26 November 2001
Domestic violence can't be a gender issue
Erin Pizzey, veteran feminist campaigner, tells Dina Rabinovitch why she
now thinks that women can be just as abusive as men
Erin Pizzey, stocking-footed and sporting a huge cross, comes to the door. The rain's
coming down with Old Testament vengeance, and I am struggling to park, then carry out and
protect small baby and tape-recorder. Pizzey offers just enough help to get me started -
she hands me one of those residents' permits that keeps your car safe from traffic wardens
- then abruptly turns around and heads back up the stairs, leaving me to manage the rest
on my own. It's a small snapshot of what she believes in doing for women: she sets them up
to be independent.
Once upon a time, back in the 70s, if you were a woman having a bad time, Pizzey's was
the name to conjure with. The founder of the Chiswick Women's Refuge
- which gave rise to Refuge, the national domestic violence charity, and the
establishment of hundreds of women's refuges - she was part of the culture back then, a
synonym for aid. I grew up in Hendon, a place impervious to the zeitgeist. But on the road
where I lived in the 70s the big house at the top was squatted by a women's refuge: that's
how far Pizzey's influence penetrated. 
These days Pizzey is on her own, in the top flat of a converted house in south London.
Her centre of operations is the bright-yellow living room, with a computer, and a bed.
When you visit, she offers you food from the kitchen - there's bread in the oven today. So
far, so maternal. But just beneath the solidity, all is fragile.
Last year was not good for Pizzey: she was diagnosed with cancer, and her grandson,
Keita, a schizophrenic, committed suicide in a prison cell.
She reacted in typical fashion - galvanising her family to fight the coroner's
verdict of death by hanging, because her grandson should never have been left in a cell
alone. Pizzey said - as other families of mentally ill patients in prison have protested
unsuccessfully before - that the prison service didn't care about her grandson, that their
neglect contributed to his death. And because she's an old campaigner she managed to have
the case reheard - last month a jury looked at the evidence again, and found unanimously
that his death was contributed to by the neglect of prison staff. The family's solicitor
called the verdict, the first ever to reach a finding of neglect in a suicide case, a
But she also actively wrenched her granddaughter, Amber, away from grief, by putting
her up for a bad-taste TV show. So the Mail put the following words over an article by
Pizzey describing Amber's adventures on Temptation Island: "I'm a feminist, that's
why I wanted my granddaughter to be a sexual temptress." Pizzey isn't wasting good
anger on malicious headlines.
She just chuckles. As it happens - and she has the letter to prove it - she has long
since been disowned by feminism. This comes as a shock to someone of my generation - we
grew up hearing about the work she did for other women - but also an insight into the
beginnings of the movement which has made our lives so much easier. The problem with
Pizzey - for feminism, anyhow - is she never toes anybody's party line. Right now she is
writing a book - A Terrorist Within the Family - that says men are as much
victims of domestic abuse as women.
These things are complicated - but ever current. On my way to south London to meet
Pizzey they're talking about domestic violence on Radio 4's Woman's Hour, quoting the
statistic that every third day a woman in this country is beaten or killed by a current or
ex-partner. When I repeat this to Pizzey, it causes her to grimace. She doesn't accept the
thesis - that only men need to learn to change their behaviour - or the figures. 
Still, you don't have to be a burner of Playtex not to want your descendants on
Temptation Island. What was she doing sending her grand-daughter off to seduce men away
from their partners in the name of reality viewing? "Amber's so young to have such a
terrible tragedy - her brother's dead, she's 22, and surrounded by grieving adults. This
journalist mentioned he was looking for young people to go to this island, play a sort of
dating game on the beach. Amber's really pretty, so I sent him two pictures of her, and
said to her, look, you can't afford a holiday, but this is two weeks on a tropical island.
"And, by the way," and here comes the Pizzey touch - the bit that's about
carving out a life, "I told her, if you truly want to be a singer, this is what it's
going to be like. There'll be people there who'll be willing to do almost anything to get
on the television: go and try 15 minutes of fame, and see what you make of it."
Amber was voted off Temptation Island, but tells her grandma she's still glad she went,
though she hated the rejection. Her grandma, meanwhile, continues to court rejection from
the women movement. We talk about her latest book. "It's not that I'm saying women
are as abusive as men; the point is, it's not men and women at all. It's anybody who comes
from that kind of background.
"If you come from a dysfunctional, violent and sexually abusive family, how do you
learn? Therefore, domestic violence can't be a gender issue, it can't be just men, because
we girls - and I was from one of those families - are just as badly affected." So
women are as violent as men? "Well, we tend to implode, our violence is turned in on
ourselves or is covert - men explode and hurt others." So it's not exactly the same?
"It's violence," Pizzey says stubbornly, and goes on to tell a story of a woman
she knows who bullies her husband with domestic chores.