilet. At that house in Chiswick, West London, hundreds of women received help to escape abusive partners and rebuild their lives. It was also a community center where women could get help with claiming welfare benefits, starting divorce proceedings, and dealing with alcohol and drug abuse.

By 2017, there were 276 such sites in England, with 3,798 beds. Pizzey’s work in Chiswick led to the creation of Refuge, which is now the largest charity of its kind in England. It has an annual income of £13.3 million ($17 million) and employs more than 200 people.

The cover of Helen Lewis's book, Difficult Women
This post was excerpted from Lewis’s upcoming book.

The refuge movement is one of the greatest achievements of feminism’s second wave, not just providing practical support, but also changing the language we use to describe violence inside the home—and with it, social attitudes toward “domestic violence.” For centuries, it had been assumed that since marriage was a form of ownership, a man could “discipline” or “correct” his wife however he saw fit. If he killed her in the process, perhaps she had provoked him, went the conventional wisdom. Maybe she nagged him, or flirted with other men, or withheld sex. He must have had his reasons.

Pizzey wanted to change those attitudes. The first of her many books on domestic violence, Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear, led to a TV documentary. She attracted fans such as Boy George and the author Fay Weldon, and rich backers such as the newspaper editor David Astor. The Chiswick refuge itself became famous: Roger Daltrey and Kenney Jones of The Who paid a visit in 1980.

But there’s a reason Pizzey has faded from memory, even as the movement she championed endures. From the start, her relationship to the women’s-liberation movement—a loose collection of groups that held an annual conference starting in 1970—was fractious. It quickly became poisonous: In Sweet Freedom, Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell’s account of the second wave, they noted that four years after the creation of Pizzey’s lone outpost in Chiswick, 28 other groups had set up refuges, and 83 others were working on doing so. But in 1975, they wrote, Pizzey metaphorically “stormed out” of the movement, and has “gone her own way ever since.”

“She single-handedly did as much for the cause of women as any other woman alive,” Deborah Ross wrote in The Independent in 1997. But by the time Ross interviewed her, Pizzey was living in a hostel for the homeless in West London, having left behind, in order, a second husband, a career as a writer of bodice-ripping novels, and substantial debts. She was 58.

Four years later, Dina Rabinovitch of The Guardian found Pizzey poised to release online a book about women’s violence, having failed to find a mainstream publisher. Pizzey was now thoroughly outside the feminist mainstream. Rabinovitch wrote that it came “as a shock to someone of my generation—we grew up hearing about the work she did for other women.” She was left wondering “if a man who’d done so much would be quite so alone.” By 2009, the break was complete. Pizzey wrote for the Daily Mail that she had realized feminism was “a lie” and that “women and men are both capable of extraordinary cruelty … We must stop demonising men and start healing the rift that feminism has created between men and women.”

Pizzey is now an advocate for the men’s-rights movement, serving as editor at large of the anti-feminist website A Voice for Men. (The editor of the site, Paul Elam, once vowed that he would never deliver a guilty verdict as a juror in a rape trial, no matter what the evidence was, because the court system has been corrupted by our “false rape culture.”) Her 2011 autobiography, This Way to the Revolution, talks in heartbreaking detail about women who were beaten savagely by their partners. She knew several who went back to an abusive partner—and were killed as a result. So how does a woman go from founding England’s first refuge for domestic-violence victims to hanging out with men’s-rights activists?

Pizzey now lives in a top-floor apartment in Twickenham, West London. I thought she might be crabby and guarded, seeing me as an emissary of a political movement that she now views as the enemy. The truth is more complicated. Born in China in 1939, Pizzey says she was deeply shaped by her childhood. Her father’s career as a diplomat took the family around the world, and she attended boarding schools—a relief, she told me, compared with living with her “dysfunctional and violent” parents.

This Way to the Revolution depicts Pizzey as a plainspoken housewife who didn’t have any truck with the ideologues she found in the women’s-liberation movement. She wasn’t interested in theory, and felt separated from the feminist movement by class, education, and aspirations. Reading the book, I could feel the familiar grooves of the arguments about feminists versus “ordinary women.” There has long been a tendency to depict feminism as an elite project, and university-educated women are more likely to describe themselves as feminists.

I recognized something else, too: Pizzey’s desire to define herself against the most absurd and extreme elements of the movement, the Maoists and lesbian separatists. I recognized it because I’ve felt that urge too. It suits outsiders to define feminism by its extremes—they’re easier to argue against, or to ignore—and so insiders feel continually pressed to reject them. No one “owns” feminism, and no single woman sets its rules. That is both liberating and troublesome. Unlike with a political party, there is no mechanism to kick people out of feminism. That boundlessness is difficult to negotiate.

In the 1970s, however, there were formal structures, which Pizzey duly rejected. From the start, she didn’t like the women she met in the wider movement. “They weren’t housewives like us,” she told me. “They were highly politicized.” As she saw it, most feminists who worked in universities, politics, or the media were Trotskyites, Marxists, Stalinists, or Maoists. “But I just kept saying to the Maoists, ‘How can you stand there and tell us that the Chinese Revolution is a huge success when women are being dragged off and [their fetuses] aborted?’ And how can the Russian groups, the Trots and the Leninists and all the rest of them, particularly the Stalinists, deny the fact that Stalin murdered millions and millions and millions of people? And there were no women ever in the Politburo. Oh, jolly good, you’re allowed to drive tractors. But that isn’t anything that we, as ordinary women, believe in.”

From the start, she worried that feminism was encouraging women to see themselves as victims, and that political lesbianism—the idea that women should renounce sleeping with men, whatever their personal sexual orientation—was being used as a purity test. “We just all—my little group—just looked at each other and thought, Fuck this.”

The purity politics, the petty dictators, the navel-gazing—all this seemed very familiar to me. Except my peers were not the radical feminists of the 1970s but the internet feminists of the 2010s. When Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman was published in June 2011, I was an assistant editor at the New Statesman, a British left-leaning weekly magazine; when the paperback edition came out, I had just been made deputy editor, at the age of 28. It was a big promotion, which surprised both me and the older men in the office, and it involved taking charge of the magazine’s website just as internet traffic was soaring across the British media.

Moran’s book ignited huge interest in feminism—and, in turn, something like a civil war. Fair and unfair criticisms blended into one giant screaming mass, fueled by Twitter, and left everyone angry and hurt. Persistent themes emerged: X was too privileged, and her feminism was blinkered; Y had used a “problematic” word or concept and needed to apologize; Z was a transphobe, a “white feminist,” or insufficiently “intersectional,” a word that was rarely heard a few years before, but was suddenly everywhere, with little regard to the original meaning as defined by the American legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Often, the criticisms were valid: Early on, two black feminists asked me to have coffee with them, and explained that my commissioning blitz was leaving out women of color. Scarred by a million Twitterspats, I became defensive, when I should have done them the courtesy of listening. At other times, though, the criticisms were driven by jealousy, or that heady mix of sadism and self-righteousness that characterizes a moral crusade.

With the benefit of hindsight, that period was so fraught because it was a gold rush. After Moran’s book was released, several other feminist writers had books commissioned, but the beneficiaries of the publishing boom were disproportionately white, middle-class, and university-educated. That wasn’t their—our—fault, of course, and no one enjoys being a metaphorical punching bag.

All of this has happened before. In 1976, a few years after Pizzey founded her refuge, the American feminist Jo Freeman wrote an article in Ms. magazine titled “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood.” It generated an outpouring of letters from other women who felt that they had also been subject to this practice. Trashing, Freeman explained, was not criticism or disagreement, which were a healthy and normal part of any movement. “Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape,” she wrote. “It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive. It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict, or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.”

Freeman’s and Pizzey’s negative experiences took place in real-world collectives. The online feminism of the 2010s added a new dimension because it was possible to be the target of trashing by several hundred people at once, in real time. Anger is a great engine of change, and activists are often dismissed by those who hold power as “too radical” or “too aggressive” in their demands, but outrage became prized for its own sake, and online feminists lost the ability to distinguish between righteous indignation and mere spite. Worse, self-appointed “allies” went full The Crucible by performatively denouncing their peers.

Being trashed is a traumatic experience. I was accused of endangering lives, because my rhetoric was so hate-filled that people reading it would surely kill themselves. I was a racist. I was a transphobe. I was accused of keeping a blacklist of writers and using my immense power to keep them out of British journalism. I was out of touch because I was middle-aged. (Funny: I was not yet 30.) I had dropped my double-barreled name to hide my aristocratic roots. (Painful: My divorce was still recent.) A caricature developed, a shadow Helen who stalked me around the internet: Absurdly posh, oblivious, ruthlessly careerist, and concerned only with fripperies.

Everything I did just made it worse. My objections were “white-women tears.” Defending myself was bullying. When I left Twitter for a few days, I was mentioned in an article in the Evening Standard about the phenomenon of the “Twitter flounce.” The most panic-inducing experiences were the attempts to isolate me: Any contact with me was deemed to make other feminists unclean. My existence itself, and my success, was a provocation. I was taking up a space that another, more worthy woman could have held.

It was, as Freeman wrote, a character assassination. Any good-faith—and deserved—criticism got lost in a sea of jealousy, resentment, and retaliation. I was far from blameless: I began to hate my new enemies. I was not kind to them. I let my personal feelings cloud my professional judgment, and I defended my own and my friends’ writing on partisan grounds rather than on its merits. The vitriol abated only when I blocked everyone involved and stopped replying to criticism.

Pizzey didn’t fall out with feminism only because she disliked other feminists. There was also a fundamental political disagreement: She thought that the mainstream women’s movement treated men as the enemy, that women’s own capacity for violence was being understated, and that in dysfunctional relationships, both sides drive a vicious cycle that leads to “addiction to violence.” (It was her way of explaining why women so often return to men who beat and belittle them; research conducted since she founded the Chiswick refuge has explored instead how victims are coerced and controlled by abusers, eroding their friendships, self-esteem, and independence.)

You can see why the rest of the movement—and Pizzey’s successors at Refuge—wanted so urgently to tidy her out of the way. Today, the charity’s website has a page called “Our Story,” which states that it “opened the world’s first safe house for women and children escaping domestic violence in Chiswick, West London, in 1971.” Her name does not appear.

Pizzey’s analysis didn’t mean she thought women who were “violence addicts” should be left to die. On the contrary, those were the women she wanted to help most, using her unorthodox methods. Her refuge was run like a commune, but it had rules. Disruptive women and children were not to be indulged because of the trauma they had experienced. They could be voted out by other residents. Tough love: that was Pizzey’s approach.

Still, her diagnosis was appealing to the men’s-rights movement. Its activists believe that it is unfair to assume the woman must be the “victim” if a heterosexual couple’s argument turns violent, because that status leads to sympathy (and government funding). If there is no overwhelming dynamic of male violence against women, just a mass of dysfunctional couples, then men are being wronged by the feminist fight against “male violence.” But the statistics are clear: Self-reported data from the 2018 Crime Survey for England and Wales show that nearly twice as many women as men reported being victims of domestic violence that year (7.9 percent of women, compared with 4.2 percent of men), although the gender of perpetrators and their relationship to the victim were not recorded. The police found that 75 percent of victims of domestic violence were female, while for specifically sexual offenses, 96 percent were female.

The extent of male violence, and its effect on women’s lives, is now taken for granted by most feminists. Outside the fringes of the “manosphere,” few would disagree that something called “domestic violence” exists, and that women are its primary victims. That is a problem in itself. When an idea hardens into orthodoxy, campaigners lose the muscle memory built up when making their case. That, in turn, opens up space for opponents to contest the facts.

My own trashing did not drive me out of feminism—and certainly not into the arms of men’s-rights activists. But I can see how it could have. Perhaps the surprise shouldn’t be that feminism has experienced so many divisions. The surprise should be that we are surprised. When humanity (led by men) has contested the allocation of scarce resources, or seen a clash between strong personalities, or come up with differing interpretations of a sacred truth, it has often resulted in full-scale war. A few mean blog posts suddenly don’t seem so bad.

Toward the end of my conversation with Pizzey, I suggested that she was airbrushed out of the history of the refuge movement because she was too difficult, too unorthodox, too contrarian, too inconvenient to the dominant narrative. She agreed. “I don’t think anybody knows who I am any longer; it’s just all gone,” she said, as the weak winter sun flooded her top-floor flat. “That doesn’t matter. I just quietly get on. I still do see anybody who wants to see me, and … that’s okay.”

This post was excerpted from Lewis’s upcoming book, Difficult Women: An Imperfect History of Feminism.