So What? …. But What If!: Success of Women Panel Event
[Content warning: sexual violence, domestic violence, misogyny]
Welcome back to our series of panel events exploring gender-based approaches to safety, highlighting the need for changes in cultural attitudes, resources, support, and local authority intervention in reducing and preventing sexual harassment and violence towards all genders.
This month, in celebration of International Women’s Day, we held a panel event on the 18th March discussing the success of women through the ages as well as hearing from our incredible panellists, who have overcome the shame and fear of sexual and domestic violence by telling their stories publicly. Our panel included:
Madeleine Black, survivor and author of Unbroken
Gill Baird, founder of Cosmedicare
Samantha Billingham, survivor of domestic abuse and creator of SODA (Survivors of Domestic Abuse)
Maddie Reid, freelance writer / researcher and fundraiser for Thriving Survivors
Host Heather Offord, CEO of One4Growth
Madeleine is a survivor of sexual violence, having gone out drinking for the first time with some friends at 13 years old, after which she was taken back to a flat and assaulted by two men over the course of several hours. The trauma had a lasting impact: ‘I left my body for years. I was like a house that I rented with no furniture inside of me, so I was a shell for years’ (6:49-58).
She first shared her story with the Forgiveness Project in London, a charity which asked her to share her story anonymously on their website. It was also through this charity that Madeleine met Marion Partington, whose sister Lucy had been murdered by Fred and Rose West. It was partly through her example that Madeleine saw how she could recover through forgiving her perpetrators. ‘She has shared her story in prisons for about ten years about her sister and what happened to her and how she came to a place of forgiveness and peace’ (4:19-29). It was also Marion that encouraged her to write her book, which details Madeleine’s story. From there she was asked to be a public speaker, which she agreed to despite many reservations. She explained: ‘I thought that I would be so nervous or so ashamed or that it would be too much for me. But the moment I stand there and I’m invited to speak and share my story, something, I don’t know where it comes from, something comes in now and it calms me […] I’m able to ground myself which is what I’ve spent my whole life of recovery doing’ (6:19-45).
‘I used to call myself “an accidental speaker”. I never ever wanted to speak out about what had happened to me or my journey because I guess it was really my shame that kept me quiet for years. It took me literally 35 years to share my story publicly’ (2:17-36).
‘Marina [from the Forgiveness Project] doesn’t call us storytellers, she calls us story healers. And like her, now, I believe in the power that comes when we share our stories.’ (4:36-45). She has gone on to speak at TedX Glasgow, UNICEF in the Maldives, and in Johannesburg. She mentioned for instance that people would message her privately after her speaking, too ashamed or scared to speak up during a live meeting, but finding healing by connecting with Madeleine online. Over lockdown, unable to speak at live events, Madeleine has started a weekly podcast dedicated to sharing stories of ‘thrivers’ (survivors who have undergone a process of recovery), as well as continuing to work with the Global Resilience Partnership.
Speaking is not only healing for herself, but others, who like her past self are often silenced by shame. She argued: ‘Shame can’t exist when we bring light to it. So the very way that we hide from shame and we keep it in the darkness, it grows it. By doing the very thing we think we can’t possibly do […] it’s the only way to shatter the shame. […] Every time I speak out or another survivor speaks out, we help someone else to find their voice’ (16:52-17:21)
Although Madeleine clarified that she thinks forgiveness is not the best solution in all cases of abuse (and that it is a little provocative or controversial in amongst survivors), she felt it was empowering to her, and it allowed her to understand that her perpetrators were not born rapists. She noted: ‘I think we’re all born a blank sheet, a blank canvas, and we get corrupted, we get conditioned, but it was a real journey to walk that one out [and forgive the perpetrators]’ (19:49-57).
Speaking has been a great source of healing for Madeleine and other survivors, but she pointed out that the story does not end there. In terms of prevention and reducing harm, she added that: ‘It’s not about me anymore speaking, it’s now about who’s listening’ (7:05-10).
At 19, Samantha was loving life. After finding a dream job at a firmer solicitors, she was enjoying life to the fullest, with money saved up, a blossoming social life, and a great deal of confidence in her own abilities and success. However, Samantha’s life changed drastically soon after she met her future partner at a pub. ‘He made me feel so relaxed, so at ease. I just opened up to him about anything and everything within the first half hour of speaking to him. […] We seemed to get on really, really well’ (42:52-43:16). He was charming and made Samantha feel special, all the positive signs of a good relationship. That is, until one day, he started to make off-comments, accusing her of having only gotten her job by sleeping with her boss.
The comments were strange but she put them aside, having built up a good rapport with him otherwise. Then the violence started. ‘The first time he hit me was in the bedroom. We were having a conversation, I tried to leave the bedroom. He pulled me back and as I spun around, he gave me a backhand and I split my lip’ (44:09-22). They both reacted with shock at the incident, and in fact he seemed more shocked than she was; this made Samantha feel as if she had provoked him. When he started crying and apologising, she hoped that meant it wouldn’t happen again.
Sadly, it wasn’t, and other forms of coercive behaviour crept into the relationship. He would suggest not seeing friends and family to instead spend more time with him, which felt loving at the time, but Samantha realises looking back that it was an attempt to cut off her social relationships and support network, especially Samantha’s mum.
He slapped Samantha for the last time November 2006, when Samantha was holding their ten-month-old daughter in her arms. ‘That for me was the moment I knew I had to change that situation, I had to get her out of that situation as quickly as I could’ (45:41-48).
Leaving, however, was incredibly difficult, and a lack of understanding from those around her made it even harder. ‘It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I was absolutely petrified of this person. During our three-year relationship he’d strangled me, he’d beaten me up, he’d kicked me, he’d locked me in the flat. He wouldn’t let me out of the flat which is why I lost my job as a legal secretary’ (45:51-46:22). When Samantha finally got out two days later, her workplace proved unsympathetic to Samantha’s situation, who struggled to articulate the abuse that was happening to her. She lost her job there and then, losing her means of financial independence. On top of that, her abuser knew everything about her, including where her parents lived, and had taken to tracking her movements.
She was able to leave by lying that she was going to the shops – the only place she was allowed to go by herself – and arrived at the police station. They knew her well as she had submitted reports of abuse before, but always dropped them when her abuser promised to change. This was it though, and an injunction was issued. The control did not end there, however. The perpetrator insisted on bringing Samantha through family courts in order to see their daughter, and Samantha hoped it was because he wanted to be a good father. But it soon became transparent that he was simply exercising control over Samantha as he refused to turn up to court dates, and when he did, was rude and abrupt to the judges and court staff. Eventually, he was evicted from court, but the process still took three years to get through.
Meanwhile, Samantha was doing her best to get her daughter to mother and toddler groups to build up both of their confidence in the wake of the abuse. Having not been allowed to go places by herself, having to conform to what he wanted her to wear, having her text messages read by him, and being accused constantly of having an affair, Samantha had to learn how to live again and how to reconnect with others. Then in 2009, Samantha set up SODA (Survivors of Domestic Abuse). ‘I raise as much awareness of domestic abuse as I possibly can, because I believe if someone had done that for me, I would have left sooner rather than later’ (52:02-13). She explained that she didn’t know that what she was experiencing was ‘coercive control’ until she was given a survey that mentioned it after she had already left her perpetrator. Having the language to describe abuse remains a problem for survivors, who may not recognise it as such.
Samantha noted too that it is really difficult to support survivors who are going through the abuse, because they have been so isolated and their confidence and self-esteem have been eroded. They may even feel they deserve the abuse as a result. ‘We’ve been brainwashed to believe that everyone hates us, no one’s going to believe us, and the only stable person in our life at that point is our abuser’ (54:46-54:55). She offered the advice of being there for a survivor so that when they are ready, they can reach out to you, as well as being aware that reaching someone via phone may not be ideal as the abuser is likely monitoring messages and calls. She also advised that believing survivors is so important, as she was often disbelieved because her abuser’s outward-facing persona was one of a charming, caring, and charismatic guy. Because of this, Samantha lacked that one person who was there for her, and could have planted the seed that she needed to leave for her own sake, and not just her daughter’s.
In terms of prevention, Samantha suggested that ‘we need to get the red flags out there constantly at a young age, because that has the most impact on someone who has been in that situation, because we can’t see it, and we don’t necessarily feel it as abuse either’ (59:43-58). She pointed towards her campaign More Than a Bruise to help recognise signs of coercive control, especially in cases where physical abuse never manifests. Lastly, she noted that it’s important for friends of people potentially experiencing domestic abuse to recognise the signs, such as sudden withdrawal. ‘Sometimes we think, “oh it’s a new relationship, they’re being like that because they’re with their new partner.” They don’t think it’s because of their new partner’ (1:00:44-53).
Having come from a successful, entrepreneurial family in Glasgow, Gill grew up in a somewhat pressurised environment (though not without love and care). She went to an all-girls private school and was strictly forbidden from seeing boys. However, one day, an attractive young man wolf-whistled her in the street, much to the chagrin of her mother. Of course, her mother’s attempts to censor her attraction to him only made it worse. ‘The minute you’re told you can’t have something, you want it’ (1:05:29-32). The panel later spoke about embracing young girls’ sexuality so that parents and teenaged girls can be honest with each other about what’s happening in their lives, rather than hiding who they are dating or what they are doing.
Eventually they started dating, despite Gill being only 16 and the guy 21. Although an ex-girlfriend of his tried to warn Gill about his abusive behaviour, others were quick to dismiss her. ‘She was drowned with noise. “She’s paranoid, she’s caused this, he didn’t do this, she not letting him see [their] kids.” Had all of that going on and I stupidly believed him and his friends’ (1:06:38-48). Of course, this is more than understandable given that Gill was only 16, and did not necessarily have the worldly wisdom to heed these warnings.
Her advice was to believe others if they bring up red flags, instead of dismissing it as jealousy, as the ex-girlfriend’s warnings soon became the reality of Gill’s relationship. He would control her phone, argue with people in the street, and turn up unannounced to her work. When her grandfather died and she was helping arrange the funeral and be with her family, she didn’t answer her phone. His response was to break the shop window where she worked. When they moved in together and planned to have a family, he would throw things around the house and once hit her while she was pregnant. She stayed because each time, he would apologise and promise it would stop.
Her family was vocally upset and disapproving, which unfortunately fuelled more conflict. Eventually her partner’s father was convicted of the attempted murder of Gill’s father while he was walking around Alexandria Parade, where Gill and her family all lived. At this point, Gill went to Women’s Aid who were very helpful and put her up overnight, but she missed the comforts of her own and felt she had to stay for her child’s sake. Two weeks later, after the violence escalated to the point Gill’s life was in danger, she left with her baby in the middle of the night, and never looked back. ‘It’s not just as easy as leaving. It’s that fear of leaving, and where are you going to go and what are you going to do. And I was too embarrassed and too ashamed to phone my family at that point’ (1:10:13-22). She felt she had caused too much trouble, but the reality is that – as she now knows – that they would have welcomed her back with open arms. She was also worried the same sorts of accusations that had been levied against her partner’s ex-girlfriend would be levied against her too (e.g., that she had destroyed his life, taken his child away, etc.) which made it more difficult to leave.
She’s thankful that now there are more and more online resources to help those in similar situations, which relies less on survivors having to physically go to organisations for help when their movements are being tracked and controlled.
Despite Gill’s experiences, she has found success with her business Cosmedicare, which has helped her find stability in the aftermath of what she experienced. She was especially alarmed at the way Samantha’s employer treated her, and implored that employers ‘try and be brave, and support your workforce if they’re in a situation like that. Look out for things they’re maybe not telling you, if there’s repeat patterns of coming in late for work or hiding things with makeup or saying they’re sick when they were fine the day before. These are things I would definitely encourage people to look out for’ (1:18:59-1:19:21). Samantha also recommended checking out resources on Employers’ Initiative for Domestic Abuse (EIDA) who equip employers to recognise signs of domestic abuse.
Historical success of women
Panellist Maddie Reid did not have a story of abuse to share, but rather provided a short presentation on three different women from history who were successful in bringing about positive social change. The intention behind this presentation was to show how often women are excluded from historical narratives of social change and societal progress, despite overcoming monumental barriers of sexism and misogyny in order to be heard.
The presentation included Marlene Dietrich, known primarily as an actress born in Germany but emigrating to America in the 1930s to work in Hollywood. Maddie explained that when World War II started in 1939, despite America’s lack of involvement and Nazi agents trying to bribe her to come back to Germany, Marlene started war-bond drives and a fund for Jewish refugees to escape Nazi persecution. She remained vocally anti-Nazi, most epitomised in an incident while in North Africa, where she was delivering a radio broadcast for the Armed Forces Network. She’d been asked to sing a popular wartime song that had been banned by the Nazi government, fittingly called ‘Lili Marlene’. After the song she went off-script, speaking very quickly in German ‘Boys! Don’t sacrifice yourselves! The war is shit! Hitler is an idiot!’ The army announcer took her microphone away as this was a broadcast for American troops, but she was sure that German troops would hear it on unofficial radio stations set up the US government. Dietrich described the work she did for the war effort as ‘the only important thing I’ve ever done’.
Secondly, Maddie spoke about Lillian Bilocca, nicknamed ‘Big Lil’. A working-class woman from Hull, Lillian became head of the ‘headscarf revolutionaries’, a group of women seeking safer conditions and regulations for fishermen in their community. After the triple trawler tragedy in Hull in 1968, during which 58 men from three different fishing boats drowned, Lillian saw that the men in her community and her loved ones were at risk. Ignoring rules that banned women from the docks, she campaigned there relentlessly, gathering 10,000 signatures for a petition to strengthen safety legislation and giving interviews at the docks to news stations to gain publicity.
Lillian was one of the most outspoken of the headscarf revolutionaries, travelling to London and threatening to picket then-prime minister Harold Wilson’s house if he did not take action. Government ministers later implemented all the measures outlined in the petition, including better safety equipment, improvements to training, legal standards for radio equipment, and reporting procedures. In the Q+A section of the presentation, Maddie explained that they felt Lillian’s was an amazing story to celebrate as she saw people suffering in her community – predominantly men, some of who tried to uphold sexist principles that interfered with her campaigning – and did her best to ensure their safety. Lillian’s feminist commitment to community, care, and compassion erases the stereotype of the ‘man-hating feminist’ that plagues popular perception of feminism.
Finally, Maddie spoke about Marsha P. Johnson, who was prominent in the Stonewall Riots in 1969 in New York. These riots were a response to police harassment and violence that the LGBT community were experiencing and were a catalyst for the gay rights movement within the US and globally during the 1970s. Although Marsha had dropped a bag full of bricks from a lamppost onto the windshield of a police car during the riots, she had been largely left out of the historical narrative because she was a trans woman, drag queen, and sex worker. For instance, David Carter notes in his book about Stonewall that other activists would later change their narratives of the riots to exclude Johnson, fearing that her gender identity and involvement in sex work could be used to discredit the newly emerging gay liberation movement. Now, with sex work and trans liberation movements in full swing, Marsha is receiving more recognition for her involvement. Perhaps lesser known about her, though, is that she was the co-founder of STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, which sheltered LGBT youth escaping abusive households. Later in her life, she was also involved with AIDS activism through ACT UP, which became an international movement to improve the lifespan and quality of life of people living with AIDS. ACT UP paved the way for millions of people living with AIDS today to access treatment which gives them an equal or longer lifespan than those who are unaffected.
Maddie explained that Marsha is an example of wilful and blatant erasure due to one’s gender identity and profession, and that retelling her story shows the strength, courage, and resilience of women fighting for social change in their own era.
While it was important for the panel to celebrate women, given their historical erasure and the increased likelihood of experiencing sexual violence and domestic abuse, Gill asked the pertinent question of how we include non-binary people into the conversation. While the project is set to have an LBGTQI+ panel in August, Maddie was able to provide some answers in this panel by talking about their experience coming out as non-binary. Having been assigned female at birth, Maddie understands the difficulties of being affected by (and being invested in) “women’s” issues, but hopes that the conversation evolves to include non-binary people. They explained: ‘It’s going to be a difficult process because we use the word “woman” so much as a shorthand. So when someone says, “we as women”, I do identify with that because I have those experiences and people still gender me [as a woman]. I identify with women politically more than I do personally, and I don’t think that’s a contradiction.’ (37:31-59)
While gender remains salient in understanding these particular forms of abuse, it is good to acknowledge that they do not happen to women alone. Furthermore, with an increasing number of young people identifying as non-binary, the language may need to change to reflect their stories and include them in conversations so that safety is accessible to all.
Understanding the mechanisms of control, coercion, and manipulation that stop people from leaving abusive relationships is still widely misunderstood, with gendered assumptions remaining salient in cases where victims are blamed for staying in an abusive environment. For instance, 23% of service providers (including Councils and housing services) reported that they thought women could simply leave an abusive relationship if they wanted to, and staggeringly, 11% felt that if a woman stayed with an abusive partner, she should accept some of the responsibility for the abuse. (Statistics taken from this report: https://womensaid.scot/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Change-Justice-Fairness.pdf).
The panel agreed that sharing stories of abuse, although difficult, is crucial to improving safety for women, who are more likely to experience these forms of abuse. Of course, however, these stories are helpful to people of all genders who are at risk or have experienced similar abuse; as more men come forward, this recognition is important, and so too for the increasing number of people coming out as non-binary. The more stories, the more aware the general public is a multitude of important aspects of abuse, for instance: the warning signs that you or another person may be trapped in an abusive relationship; the best way to help someone leave; and the best ways to support victims of sexual abuse, as detailed above.